Friday, March 5, 2010

The Power and Challenge of Community and the Spirit that Guides It

The Power and Challenge of Community and the Spirit that Guides It

We in our worldwide Jewish community just celebrated Purim, for which the story is told in the last chronological chapter of the Tanach. We always note, as we read the Megilah, that G-d’s name seems to be eerily absent in this story. We all know of the accounts of how scrolls of Megilat Esther were used to wrap other scrolls and texts of Torah when they had to be saved in times of terror, such as the Holocaust precisely because of the absence of the name of G-d in its words and verses. Ironically, while this particular narrative of Jewish existence and survival was used as packing material, the fact is that G-d was truly protecting all of the texts that were being shielded in this special covering; just as G-d is always there for us, whether perceived directly or not. This was as it should be, and as it was in the story of Esther itself in which there are many screens through which the power of G-d comes through and gives fortitude to the community G-d was guiding. Whether found in the very name of Esther, in the many times the word Melech is used, the notion that the saving power for the Jews will come from another place – mimakom acher – or even in special encoded pesukim, we generally agree that G-d was clearly present throughout the saga that we just read this past week.

While one has to look for and acknowledge that G-d is found in the personae, actions and events of this chapter of Jewish history at some point in the fourth century b.c.e.; on the other end of the spectrum, G-d’s name appears constantly in the beginning of Bereshit. One cannot miss G-d’s direct and obvious presence in the formative stages of our existence as a universe and a human community. G-d has to act directly upon every aspect of Creation as G-d is alone and without partner. In fact, many take the entirety of the Biblical narrative as the story of how G-d comes to partner with the human being individually and ultimately with the human community that the individuals build collectively with G-d guiding them.

In this week’s Parsha, Ki Tisa, appearing towards the end of Sefer Shemot, we read about a census that is taken as all members of the community prepare to act and function as a complete unit, with a Mishkan, leadership of its Kohanim, laws in place and so much else that has been accomplished in their arduous and adventurous journey on the way to becoming the Jewish people. As we consider this narrative which is set during the years between the leaving of Egypt and taking on the responsibility of forging a group identity in preparation for living in their own promised land of Eretz Yisrael, we note the need for the B’nai Yisrael to become a functioning community, with a sense of independence and confidence. Yet, we also see in this Parsha that this is not to be – not at this point anyway.

In one of the saddest tales to date in our Torah readings, we read the narrative of the Egel HaZahav, which represents a test taken and failed, and the resulting loss of community strength and its need for rebuilding. As we read about the perceived absence of G-d by people, we must sadly admit that they are not yet ready for the independence that they would need to take as they moved into their destined future.

As we read this difficult text about the power and the potential of the group, we are also confronted with the problematic nature of group mentality. In the beginning of Chapter 32 of Shemot, we are told

א וַיַּ֣רְא הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה לָרֶ֣דֶת מִן־הָהָ֑ר וַיִּקָּהֵ֨ל הָעָ֜ם עַֽל־אַֽהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּֽאמְר֤וּ אֵלָיו֙ ק֣וּם ׀ עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱלֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ כִּי־זֶ֣ה ׀ מֹשֶׁ֣ה הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֶֽעֱלָ֨נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְנוּ מֶה־הָ֥יָה לֽוֹ: ב וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲלֵהֶם֙ אַֽהֲרֹ֔ן פָּֽרְקוּ֙ נִזְמֵ֣י הַזָּהָ֔ב אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּאָזְנֵ֣י נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם בְּנֵיכֶ֖ם וּבְנֹֽתֵיכֶ֑ם וְהָבִ֖יאוּ אֵלָֽי: ג וַיִּֽתְפָּֽרְקוּ֙ כָּל־הָעָ֔ם אֶת־נִזְמֵ֥י הַזָּהָ֖ב אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶ֑ם וַיָּבִ֖יאוּ אֶֽל־אַֽהֲרֹֽן: ד וַיִּקַּ֣ח מִיָּדָ֗ם וַיָּ֤צַר אֹתוֹ֙ בַּחֶ֔רֶט וַֽיַּֽעֲשֵׂ֖הוּ עֵ֣גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֨יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶֽעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:

Roughly translated, we read as follows:

And the nation saw that Moshe delayed coming down from the mountain and they gathered and pounced on Aaron. They said to him, “Get up and make for us a god that will go before us, because this man, Moshe, that brought us up from the land of Egypt left and we have no idea where he is. We need direction! So, Aaron said to them, “Take the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me. The people removed these rings of gold that were in their ears and they brought them to Aaron. Aaron took them from their hands and put them together and created for them a golden calf (egel masecha). They said, “This is your G-d Israel that has brought you up from the land of Egypt.”

The B’nai Yisrael feel that they have been abandoned. Where is G-d? Where is Moshe? Who will lead them in the perceived absence of their leaders? Who will teach and guide them through the coming challenges they will no doubt face? They are afraid and in that fear, the very sense of balance and understanding of who they are as a group is also absent.

What is the purpose of group? It is meant to strengthen and validate who we are. Its raison d’etre is to provide a forum for a collective of people with shared values and beliefs to move forward. Here the group fails, the community falters. Aaron knows this and obviously while many commentators try to figure out why exactly he plays along with this sham, perhaps he hopes to show the B’nai Yisrael how immature they really are, needing a physical, albeit false, representation of the power that guides them.

Note that while G-d is always here, covering and protecting the group with G-d’s protective nature, direct leadership is invested in others – in Aaron, and in Moshe. The B’nai Yisrael have matured and are continuing to do so, even through these obvious setbacks. They were supposed to take responsibility and do their part as well as acknowledge that G-d’s presence may be more nuanced but there at all times, nonetheless.

Here is where they failed. G-d is, until today, seen in the actions and motivations of human beings according to many theologians and Jewish thinkers across the spectrum of belief. We question and we wrestle with G-d individually and as a community, but we try to remember that as in Megilat Esther, G-d is always there, to be perceived through the many screens in our lives. Hopefully, we have progressed significantly since the generation of the Egel HaZahav and do not need to revert to a shallow and false physical presence to indicate this, no matter what challenges we face as individuals or as a group.

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