I opened up my Tanach this week to review parashat Ki Tissa and I immediately began to cry. Inside was a bookmark, a bright fluorescent one that was greenish and yellowish in color. On the bookmark, which was actually the size and shape of a Post-It note, was a cell phone number, the name of a doctor, and the phrases “strokes on both sides,” “heart rate dropped,” and “CPR.”
I must have been reading Ki Tissa when I got a call from the hospital 12 years ago that my father was not doing well. I remember the conversations that we had after that. Doctors were trying to tell my family to remove the life support. We were just not ready.
Ki Tissa contains the story of the “golden calf.” The Israelites, impatient for Moses to come down from the mountain, decided to take matters into their own hands. They wanted to worship God, but couldn’t wait any longer. Aaron advised everyone to make contributions to build a molten calf. And so they did. And then they worshipped it.
In Judaism, the sin of building this calf is severe. It violates one of the most important mitzvot (if not the most important mitzvah) in the Torah — the commandment of “not worshipping other gods.” As a rabbi, as a Jew, as a person reading this section of the Torah, I could say: “how dare they!” I could say: “how impatient!” I could say: “boy, things haven’t changed.” After all, we all build metaphoric idols in our lives — those things to which we have grown attached or addicted, whether it is success, money, our jobs, or our cell phones.
But this year, as I crack open my Tanach, I read it with different eyes, with an open heart.
Recently at a professional development conference, I attended a session on how to interact with “difficult people” with whom we do not see eye-to-eye. I learned the importance of standing back and giving someone the benefit of the doubt. I realized the difference between the difficult person’s “goal” and their “strategy” for reaching that goal. The presenter made me realize that often we do not disagree with the final goal, but we do disagree on the path to get there. And somewhere, within that disagreement, lies our major tensions, judgments, and annoyances. We dismiss people. We label them. We tune them out.
Everywhere I look — social media, the press, our schools, our synagogues — people argue about so many things. Do we have lox at Kiddush or not? Do we hire more staff or not? Do we pay for extra security or not?
But these questions only divide us because they represent the strategies, not the greater, lofty goals that we are trying to accomplish by using those strategies.
I hope that we can agree that we want a world free of gun violence. I’d like to think that we can agree that we want a world where people have access to good health care. I pray that we can agree that a world where all people have access to food, clothing, shelter, and education is a world in which we all deserve to live.
But we get so caught up in the “how to get there.” We get so caught up in the strategy.
What was Moses’ goal and the goal of the commandments? To connect with God.
What was the goal of the Israelites? To connect with God. Their goal was the same, but the strategy that they used to get there was what created a divide and would have lasting ramifications on the future of our Jewish tradition. Don’t get me wrong. They sinned. But if we muster up — from the depths of ourselves — a little compassion, can you see the good things that they were trying to accomplish?
Twelve years ago, when I got that phone call from the doctors, it was difficult for me to listen to them. It was painful for me to hear their medical suggestions as ones that were done with my father’s best intentions in mind. If they had my father’s best interests at heart, wouldn’t they want to give him more time? Wouldn’t they want to keep him on the respirator? Wouldn’t they want him to… live?
Eventually, my father would wake up and naturally get off the respirator on his own. Eventually, he would celebrate one more birthday, Father’s Day, and Rosh Hashanah. And eventually — when his body took one more severe turn — his body would succumb to what God had planned for him — only after, we, my family, would finally listen to the doctors and affirm his life by actively enabling his death.
The Israelites wanted to be in relationship with God. They just didn’t know how to accomplish it.
The doctors wanted to affirm my father’s life. I just couldn’t see it.
This year, the story of Ki Tissa is a bit different for me. It reminds me to be open-hearted. It encourages me to hear the difficult person before me. It reminds me to focus on the well-intentioned goals of others and our mutual desire — despite our differences in strategies — for reaching God and all that is sacred.