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Ki Tisa – The strange and the familiar

By Meira Ben-Gad

Judaism’s sacred texts probe and expose universal human truths, even as they open a window onto an emotional and religious sensibility sometimes far removed from our own. In today’s Torah reading these two dynamics take turns coming to the fore 

Let’s take two examples, starting with the centrepiece of today’s parashah: the episode of the Golden Calf. Nearly every element of this story lays bare some aspect of human psychology familiar to us all. How does it begin? Moses takes too long returning from the mountain—the people become anxious. They gang up on Aaron (the verb and preposition in Hebrew, vayikahel al, suggest a turbulent and potentially violent mob) and demand action. Aaron lacks Moses’ confidence and charisma, and he caves, forging the Golden Calf. Through the rest of the story, the emotional responses of the main players are transparent and familiar—Moses’ fury; Aaron’s chagrin and little-boy attempt to evade punishment; God’s outrage and petulance; Moses’ patient efforts at conciliation once his own anger abates. Yet amidst all this, there is one very strange act: after breaking the tablets, Moses takes the calf and burns it, then “he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it” (32:20). This curious act, reminiscent of the Sotah ritual, a trial by ordeal whereby a woman accused of adultery was made to drink “water of bitterness” (Num. 5: 16–31), has no obvious purpose. Some commentators suggest that making the people drink the powder-infused water was intended to identify the guilty, as in the Sotah ritual, though there is nothing in our text to suggest this. Either way, the act is to our minds bizarre, a remnant of magical thinking that had possibly been supplanted in Israelite religion even by the time our text was written. 

Now, let’s look at the end of today’s reading: the special maftir for Shabbat Parah containing the law of the Red Heifer (Num. 19). Here, the opposite dynamic is in play. This text describes the rite whereby an unblemished, never-worked and uniformly-hued young cow is sacrificed and burned, together with various ritual items, such as cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson wool. The ashes are then to be mixed with water and used to purify someone made impure through corpse-contamination. The entire ritual is an example par excellence of magical thinking, whereby some non-physical status, ritual impurity, is somehow removed through contact with some singular physical substance.  

And yet even here the universal and familiar peek out from within the particular and the strange. While most modern Jews no longer share the ancient Israelite anxiety about purity and contamination, we recognize the phenomenon of anxiety as universally human. The world is a scary place, full of risks and uncertainties. All societies have their own rituals which, among other things, impose symbolic order on an inherently disordered reality. (If you’re reading this in shul, you’ll know exactly what I mean.) And do we not all have our own personal rituals, in themselves meaningless, designed to keep anxiety and disorder at bay, like children avoiding cracks in the pavement? So, when you hear today’s maftir, don’t think what primitive folk our forebears were. Enjoy the interplay of strange and familiar, and think about the ways our forebears were just like us.         

Posted on 11 March 2020