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Rabbi Howard Cooper

Shabbat Ki Tissa 5782

You can listen to Rabbi Howard's sermon here or read below.



One’s heart goes out to those Israelites in our Torah portion today. In modern terminology we might say they were a traumatised people - oppressed for generations they had just experienced the most tumultuous upheavals it’s possible to imagine. The land they were living in, the only land they knew, had suffered a cataclysmic series of disruptions, disturbances, disasters natural and unnatural, apocalyptic events, plague after plague of them, the whole of society in chaos and turmoil, the breakdown of social order in which somehow, in ways they could not possibly understand, they had been spared most of the horrors visited upon their Egyptian neighbours.
How could that be? Why them? was it luck? Or magic? - how did daubing your doors with blood mean that your children were spared, but the children next door died? - or was it somehow connected with that strange Egyptian-Hebrew hybrid of a man, Moses? He’d been challenging Pharoah, goading the divine-human power that was Pharoah, demanding that he let the Israelites go - so was that whole frenzied cataclysm of events those Hebrew slaves had been witnesses to, and caught up in, connected to the story that Moses was telling, that their ancestral god was behind it all? Who could believe that? 

And when the braver among the Israelites had interrogated this strange stuttering figure and asked him ‘Who sent you to do this, to be our representative, to provoke Pharoah, on whom our lives depend - hard as they are already - who told you to stir up trouble in the vain, vague hope this will somehow set us free?’ - when they asked him this, who’d told him to do it, the old man had merely replied with a name, a sound, that nobody knew, nobody recognised: ‘Ehyeh sh’lachani aleychem’ (Ex 3:14) - “I am has sent me to you” . Or did he mean “I will be has sent me to you”? Nobody could agree, it didn’t make sense to anyone. And anyway, how could a verb send anyone? 

And even when Moses had explained that this unfolding God energy was continuous with the ancestral God, the so-called God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not only was the theology too complicated for a weary and abused people to take in, but anyway that ancestral God had been silent for generations, he was as good as dead, it was just a folk-memory the people had retained in slavery, it was bubameisers that you tell the children to help them to get to sleep. 

But, as we read, the people had been freed, or at least they’d escaped, the Egyptian army had pursued them, as they staggered towards the Sea of Reeds they could hear the pounding of the horses’ hooves, but the tide was favourable and they’d waded in, in their tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, beyond counting, a vast crowd of panicked souls, breathless, desperate  to get across before the slaughter began, or the re-capture, and which would be worse? But the wind had blown and the tide had turned, and - extraordinary to say - their enemies had drowned and they had been saved; and on the other shore, as the bodies of their defeated foes began to be washed up, Moses and his sister Miriam had broken into song and praised this newly-revealed divine energy, the ‘I was, I am, I will be’, the saving power of Israel’s story, a story that became inscribed in the saga, the mythic history of the Israelite people, “Mi Chamocha ba’elim Adonai?” - “who is like you amongst the gods, the  godlings, Adonai?” “Mi Kamocha Who, like You, nedar ba-kodesh is wrapped in holiness, is norah tehillot awe-inspiring,  oseh felle works wonders like this?”. (Ex.15:11)

And at that moment a traumatised people were swept up in a moment of wonder, of gratitude, of consciousness-raising openness: yes, some new possibility of belief was born - the old man and his family, Aaron and Miriam, were on to something, were into something, the dry land beneath the people’s feet testified to it, the hugging in joy with neighbours testified to it, the bodies of their oppressors left behind to rot in the sun or be swept away on the tides, they too testified to it. No liberation is free of pain. Relief and joy can’t wipe out the painful memory of what has been endured. So as the traumatised people marched off into the desert (Exodus 15:22) and left Egypt behind, they might have thought they were leaving their pain behind. But they were carrying it with them in the crevices of their souls. 

