Parshat Ki Tisa: Exodus 30:11-34:35; I Kings 18:1-339
By Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
Two Jews, three opinions.” Our people are no strangers to controversy, which is fine as long as our perspectives are grounded in understanding, a commitment to the greater good (our sages spoke of machlochet b’shem shamayim — controversy for the sake of heaven), and clear seeing of what is there and what is not. We are neither deceived by “fake news” nor blind to what is as plain as the noses on our faces.
Unfortunately, this level of wise, idealistic and clear seeing does not drive our public discourse. As neurolinguist George Lakoff has pointed out, people generally do not make decisions based upon facts, but rather upon cognitive frames that shape our values and reinforce our perspective on reality. Skilled politicians and marketers are adept at appealing to these cognitive frames and fixations to get us to buy what we don’t need, to vote for those who don’t represent our best interests and to behave in destructive and even violent ways.
The Torah repeatedly teaches us not to be deceived by such emotionally fed illusions, but rather to attend to what is really there. This week’s portion contains what is perhaps the extreme example of forgetting how to see.
The Israelites, who just months earlier had experienced the presence of God at Mount Sinai, who received God’s Torah and pledged to obey, collectively suffered what psychologist Daniel Goleman called “an amygdala hijack.” Overcome with fear that their leader Moses would not return from the mountaintop, their higher intellectual and sensory functions were suppressed by the kneejerk responses of the reptilian brain.
The more subtle brainwaves that could and recently did perceive a spiritual realm, in which Divine reveals a higher truth, were shoved aside as if the great revelation never took place. In desperation, the people sought a protector they could see with their own eyes. In their panic and delusion, they sought safety in a shiny gold animal totem, a calf that couldn’t even moo to its (nonexistent) mother, much less protect the people from the terrors of the desert.
Three times God refers to our ancestors as “a stiff-necked people.” The description is apt. When we feel threatened, the reptilian brain takes over; our necks stiffen as part of a mechanism putting the entire body on high alert. In this posture we see only what we need to escape or attack. It’s a terrible posture for prayer, devotion or thoughtful decision-making. Better to take some deep breaths; massage the back of your neck; do some full but gentle stretches and ease into a fuller kind of seeing, what Rabbi Heschel called “radical amazement.”
God is atop Mount Sinai … and all around us. As Psalm 121 says: “I lift my eyes to the mountains; from where will my help come? My help comes from the Eternal One, maker of heaven and earth … The Eternal One will guard you from all harm … now and forever.”
Can the metal figurine of a calf do anything like that?
Rabbi Michael Zimmerman is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist Congregation Kehillat Israel in Lansing. He is also the founder and organizer of the Greater Lansing Network of Spiritual Progressives and serves on the Tikkun Magazine Editorial Board.