Parashat Ki Tisa: Mixed Messages

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Golden Calf
21 Feb 2008

Parashat Ki Tisa 5768

Were it necessary to designate parashat Ki Tisa by one word, I would choose “embarrassment” – embarrassment caused by the avoda zara performed by many of the Jewish nation just forty days after receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai (notwithstanding this fact, I feel great pride in the conduct of my tribe of Levi, which acted with rectitude in the service of HaShem by punishing those who were guilty).

The term avoda zara – foreign worship – does not refer specifically to idolatry. It is a broad term embracing such practices as the flagrant, loathsome worship of the Baal Pe’or, the crude form of worshipping a 15-arm ista devata, the spinning of a prayer wheel, or the more subtle forms of the Christian trinity. It also includes the elusive worship of the Golden Calf, the details of which we have no knowledge.

We do know, however, that even the slightest deviation from our traditional belief in Hashem as a perfect unity falls into the category of avoda zara, which would then include many conservative and probably all reform and reconstructionist movements.

Now, if it might seem immensely exaggerated to categorize our Jewish brothers and sisters who participate in those houses of worship as partaking in avoda zara, let us go one more exaggerated step.

The Gemara in tractate Avoda Zara 8a states:

רבי ישמעאל אומר: ישראל שבחוצה לארץ עובדי עבודת כוכבים בטהרה
Rabbi Yishmael says, “Israel (Jews) in foreign lands (anywhere except Eretz Yisrael) are worshipers of avoda zara in purity

And in tractate Ketubot 110b:

כל הדר בחו”ל כאילו עובד עבודת כוכבים

Whoever resides in foreign lands is as if he worships avoda zara

According to these sources, the web of avoda zara includes every bet knesset, yeshiva, shteibel and bungalow colony outside of Eretz Yisrael.

The reply to this is, of course, that the Gemara is exaggerating. But in truth, it is quite plain that Jewish presence in foreign lands, when the gates of Eretz Yisrael are open, constitutes avoda zara.

The Jew who lives in the USA, like his gentile neighbor, feels relatively secure. To the east is the Atlantic Ocean, to the west the Pacific 0cean, Canada is to the north and Mexico to the south; with the last foreign war fought on US soil being the Battle of the Alamo against Mexico in 1836. Here in the good old USA, HaShem can protect me. But in Eretz Yisrael, with the Syrians in the north, Iran, Iraq and Jordan to the east, Saudi Arabia to the south and Egypt to the west, I don’t know how HaShem can protect me.

In the USA, I have parnasa (financial security) but I don’t know how HaShem will provide for me and my family in Israel.

Is this not avoda zara at its worst?!

Now, according to the above sources, the expulsion of our ancestors from Eretz Yisrael after the destruction of the two Temples had not only physical implications, but was an expulsion from the pure worship of HaShem. Our yeshivot and shuls in the exile gave us purity, but the air we breathed was avoda zara – much like a person immersing himself in a mikveh while holding a source of tuma.

And this is the essential meaning of Medinat Yisrael with all its shortcomings. HaShem has given us His permission to return to Eretz Yisrael in order to worship Him in purity. Now we can release the source of tuma to produce a pure immersion in HaShem’s mikveh – the Holy Land.

All the above gives rise to a sobering question: In view of the above sources equating Jewish life in chutz la’aretz to avoda zara and many other sources that I did not quote, what keeps our rabbis and leaders clinging to the avoda zara of the galut?

A possible explanation might be found in the episode of “pesel Micha” brought in the Book of Judges (Shoftim).

The man, Micha, established a sanctuary for avoda zara in the town of Gerev, in the tribal area of Binyamin. However, not being versed in its ceremonies, he required the services of a “talmid chacham” in avoda zara.

While searching for the “right” man, a Levite passed his door. One thing led to another, and Micha offered him a handsome salary if he would serve as the priest for the avoda zara.

The Levite’s name was “Yehonatan ben Gershom ben Menashe”; but in the text, the letter “nun” in Menashe is written differently in order to camouflage his true identity. If we remove the letter “nun” from the name Menashe, we are left with the name “Moshe”. Yes, the Levite who dedicated himself to avoda zara was the grandson of Moshe Rabbeinu!

The facts get even more bewildering. The Yerushalmi in Berachot (chap. 9 halacha 2) relates that David Hamelech met with Yehonatan and asked him why he was serving avoda zara? Yehonatan answered that he received from his grandfather Moshe a principle that it is preferable to give yourself to avoda zara than to live off the proceeds of tzedaka. And since he had no means of making a livelihood, he accepted the position at Micha’s avoda zara.

David was shocked and explained to Yehonatan that Moshe meant that it is preferable to do work that is “zara” (strange) – if you cannot find work in your profession, then do other work that is “zara” to you; but do not accept charity. David understood that Yehonatan was a man who craved material things and appointed him to the position of Minister of Finance. After David’s son Shlomo dismissed all the ministers in David’s cabinet – including Yehonatan – the Yerushalmi tells us that they all returned to serve avoda zara.

What a bizarre man this Yehonatan ben Gershom ben Moshe was, weaving in and out of Yirat Shamayim and avoda zara with such ease. What went on in his mind? The midrash in Yalkut Shimoni opens a window of understanding into the workings of this strange man’s mind.

Rabbi Natan says that Gerev (the place of pesel Micha) was three kilometers from the holy city of Shilo, where the sacrificial service was performed for 369 years until it was destroyed in the time of the prophet Shmuel. The smoke from the holy sacrifices of Shilo and the smoke from the profane sacrifices of Yehonatan ben Gershom would meet and become intertwined while rising into the shamayim.

This merger of kodesh and chol, tahara and tuma, was the external expression of the inner thoughts of Yehonatan. His inner self was a twisted reservoir of contradictory and unclear spiritual messages. Yehonatan studied Torah under his grandfather, Moshe Rabbeinu, but he was also affected by the lifestyles of the goyim. His loyalties to Hashem became perverted by the merger with foreign beliefs and produced this double personality. He did not receive a clear message of what the Torah demands from a Jew, and the messages he received vied with each other for this man’s soul.

The sad episode of Yehonatan teaches us the first principle in Torah education. Transmit to your children, to your students and to your congregation clear messages, free of contradiction and compromise. To do otherwise is to invite ideological dissension and strife.

I read of Jewish communities replete with yeshivot, mikvaot, kollelim and even batei din springing up in all parts of the world. They are led by talented and conscientious rabbis, but I liken it to the case of a world-renowned surgeon who himself suffers from Hepatitis B. Would you let him operate on a loved one? On the one hand, he is the best in his field; but at the same time that he is helping the patient, he is passively killing him. The rabbis and leaders of the communities springing up all over America bring Torah to the people, but the message is mixed and contradictory – you can live in galut and still be a loyal son to Hashem. What you get is a community of Yehonatan ben Gershoms who live in two incompatible worlds.

Most bnei Torah abroad have no more than a passing interest in what happens in Eretz Yisrael. They have no concept of the spiritual opportunity afforded every Jew living in Eretz Yisrael in fulfilling our role to continue Jewish history by bonding with the personalities of the Tanach.

I shall never be able to comprehend two realities in our generation: 1) How can a religious Jew remain with a clean conscience in the galut? How can he be so oblivious to the huge historical call to return home after a galut of two thousand years? 2) Why is it that so many non-religious Jews cling and love this embattled land?

So this Shabbat, when you listen to the Torah reading and empathize with Moshe after he angrily casts down the holy tablets upon witnessing the avoda zara of his people, try to picture just how angry Moshe would be if he lived today to witness the avoda zara of his people residing in chutz la’aretz.

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.