As soon as Miriam’s song ends, Moses forces Israel on into the wilderness. And there’s no respite from the pain: as our Torah storytellers unfold their narrative they tell of the first thing that happens in the wilderness, there is no water - who would have known? - and then the water they found was bitter, and ‘the people grumbled against Moses saying, “What shall we drink?”’ (Ex. 15:24). Three days after the world-transforming, history-making, gratitude-making moment of redemption at the Sea of Reeds - and the Israelites’ intimation that there existed an incomprehensible power behind events, within events - within seventy-two, the pain is back and the long, long story of bitterness and complaint begins. Marching through the desert they are still a traumatised people - and now they are a thirsty people as well. And six weeks later they are wishing they were dead (16:2-3), and it’s all Moses’ fault.  Trauma does not get healed overnight, trauma lasts - and for as long as it lasts, somebody has to be blamed, somebody else has to be made to feel the pain, the distress: this is human nature. Or rather human nature in its rawest, regressed state. 

In these texts in Exodus we see the Biblical narrators showing us how human nature is. That’s why we can recognise ourselves inside these texts. We can understand how a Golden Calf gets made in the absence of Moses; we can understand how, when he disappears for days, then weeks, fear takes over: the absent leader creates a vacuum of uncertainty, mistrust, disillusionment, despair, it’s just too painful to bear uncertainty sometimes - where are we going? who is looking after us? are we going to perish in this god-forsaken, so to speak, spot? They were faced not only with a leader who vanishes, without a word, without explanation - a leader who abandons his primary role, to be visible and instruct and direct and make people feel safe and offer a sense of collective purpose - not only did that still traumatised people no longer have a leader to guide them and listen to them and calm them - but of course they did not have a God who could do any of those things either. 

A leader who goes AWOL, disappears from sight, and a God who is defined by his invisibility. A God who can’t be seen, can’t be touched, can’t be heard - except by self-appointed old men like Moses and Aaron, who claim to hear him, but what good is that if we can’t hear him? A God who can’t be experienced by any of our human senses - eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands, none of them are any use  in getting hold of God, getting connected to this supposed divine energy that animates life. What good is ‘was, is, will be’ when your life is on the line? 

So of course there’s a fantasy, a wish, that a Golden Calf can fill the gap - you can make it yourself, a great collective project, you can fashion it, touch it, see it, it doesn’t disappear. (A bit like a new building?). This is basic human nature at play - trusting our five senses. And then you can project onto it whatever you want : “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Ex 32: 4). Who wouldn’t want to create an idol, gather round it and have a simcha - “they sat down to eat and drink and then they rose up to dance” (Ex 32: 6)? A feast for their all their senses. 

So, as I said at the beginning, my heart goes out to those Israelites with their traumatic wounds and their need for certainty, for something to put their faith in that they can see and touch. I wonder how much we have changed over the millennia? Just below the surface of all our sophistication we are probably pretty much the same. We still have an invisible God and we still rely on hearsay to keep us going. (We just call it ‘tradition’). When so much uncertainty is woven into our lives it’s hard to trust in something our five senses can’t experience. 

We need a sixth sense and even a seventh sense to grasp the ungraspable, and maybe we call the sixth sense our human spirits, or our soul, or our intuition - different names may come to mind - but they point to something real about human experience, that we are capable of - and do - experience awe and wonder and hopefulness and an awareness of both our insignificance in the world and our deep individuality and significance.  Our sixth sense gives us an awareness that a mystery surrounds our life and that what ‘was and is and will be’ sustains us and nurtures us and supports us till the end of our days. 

And if we do have a seventh sense - mirroring creation - it is that we too, collectively and individually, are wrapped in holiness, nedar ba-kodesh, and that when we act in that spirit of holiness we too norah tehillot, are capable of inspiring awe and gratitude, because we too can oseh felle, work wonders. We too can work wonders. It’s the gift we have been given, this divine-human potential. It’s the gift we have been given through Torah, which tells us about ourselves while purportedly telling us stories about our invisible, ungraspable God. 

Sat, 21 May 2022 20 Iyar 5782