Parashat Ki Tisa: Returning to the big stage

History has shifted: We have returned to prominence.

 WE STILL must learn the consequences of living on the big stage. (photo credit: Barry Weatherall/Unsplash)
WE STILL must learn the consequences of living on the big stage.
(photo credit: Barry Weatherall/Unsplash)

The circumstances were dire. Weeks after pledging allegiance to God, we debased ourselves, frolicking around a calf fashioned from gold.

The crashing sounds at Sinai had announced a bold new message: God has no face and isn’t physical or visual. Sadly, we corrupted this powerful idea by bowing to a human-sculpted creature. Rightfully, God planned to replace us with a new nation – more intrepid and better suited to represent Him in this world.

Moses intercedes, heroically and desperately pleading for our survival. First, he reminds God of the great founders of our people and of their historical covenant. They alone took the great leap of faith, rising from the darkness of an ancient world cursed by savagery and muddled by religious confusion. The grandchildren of these visionaries deserve a second chance – and a third, and a fourth. Covenants are forever. They outlast betrayal and infidelity.

While praying, Moses asserts a second appeal on our behalf. More than four centuries had been invested in a grand project of forming the nation of God. This nascent movement began to spread – from lone ideologues to an entire clan, and ultimately to an entire nation, three-and-a-half million strong. Finally, after 2,500 years of doubt, God was manifest in this world, through a community of humans that acknowledged Him.

All this religious progress was now jeopardized. To eliminate that nation, after so much investment, would have reversed hundreds of years of religious innovation. The Egyptians would, God forbid, mock and sneer, snickering that God was powerless to conduct the Jews through the desert or to deliver them to their homeland. Why else would he annihilate his beloved people? Religious skeptics would shrink God to “one among many” ancient deities. If the Jews perished in the desert, the presence of God would take a hit, and would retreat from this world.

‘WHILE THE Golden Calf surprised Moses, Herzl was ready to confront it.’  (credit: Wikimedia Commons)‘WHILE THE Golden Calf surprised Moses, Herzl was ready to confront it.’ (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Such a tragedy is called a hillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name), and could not be tolerated. Perhaps we didn’t deserve to be spared, but we are the people of God, and our condition in this world reflects directly upon His presence. This terrible worry about a potential hillul Hashem carried the day, and ultimately God offered us repentance and reconciliation.

As the chosen people, we bear enormous weight, and we wield mighty influence upon religious history. God spans all reality, but we hold the key to His presence on this planet. Through our behavior we can augment or diminish that presence. Throughout history, we valiantly defended His presence even to the point of martyrdom. Swords and fire could not defeat our great faith, nor could aggression and hatred conquer the bold religious ideas we introduced to humanity.

Of course, Judaism has no death wish, and we prefer to sanctify His presence through life, rather than through blood. Through our religious lifestyles we model His will. We showcase the merit of a godly life of commandment, morality, conscience, family and community.

DURING A long and dark period of history, we abdicated the privilege of this modeling. For the past 2,000 years we lived in a dreary tunnel of history. We were pushed aside to the margins of society, no longer inhabiting the front stage of history. Very few took notice of our “godly lifestyles.” We were depicted as historical castaways. When people did take notice of us, it was, typically, with rabid anger and venomous contempt. We had forfeited the opportunity to represent God through life, and were often called upon to represent him through death.

History has shifted. We have returned to prominence and to historical relevance. Society has welcomed us back, offering us influence and opportunity. They haven’t been disappointed. We have spearheaded modernity, revolutionizing our world while spreading prosperity. We have driven the advance of science, reason, technology, culture, economics and philosophy. We have offered the world our best light and, in doing so, have represented God well.

But not always. This newfound prominence has come at a steep price. Sadly, many Jews in public roles haven’t always risen to the occasion, and haven’t always acted as children of God. As a people it has yet to fully sink in: After centuries of living on the fringes of society, we are once again inhabiting the big stage. The world is once again paying attention to us, and we don’t always acquit ourselves well. We haven’t yet fully understood the connotations of the historical moment.

Our moral failures tarnish the presence of God. We may not bow to gold idols, but modern society provides plenty of idolatrous temptations which have entrapped us. We must do a better job educating consciousness of this new reality. We live in a different era, and we can’t enter positions of leadership or public influence without realizing that our personal conduct impacts the presence of God.

In previous generations Jews were nervous about creating a shanda (literally “shame” in Yiddish) or disgracing our people. Living in a fragile post-Holocaust world, we stood on shaky ground. We reasoned: better not rock the boat or cause shame and undue attention.

Thankfully, our community is well beyond the shanda syndrome (fear of public disgrace). Today buoyant Jewish communities rightfully feel confident and relatively secure. We shouldn’t strive for moral behavior based on fear of shanda. Acting with conscience and conviction is crucial even if no one is paying attention. However, the world is paying attention. We must represent God more capably and more nobly than we often do.

Something else has changed. Not only have Jews been restored to the societal stage, but our national identity has been reconstituted in Israel. Blessed with a state and a homeland, we have crafted a democracy, a military superpower and a bustling economy, winning us well-deserved international admiration. These accomplishments augment God’s presence, as his ascendant people have bucked the odds and built a masterpiece.

Having shifted into a world in which we glorify his name at a state level, we carry even greater responsibility to reinforce this message at an individual level. We can’t dream of national representation of God if we don’t reflect that message in our personal lives.

One day all of humanity will gather in Jerusalem and herald God and His people. Let us not wait for that day. Through our conduct we are building that Jerusalem. We better not wreck that city with dishonesty or moral weakness.

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.