Last Sunday, while others were listening to the Megillah for Purim, (or recovering from hearing it the night before!) I was spending some hours with the lovely, thoughtful and spiritual folks of St Giles Episcopal church, under the wise and loving leadership of my friend Reverend Cynthia Hallas. It was the second time I’d been there to teach, and once again, the congregation was welcoming and engaged, willing to jump in and learn with me.
The text at hand was from Genesis 15, when Abram receives two messages from God, one while awake, and one in a deep sleep. Both promised lineage and both offered covenant. What, we all wondered, does it mean to enter into a covenant, especially when one side also has been told that tragedy and sorrow will come in the future. In Abram’s case, it was knowing that hundreds of years of slavery would engulf the Israelites, but they would emerge with God’s help, a free nation. Why would anyone enter into that kind of relationship? How can one side trust the other to keep them safe or protected, when it was clear there would be the exact opposite in their lives ahead? Isn’t trust the basis of a good relationship? How could Abram trust God?
This week, we have an opportunity to ponder that question again, except this time it was the Israelites who failed to trust. In Exodus’ Ki Tissa, we read of the devastating events of “The Golden Calf”. Moses was up the mountain, and seemed never to come down again. The people were panicking, and they turned to Aaron, Moses’ brother, and the ordained High Priest, and convinced/forced/suggested (take your pick of interpretations) to build for them a golden calf. Moses came down the mountain, saw what was going on, and smashed the set of tablets he was bringing down for them.
If the Ten Commandments were a marriage contract, then the Golden Calf was the Israelites cheating on God. It was the ultimate betrayal. How do you repair a covenant that has been breached like that?
Now, I have no direct experience with a cheating relationship, but I know those who do. Frankly, we all do. And it isn’t always “someone else”; sometimes it’s failing to be there for each other, failing to protect or safeguard the loved one, be it friend, partner or child. Many will tell you that the key to repairing that kind of relationship is a really, really good therapist who can get both sides to search their souls, offer up honesty, and work together.
First came punishment for what the people had done; Moses saw they “were out of control..and were a menace to any who might oppose them” (Ex 32: 25) and led the Levites in a massacre. As disturbing as that was, it got everyone’s attention. The cheated-on party often resorts to drastic, even destructive behavior to get the attention of the one who is causing so much pain. Then, Moses began his shuttle-diplomacy. First he told the people he’d go to God and ask forgiveness. He goes well beyond what a therapist would do; he puts his entire life on the line for this “marriage” to work, “Alas, this people is guilty of a great sin in making for themselves a god of gold. Now, if You will forgive their sin [then good], but if not, erase me from the record which You have written” (Ex 32:31-32). God agrees not to destroy the people, but decides to stay a bit removed, aloof, apart from the people for awhile: “But I will not go in your midst, since you are a stiff-necked people, lest I destroy you on the way.” (Ex 33:3) The people get the message; they go into mourning.
Ultimately, God and Moses recreate the tablets, and instructions follow on how to build the Mishkan, God’s home among the camp. They could begin to live together.
Abram and God came to an understanding back in Genesis, and here too, Israel and God had to re-establish the trust that was the basis for the relationship. Israel and God agreed to rebuild their relationship, saving it from ending right there in the wilderness. Without trust, we are all in the wilderness of our relationships. Ki Tissa teaches us that, where there is real trust, we can each repair and rebuild.