This is a Dvar Torah that new NIF board member Alice Shalvi gave at the board meeting in Jerusalem in February 2019.
In giving a Dvar Torah, it’s customary to relate to the weekly Torah portion, the one we began reading at the mincha/afternoon service yesterday evening. But the temptation to return to the more dramatic Torah portion of yesterday morning, Ki Tisa, is too great, because it contains one of the most striking paradoxes in the Book of Exodus.
To remind you, the Children of Israel are encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai. They have already experienced the extraordinary, overwhelming phenomenon of hearing the words of the Decalogue, the 10 Commandments, that stipulate both their relationship to the one God who has delivered them from slavery and the most basic principles that must govern human relationships. They have committed themselves with the words na’aseh v’nishmah – we shall do and we shall hearken.
And now their leader Moses has gone up to the crest of Mount Sinai to receive instructions both on the construction of the Tabernacle and on the ritual to be conducted in and around it.
But Moses stays away too long – 40 days – and the people grow impatient. They turn to Aaron, complaining that they don’t know what happened to “this fellow Moses”, who led them out of Egypt. They ask Aaron to “Make us a god who shall go before us” and Aaron complies, bidding them donate their gold earrings, of which they make a golden calf. “And they exclaimed, ‘This is your god, oh Israel, who has brought you out of Egypt.’ God threatens to wipe out the people, but Moses intervenes and placates God.
Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.’ Turn from Your blazing anger and renounce the plan to punish Your people.
Yet when he himself arrives at the camp and witnesses what the people are doing, he smashes the tablets on which God’s instructions are inscribed, burns the calf and makes the Israelites drink the molten gold.
The episode ends with Moses ordering an execution, carried out by Levites, in which some 3000 people die. The next day Moses again goes up the mountain to intercede with God and spends another 40 days and nights there. This time there is no rebellion.
There is so much to learn from this incident that is relevant to our society today, but I want to point to just a few issues:
- How easy it is to despair, to forget the promise of the past.
- How impatient the people become when there is a delay in the fulfillment of their expectations, how they thirst for instant gratification.
- How the people long for a god to worship and how easily they are placated by a material manifestation of a false, man-made god, an idol. How eagerly they accept a tawdry alternative to a uniquely high ideal.
- How boisterous, uncontrolled, their worship and celebration of this idol.
- It is so easy to forget the promise of the past, to accept a lesser goal, an unworthy substitute for the original ideal. How important, how vital, it is to remember the ideal, to remain constant, not to despair – to be aware that there can always be a second chance. And how essential wise leadership is, how far superior to vengeance is mercy.
It’s in that spirit that I would like to offer a kavanah, an “intention,” with which to open this session.
As we begin our celebrations of the past and commence deliberations about the future, may we recall and acknowledge the innovative ways in which our organization has benefited the State of Israel, how it has facilitated the birth of a civil society by encouraging and nourishing the establishment and development of innumerable voluntary organizations committed to fulfilling vital functions that government has ignored.
Let us give praise both to those who preserve the best that characterized Israeli society in the past and to the agents of change who seek further progress.
At this time of acute internal division and continued conflict between Israel and her neighbors, may we have the courage and fortitude to remain steadfastly faithful to our goal of creating a New Israel, one that is wholly based on the principles that led to the establishment of an independent Jewish state, while also striving to develop and encourage those elements that seek to bring greater good to more people and thus to fully implement the noble promise of Israel’s founders as expressed in the Declaration of Independence: that Israel be a state in which all citizens enjoy total equality, regardless of race, gender, and faith; a state that ensures freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.
May we be blessed with wisdom, with patience and with faith in the possibility of progress and peace. And may we have the courage to combat all manifestations of evil, of prejudice and of hatred.
As the tablets that were smashed were re-written after being destroyed in anger and despair, so may we re-write our own Torah, reaffirm our commitment to NIF’s original goals and pledge ourselves never to despair.
Echoing the words of our national anthem, let us declare:
Od lo avdah tikvateinu.
We have not lost hope. And let us add:
We shall not lose hope!