There’s a huge crowd gathering. People are increasingly unhappy with their leader, who’s been absent for what seems like a really long time. The people want a change, something that they know the leader isn’t going to like, and they’re going to make it happen, now. I’m not describing events in modern Egypt, but rather those in the wilderness outside of ancient Egypt. The people are the Israelites, Moses is missing, and the crowd is getting ugly.
Most people know Ki Tisa, this week’s Torah portion, by its major dramatic event – the building of the Golden Calf. This was the Israelite’s ultimate betrayal of God. It’s as if they cheated on God by choosing to build and sacrifice to a golden god, upsetting the fragile relationship they’d established, and interrupting the building of the community “home”, the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
But the beginning of the parasha is an important set-up. It begins with a public counting. Each man over twenty has to contribute a half-shekel, to be “assigned to the service of the Tent of Meeting” (Ex. 30:16) It’s as if the men are paying their membership dues and capital building fund. They were now enrolled in the community records.
Then, of course, comes the big production number: Moses goes up the mountain, gets two tablets inscribed by God, hears that there’s mischief afoot below, talks God out of destroying the Israelites (basically saying, “how would it look?”) goes down the mountain, sees the Golden Calf and the people dancing all around it, smashes the tablets, and confronts Aaron (“What were you thinking?”) . But just before he confronts Aaron, Moses does the oddest thing: “He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it” (Ex. 32:20) What could possibly be the point drinking gold-laced idol-water?
By doing so, each person clearly internalizes forever the choice they had made, in a very public way. They had publically contributed personal wealth (shekels) in the service of the Tabernacle, and to build the Calf, they had also publically contributed personal wealth (gold rings). They had become a part of a holy community, one by one, and then transformed it into an idolatrous community, one by one. So, it wasn’t enough to destroy the Golden Calf. Each person had to take personal responsibility for his/her actions. Later in the parasha we read that God makes an accounting of the people, just like in the beginning of the parasha. But this time, their account isn’t for how they had added to the community; rather it’s an accounting by God of how they had diminished it through the building of the Golden Calf.
Jews don’t believe in original sin, at least not the way most of the world understands it. Eden wasn’t the site of a “fall”. We are each born not evil, but rather “b’tzelem Elohim”, in the image of God; truly and inherently good. But the communal sin of the Golden Calf left a deep scar on our communal psyche, and it’s one for which, some say, we are still paying: “The fact is, said R. Yudan in the name of R. Assi, there is no generation that does not receive a particle [of retribution] for the making of the golden calf. (B. Sanh 102a; Exod. R. 43:2). God forgave the people after Moses interceded, but it has remained a sore spot forever.
We’ve just witnessed in Egypt, an empowered group that brought about significant change in a peaceful way- no easy feat. There’s no way to know how it will play out. Each individual Egyptian who showed up at Tahrir Square became responsible for what happened there. Too many times, large groups cite “mob mentality” when gatherings have disastrous results, and therefore, no one is to blame. Moses knew that everyone at the base of the mountain was responsible for the Golden Calf, so the tainted water was drunk by all. Once you’ve been counted in, you are part of your community’s destiny.