By Rabbi Aaron Gol...
March 2, 2013
The Israelites enter the shop that Moses built. They have dreamt of seeing the product that stands inside – freedom. They glimpse it inside of the store and imagine what it might feel like in their deepest soul.
They seek what is currently outside of their concrete vision in the deep recess of the shop’s rear and then he appears draped in flowing white robes a prince’s finery combined with a fiery purposeful countenance. The theatre provides assurance of some future award ceremony.
Now Moses hardly spoke but muttered in the ear of the salesman whose name tag announced 'Aaron.' What a smooth talker. The product sold itself and what price could one put on freedom? However the one who sealed the deal was the real product brand. His humble strength penetrated the doubts of their faltering courage; the comfort in Moses who quietly stood by with the hekhsher - the kosher, fit for purpose stamp of authority that a pharaoh and his daughter had embroidered on his breast – an aura of power endowed by upbringing in a palace.
The brand was strong, the salesman slick, the CEO well-known, the theatre of the sale enthralling. The Children of Israel bought in to the deal.
Yet when the people bought the product, it was the whole package they were sold on. They got freedom home and realised there might not always be Moses who had played the role of the Pied Piper of Hamlyn in front of them so well in confronting Pharaoh, leading them through the Sea of Reeds, and swatting off the Amalekite’s assault. When they were left with ‘freedom’ they were unsure what to do with it. Where was the aftersales service? Aaron had been so smooth in selling them the dream but now lacked the technical know-how to make it work for them. Moses seemed to be abroad developing an export market and who knew how long he would tarry.
They panicked. What was freedom? It was only in their minds and hearts, still a loose concept but not yet embedded in their soul. Where was the manifestation, the concrete document of the insurance package?
Was Moses any different? He was said to have spent 40 days or nights on Mt Sinai. What was he doing? The Torah recounts in the verse preceding Jacob’s parashah, “Upon finishing speaking with him on Mount Sinai, [God] gave Moses the two tablets of the pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God (Ex 31:18).”
The Talmud suggests that Moses needed the Pact to be written down for him because, “Moses would learn Torah and forget it, time and time again (bNedarim 38a).” was Moses unable to retain the Torah, did he need a physical manifestation, a written document to hold as reassurance of God’s Presence, or did he just know that in order to provide the complete aftersales, he required for the People, a concrete, physical manifestation? And if so, was the molten calf really so wrong, perhaps just understandable by human fallibility.
And did the events of this sidrah, this week’s Torah portion, actually change anything? Perhaps the Israelites were so reliant on Moses they were unable to think for themselves. Certainly they exhort Moses that he shall speak with them and not God, lest they die!
In other words, ‘You do the God stuff and we will follow.’
This may be realistic but it was not what the founders of Liberal Judaism envisaged. They craved for a Judaism that desired thinking Jews who derived their own understanding through the menu that Jewish tradition offered. They found the menu a bit out of date and stodgy and sought to provide a new reading that allowed Jews to think for themselves.
I believe that in every generation, we need to reinterpret the Pact to remain relevant and to provide for the democratisation of Judaism. Moses did it, the ancient Rabbis did it, as did the medieval Biblical commentators. The Founders of Liberal Judaism did as did others such as Rabbi John Raynor more latterly.
Yet we can become over-reliant on great thinkers and forget that to find God, to truly understand the Pact, we cannot rely only on others to provide the aftersales service. We need to understand the technical bits ourselves, how to make it work in our own homes, in our own lives.
To an extent, Liberal Judaism has experienced something of a void since the death of Rabbi John Raynor. We might have had debates about Torah, about the Pact and about God but we always knew that John was there to turn to for the final say. I truly believe that our Rabbis are now engaged once more in the kind of deep thinking that perhaps we relied on John for. A new generation of Rabbis need to step up to the plate and we have realised this though perhaps our style is slightly different. We are more of a Sanhedrin, a collective of Rabbis from whom we will get the most when we participate equally and look to each other for inspiration, the democratisation of the Rabbinate where we do not rely on only one or a few.
And we seek inspiration from our Congregants as well. We seek to inspire as Rabbis should and also to learn with our Congregants. Jacob you have given us an example of a thinking liberal Jew studying our traditions, analysing and challenging their assumptions unafraid of disagreeing with one of the greatest rabbis of all, Rashi. You could understand his view as being relevant in its context but criticise Rashi’s parallel back to the Torah text and therefore the moral with which he concludes, especially when we apply it for our day.
Jacob, we need your thought and that of your peers to be a true Congregation not one that relies on an individual or one generation to lead alone. This democratisation of Judaism is essential to our future, to our children’s future. We must not leave the shop that is our Synagogue each week without having sought to ascend the mountain to engage with God. Doing so leaves God on top of the mountain and the essence of our product devoid and empty, any sales pitch meaningless and the product devalued.
Eternal God, empower us all to look beyond ourselves to seek You, to engage with You and those within this Congregation of Israel.