10 March 2007 20 Adar 5767
For me the study of Torah is a visceral experience. I find the words to be saturated with resonance, and la-aok b’divrei Torah, to soak myself in words of Torah fills my body-mind with rushes of energy and insight that I can barely retrieve in words.
I invite us all, today, to open our whole selves to experience and receive these words and images…l’kabel Torah—to take in the Torah that you need, however it may be for you today….feel your whole body sitting….breathe….feel your feet on the floor, and imagine that channels can open us through the soles of each foot. Allow energy, the earth's breath, to flow up through your feet, through the open channels of your legs and into your pelvis, torso, and shoulders. Let that earth-breath flow down through your arms, feeling each finger as a channel, then back up through your shoulders and into your neck. Focus a few of your own breaths into your shoulders--poor weekday shoulders!--your neck, then into your hear, releasing the base of the skull, which squeezes to protect you from difficult experience. Fill your head with breath, and allow a channel to open in the top of your head, so that you become a complete, open conduit, ready to receive Torah.
Situating the Parashah
Today is Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the red heifer, the third of the special Shabbatot preparing us for Pesach—our passage out from the confines of winter, the frozenness that may have overtaken body and soul, the narrower, more inward perspective of the dark seasons, into the thawing blooming expansive dancing energies of spring. Some say the very word “Pesach” refers to a skipping dance that shepherds did at this time of year, in imitation of frisky, awkward, playful movements of the new lambs.
Last week the revels of Purim came to loosen up minds and oil our bodies with laughter, acting out energy, noisemaking, dancing, drinking…
Now we begin the labors of purification and cleansing, airing out, tossing away, boiling and washing and sweeping, preparing for the laboring of a spiritual and a national re-birth, the birth of an Israelite nation, dedicated to holy service, and the spiritual re-birth of each one of us, released from the constrictions of our own forms of slavery, pushed through the birthing waters of the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds, and deposited, weary, ragtag, and unable to hold up our own heads, into ha-midbar, the wilderness—a perilous and unbounded space in which we must learn to act in accordance with an invisible, mysterious, imperious, Fountain of Spiritual Imperatives, called YHVH/Elohim/Y’hiyeh, whose boundaries and demands are difficult to receive, much less to follow.
Now we move toward entering the field of freedom where we can learn how to serve the Holy.
Our parashah is Ki Tissa, a rich and horrifying section of Torah in which the final instructions for the building of the Mishkan and the giving of the first set of tablets to Moses are juxtaposed with the people’s stumbling, under Aaron’s leadership, into the debauchery and idolatry of the golden calf. The Mishkan, the structure designed to draw down Holiness into sacred emptiness—the empty space between the golden keruvim, the angels atop the Ark cover in the Holy of Holies—is set over-against the positive of its negative space—the solid gold of the calf.
Torah can be looked at on so many levels, all of which exist at the same time. I can decry God’s anger at the people, just released from slavery, who are expected to “hold the center” while Moses is gone. Some interpreters of midrash see the people’s demand for something tangible to worship as an indication that they have already so thoroughly projected their fears and strengths upon Moses that they have already fallen into idolatry, and the calf just replaces him! So I can condemn this people for ingratitude and stiff-neckedness (as God does) or have compassion for them, people torn from their homes, witness to mind-shattering miracles, who maybe just need something solid, something visible, to hang onto in a sea of terrifying change! I could condemn Aaron for poor boundaries, and Moses for his angry outbursts in smashing the tablets, grinding up the statue and making people drink a gold dust cocktail, and calling the Levis to slaughter all who are not for God.
This year I’ve been drawn to see what this parashah teaches me about the hazards of the spiritual path, and about the ways Torah calls us to work with these dangerous edges. How often have you—have I—tossed the gold of our sincere spiritual aspirations—to be in connection with and to serve the Divine, something greater than ourselves—into the fire of our passion, our desire, and produced an egel, an idol, something fixed and solid on which we then try, inappropriately, to focus our love and hopes and fears, but which ultimately separates us from relationship with the full depth and majesty of the Mystery? How often do I take the fluid, the intangible and try to make it solid?
This parashah gives us two inter-dependent strategies for addressing the hazards of the path: the warrior way, the way of gevurah, and the way of compassion, of khesed.
Our first aliyah, Sh’mot 32:21-27 the way of the warrior, teaches me that I need to constantly balance the my reaching for God-connection, my inner Moses, with my inner Aaron, my compassion and care for others and for the more materially oriented parts of my own being. That I carry Pharaoh, powerful arrogance and short-sightedness within me, that it can rear up anytime. So I need to secure the boundaries of my “camp,” recognizing what parts of me, of the situations of my life, are God-connected, for the highest purpose, and cutting off the near-enemies of the holy qualities I desire to cultivate—discernment vs. harsh judgment, spacious compassion vs. pity or over-identification. Take a moment to summon up a situation or a relationship in your life where something needs to be cut away in order to carry it to an emptier, purer, more God-filled space. Feel your sword in your hand… Yam’du those who need the strength of the warrior path.
Our second aliyah, Sh’mot 34:5-7 takes place at the moment when Moses is about to ascend the mountain for the second time, with a second set of tablets in hand. He has asked God to reveal God’s glory to him—the pronouns become confused and it is as if God enters Moses and teaches him about the path of compassion from the inside. This is the path of opening myself to what is, embracing it, cultivating patience, a long fuse, but also the knowledge that no act is without consequences, and so we open in kindness, nevertheless knowing that what has been done has long-term effects. Take a moment to imagine a difficult situation or relationship. Imagine yourself holding the weight of the tow blank stone tablets in your arms. Yam’du those who need to open in your hearts the power of compassion.
Rabbi Diane Elliot, RSMT