Ki Tisa - When You Take a Census
In this week’s Parasha, we have a continuation of our instructions from God – in this case instructions about a Census, or the counting of the tribes of Jacob. However, we also bear witness to the dramatic story of the Golden calf – a time when the impatient tribes of Israel decided Moses wasn’t coming back from his trip to commune with God.
While these two segments of our story seem disconnected, one could see them as part and parcel of the same unfolding story.
People often wonder how the newly freed slaves, after all the miracles of the Exodus, could so easily turn to an idol as opposed to their own God. In many commentaries we are reminded of what the reality of living in Egypt may have been like. Whatever picture we may have in our minds of a Jewish community, what existed in Egypt was most likely very different and not very cohesive. The need for a census informs this conversation. In every major city in North America, we have regular "counting” of the Jewish community by our own Jewish Federations for the purposes of funding and the study of population trends. No such organizing of our community existed back then. We also must keep in mind that this "community” had not received their laws yet. Without the Torah we are left to wonder what exactly made them "Jews” aside from belonging to the lineage of Jacob?
Many also believe this was a very assimilated group. Joseph’s example is just one, but the text does seem to indicate that prior to one particular Egyptian King coming to power, the Hebrews were not looked upon poorly. Even so, one could definitely ask how could they be so assimilated with the Egyptians at one time and then be so ostracized and treated poorly at another. Well, we need only look to our modern History to understand how this can happen. It is quite easy for a small difference to be the basis for hatred, bigotry and bias that may be lying dormant.
Interestingly, it is at this time in our Jewish calendar that we visit Shushan and hear the story of Esther. People may not realize that there were many other scrolls written in ancient times that did not make it into our Jewish cannon, but our sages thought so highly of this this text that it was included. We are compelled to ask why. It may be because this story of Esther had become our constant story of survival among others since our time in Egypt. Yes we will conquer the Promised Land in future chapters, and yes in modern times we will have the state of Israel. But in so many ways, the Jewish story is the story of the surviving as the "other” in a larger communal or world order.
The Shabbat before Purim is known as "Shabbat Zachor” or the Shabbat of Remembrance. We are asked to remember quite often in our tradition and this is a time to remember when were weak, on the outside, and were persecuted. Shabbat Zachor, Purim, and even this story of the Golden Calf teach us lessons about being an "other” in a larger community. Haman didn’t like Jews because they wouldn’t bow down to him. We are not told exactly why Pharoah soured to the children of Jacob, but we are told that he thought them dirty and a threat to his rule – much like Haman told his own King. In both stories we eventually prevail, but the pattern has been laid out for us – and we again are commanded not to forget.
In the modern day, Jews should be especially sensitive to those who are also "others.” Shabbat Zachor is not just a story about another Haman like figure called Amelek, it is a story about someone who chose to prey on the most vulnerable among us. A modern lesson we take from this is that a society is only as good as it treats is most vulnerable. Purim is about the need to be brave when someone in power threatens a minority group for seemingly no reason.
The Golden Calf is a clear indication that we were very much a part of Egyptian culture before we fell out of favor. This is our modern story of Shoah as well. The Jews of Poland were the most populous of any country in Europe. They were seemingly so engrained in Polish society despite their difference. Yet it was that very difference that resulted in the Jewish population in Poland now being one of the smallest in Europe. And now there is actually debate over how that happened. That is why we must remember.
Shabbat Zachor. Purim. Our life in Egypt. And our life in Europe. All reminders of how amazing it is to keep our identity in a larger society. All reminders of how precarious that way of life is unless we stand up to those who try to prey upon the weak, the different, or the in-firmed. These are lessons we give our students every day – and this season more than any is the time to reinforce them as strongly as we can.