Joseph Gindi, Jewish Studies Teacher

How do we grapple with the reality that there are those within our community that do and say things we might find challenging, objectionable, or just wrong?

In this week’s Parasha, Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35), the Israelites are camped at the base of Mount Sinai. They are weary and afraid after months of trudging through the vast uncertain wilderness fearing hunger and deprivation (see Exodus 15 and 16), and weeks of waiting for their leader to return from this awesome mountain awash in smoke and fire. So, they turn to Aaron, the High Priest, and Moses’s brother, and say, “Come, make us a god who will go before us, because that guy Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him” (Exodus 32:1). This, of course, generates the infamous episode of the Golden Calf. Aaron seems to acquiesce, asks for their jewelry, and crafts a molten statue that the people instantly embrace as a substitute god. G-d sees this, threatens to destroy the nation, and sends Moses back down the mountain to deal with his flock. Moses, for his part, smashes the tablets and destroys the idol, before commanding those loyal to him to execute a murderous rampage throughout the camp.

Following a midrashic tradition, some of the classical commentators are quick to distance both Aaron and the Israelites from this episode. Don’t worry, says Rashi, the 11th-century French commentator. It wasn’t the Israelites who created this molten monstrosity. Rather, it was magically created by Egyptian sorcerers who came up from Egypt with the erev rav, the “mixed multitude”. When the calf is created the people exclaim, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Focusing on the phrasing, “this is your god,” Rashi again highlights, “it was the mixed multitude which came up from Egypt that gathered themselves together against Aaron, and it was they who made it and afterward led Israel astray after it” (Rashi on Exodus 32:4).

Why is Rashi, and the Midrash Tanchuma on which he relies, so eager to scapegoat the erev rav, those within the Israelite community who have different backgrounds, a different story of belonging, than those who claim direct descent from the children of Israel? This is a natural, and common, inclination for dealing with the dissonance that those on “our” team may do things we find objectionable, or even abhorrent. It helps us feel like there is no gap between our moral commitments and our feelings of identity and group belonging. It gives us permission to purify the “in” group by proclaiming those on the margins, whether because of their identity or their actions and beliefs, aren’t “really” a part of us.

While responding in this way is understandable, it limits our ability to confront the moral complexities of our own identities, to admit that sometimes “we” are the bad guys, or at least that some of “us” act in ways “we” might find objectionable or wrong. Maybe this was a “calling in” moment when the Israelite leadership needed to address the exhaustion and fear among the people, alongside the behavior it generated, rather than eliminating those people from the group. 

If we choose not to respond as Rashi and the midrash does, we are faced with a set of challenging questions. What does it mean that “my people” do or have done bad things? What responsibility do I have to address that within my own community? How do I grapple with the fact that I too have this capacity? These questions don’t have easy answers, but I prefer them to the certainty that “my people” are always right.