Parashat Ki Tissa

Exodus 30:11-34:35
Triennial Reading: 30:11-31:17
February 23, 2008 / 17 Adar I 5768

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Charles Savenor, associate dean of the Rabbinical School, JTS.

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, the Children of Israel stand at a crossroads between faith and fear, commitment and rebellion. Only several months into their new life of freedom, the Jewish people have experienced so many miracles that we can hardly keep track of them all—the splitting of the Red Sea, water from the rock, manna from heaven, and, of course, the Revelation at Sinai. The loving bond between God and Israel appears to be as strong as one between two newlyweds, both aspiring to enter into a life of mutual respect and devotion.

Unfortunately, when Moses returns just one day late from meeting with God on Mount Sinai, something has gone terribly wrong. Without Moses’ guiding presence, the Children of Israel feel lost, yearn for security, and in desperation, build a Golden Calf. The Golden Calf is not a random selection or an original creation. By choosing this image, the Israelites conjure a familiar image from their long sojourn in servitude in Egypt. Their actions, so soon after their Sinai experience, represent a regression. This ignominious incident constitutes the darkest moment in Israel’s history, so much so that the Midrash in Aichah Rabbah relates that there is not a generation that does not suffer from the sinful reverberations of this faithless act.

Addressing this problem falls upon Moses’ shoulders. "Lekh rayd," literally "Go down," God tells Moses; He is ordering the former shepherd to descend from the mountain and tend to his straying flock. The terseness of God’s words capture the urgent action required to address the chaos and confusion unfolding within the Israelite camp and within their souls.

Having expended so much of his energy on behalf of these people, Moses, one may presume, is justifiably angry. On his way down from Sinai, Moses is greeted by his loyal servant Joshua, who had stayed at this spot for forty days in anticipation of his leader’s return. They pause to contemplate the situation within earshot of the Israelite camp. Without being able to see what is transpiring in the Israelite camp, Joshua and Moses describe what they hear. The Torah reads:

When Joshua heard the sound of the people in its boisterousness,
he said to Moses, "There is cry of war in the camp." But he [Moses] answered,
"It is not the sound of the tune of triumph,
Or the sound of the tune of defeat;
It is the sound of song I hear!" (Etz Hayim, Exod. 32:17-18)

Exposed to the same sounds from the Israelite camp, Moses and Joshua hear radically different things.

These verses raise several questions. First, how can we understand these dissimilar discernings of the noise surrounding the Golden Calf? Second, Moses’ words about hearing music are especially puzzling: "kol anot anokhi shomeah," "It is the sound of song I hear!" I believe that understanding these words provides us with new perspective of this episode in particular and leadership in general.

Two traditional commentators offer interpretations on the meaning of "It is the sound of song I hear!" Ibn Ezra, a medieval commentator, shows that kol anot refers to neginot, or songs. He bases his explanation on Isaiah 27:2, where the root for anah means "sing." According to Ibn Ezra, Moses stands outside the camp and hears music, the songs of the people that accompanied their carousing around the Golden Calf.

Rashi disagrees with our translatation and argues that anot is tied to the Hebrew word eenu’ee, meaning "affliction." We are most familiar with this term because it serves as the Biblical basis of our Yom Kippur rituals. In the Talmud, the rabbis call fasting and the other core restriction "eenu’ee nafesh," or "afflictions of the soul."

About our verse, he writes: "I hear the songs of blasphemy which distresses the soul of him who hears them." According to Rashi, this verse would now read as: "The sounds that I hear afflict me." This explanation underscores the pain Moses feels to hear this burgeoning nation’s regression.

Ibn Ezra and Rashi’s interpretations shift the focus of analysis. The former describes the object, or the sounds, Moses hears. By contrast, the latter focuses on the impact of this auditory experience on the listener himself. While each approach can stand on its own, by combining them, we can see—or hear, in this case—the full picture. Moses understands the context, knows the participants, and comprehends the inner conflict that led to their backsliding. Equally important, Moses embraces the affliction within his own heart that comes from second guessing himself about how he could have prevented this incident by listening more carefully to this recently emancipated, yet conflicted, people. In light of this, I believe that "kol anot anokhi shomeah" means, "I hear the songs of afflicted souls." And his soul is among them.

Removed from the Israelite camp for forty days, Moses and Joshua allow their internal orientations to rise to the surface. The warrior Joshua discerns warfare, while the shepherd Moses hears his flock produce a cacophony of sounds and tries to harmonize them. Their initial reactions are more about them than what they hear.

As soon as Moses realizes that the sounds from the camp belie a plea for guidance, he no longer focuses on what the Children of Israel did; rather he concerns himself with the stimuli of their actions, namely confusion and trepidation. As this chapter of Exodus unfolds, Moses transitions from anger toward the "sinners" to compassion for the conflicted.

Moses models for generations of leaders to come that listening is the cornerstone of every relationship, especially in times of transition. Without insight into another person’s heart and soul, one runs the risk of filtering what one hears only through his/her experience. Training our ears to hear what is being said and to notice what may be left unexpressed opens the door to open and honest communication and helps pave the way to redemption.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.
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