Some sermons are just Torah teachings. Others are a collection of cute stories around a values theme. Others are serious applications of Torah learning. And some are matters of conscience. Tonight, this is a matter of conscience. I shared earlier how my teacher Dr. Michael Meyer told us he went to Temple to be made uncomfortable, to be challenged. Well, there are things in this portion that make me uncomfortable, especially in light of some of the things happening around us right now.
This week, in Parashat Ki Tisa, we study the episode of the Golden Calf. This is story is the biblical paradigm for rejecting idol worship. It is also, perhaps the Torah’s greatest example of passing blame, right up there with eating fruit in the Garden of Eden. The stakes of blame in the story of the golden calf are raised as it becomes associated with idol worship, traditionally one of the most grievous sins one can commit. The Torah shows us to blame is to create an idol, to connect some thing or some person with undeserved responsibility.
Moses is seen as being the people’s only connection to God. Ignoring their daily providence, the gifts of food, and survival in the desert, they believe it can only come through the presence of one man. While “that man,” Moses, spend forty days away from the community, they believe God cannot be with them. They turn to Aaron who has been left in charge. They demand of him, “make us a god,” something we can see and follow. Rather than calm them or assure them that Moses would soon return, Aaron, possibly fearful of the mob, gives in. He gathers gold from all the people and molds it into a golden calf. They call out, “this is your god who brought you out of Egypt,” and it can be assumed, they assigned all providence and goodness to this very god, this calf, this lifeless statue. They have accepted the golden calf as God, and this has all happened under Aaron’s watch, with his support, and active participation. Very much a part of this deed, as a leader, he is even more culpable. However, when confronted with what he has done, he will choose blame.
When Moses comes down and discovers the people worshiping the calf, Aaron says they told him to make a god. They were afraid Moses would not return. At this moment, Aaron probably recognizes he could blame collective fear for his following actions. He admits to gathering the gold and throwing it into the fire. He cannot bring himself to admit that he shaped the gold into a calf, instead blaming the fire for spitting out a calf.
It is not hard to understand why the story happens this way. Aaron and the people of Israel are motivated by anxiety, resentment, and fear. These elements that lead to idolatry are also identified by Psychologist Carl Alasko (in the book Beyond Blame) as key catalysts for blame. Idolatry and blame are thus intertwined as two sides of the same coin.
So, let’s recap. Moses is equated with God. Then Moses is blamed for being gone. Then the people are afraid. Aaron fears the people. He builds an idol. They all worship the idol as if it were God. Moses and God get angry. Aaron blames Moses. And Aaron blames the people. And Aaron even blames the fire. He blames everyone and everything, essentially making idols of them, imbuing them with power they do not have.
Idolatry and blame are inextricably linked through this episode of the golden calf. This link will be established in perpetuity as future generations will make sin offerings as atonement for the golden calf. According to many sources, a living cow must lose its life on account of the sin of idolatry. And at least one source says the scapegoat itself, the goat onto which sins are transferred before being thrown over a cliff, makes atonement for the golden calf. The scapegoat is a type of idolatry, imposing our faults and fears onto an object or animal that cannot possibly own the traits we give it. Nonetheless, we are commanded to cast blame onto some unsuspecting, undeserving animal in exchange for the sin of casting undue merit onto a molten idol. Fear for fear. Sin for Sin. Idol for idol.
I think at some point, we are supposed to read this story of the golden calf, examine the fallout, and ultimately recognize the absurdity of this cycle of blame.
Lately, it seems we get further and further away from understanding this lesson. Lawmakers in our state have made forbidden idols out of Transgender Tennesseeans and have treated drag shows as golden calfs to be destroyed. Recent legislation has made it illegal to provide gender affirming healthcare to minors, including, not just the physical care, but also counseling. This type of care is not only affirming, but in many cases life saving as it curbs the suicide rate among transgender youth. The law is as cruel as it is potentially dangerous. The state has also restricted drag shows, preventing minors from attending. Their stated purpose is to keep kids away from sexually explicit performances, as if any man dressed in woman’s clothes is inherently explicit. It is not, as evidenced by the times I have played Esther or a chorus girl in a Temple Purim Shpiel. In theory, such Purim shpiels could now be illegal in Tennessee, but that is not really what I am concerned about. I, a cis-gendered straight male, am not worried about how this affects me. What worries me is, this is a needless prohibition something that is true performance art and a source of entertainment for many. There is nothing about drag that is inherently harmful to children, any moreso than cheerleaders at basketball game. The absurd line defining what our lawmakers call “prurient” is not about how much body is exposed, but rather what the performer’s gender is relative to the outfit they are wearing. The law itself is nonsensical, but sadly it is real. The application of the law and its enforcement have yet to be fully determined, so the ramifications are unknown. What is known is that the transgender law and the drag show law are direct attacks against our LGBTQ+ community. As a group they are no stranger to this kind of treatment, as for centuries they have been blamed for any number of things. Throughout history, whether homosexuality has been wrongly equated with pedophilia, or whether they have been blamed for inviting God’s wrath through hurricaines, or for corrupting minors by daring to cross-dress in public, unjustified fears have been transferred onto them. They have been involuntarily made into idols, receiving blame for sins they did not commit, but which been imposed on them from the outside.
It is the golden calf all over again. Irrational fears. Transfer of sins. Creation of an idol. Destruction of an idol. Passing of an idol. A scapegoat suffering. All because leaders fail to lead as they bow to the whims of angry homophobic masses.
And let’s be clear, while I am speaking mostly in the third person, the community threatened is really US, our Mizpah members, our friends, our children, our parents, and anyone who loves someone who is LGBTQ. Their fight is all of our fight. The Prophets of the Tanach demand that cast our lot with the oppressed. At some point the idolatrous cycle of fear and blame has to stop. And it is easy to point to our socially conservative neighbors and say they are responsible for this. We risk making idols of them, turning them into objects of disdain. Instead, we can take ownership of our responsibility as friends, citizens of Tennessee, and people motivated to pursue justice until it becomes real. Let’s start by writing to our governor and our state representatives. We must not believe it is futile, as we hope we can reach people’s hearts one at a time. Let us join in protest actions like the one that happened last week at Miller Park, at which Mizpah was represented. Let us support organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and help them to flex legal muscle to overturn these bans.
May we together bring an end to senseless fear, end the cycle of blame, and once and for all, atone for the sin of the golden calf by not making idols of our own.