Chukat: The Golden Calf is the Golden Path?!?

BS”D By Dvir Cahana July 3, 2020

Song: פרה דְמָמָה is Golden by Dvir

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, begins with a very common biblical phrase: “וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְה-וָ֔ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר” “The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying” (Numbers 19:1). This line, albeit with slight variations from its typical formulation with Moses, is marked off as its own sentence and will often precede a set of instructions that G-d has Moses (and Aaron) transmit to the nation. This iconic phraseology, at first glance, may be unassuming, but it really captures the difference between modern transference of information and 3000 years ago, amplifying a contrasting dissonant reality from our own. I want to draw out two lessons that come out of this formulaic expression in order to shed light on today’s accelerated communication highway. As we leap from 1G, to 2 and all the way up to 5, it can be useful to take a glance back to the 0Gs. 

What is first noticeable in Numbers 19:1, is the traceable linear directionality of this sentence. Constraining the geographic distance from message to receiver provides a level of tangibility to the message being receiving. In this sense, there at least anonymity thus establishing ownership on the side of the message bearer. When there is no cap on bandwidth our anchor on reality becomes dislodged and we lose the agency to being discerning witnesses to the information we are exposed to. This isn’t to say that one needs to physically see something to believe it, or that we aren’t susceptible to deceit. However, when we are inundated with information to the point that we are disconnected from our own belief systems that we don’t even know where the inculcation of our moral centers came from, we are at risk of losing the humanity of being able to think independently. The value of citing sources is hyperbolized in rabbinic literature. In the Talmud, quotations are preserved alongside the individual repeating. The Talmud makes it a point to transmit where the speaker heard said quote and will continue to map out the full line of transmission until we reach the original source. 

The line “The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying” does serve an important function in bolstering the importance of the commandment that will follow by showing that Moses’ laws are rooted in a divine source. However, this sentence acts as a model for all communication, especially the transmission of a legal constitution. There is a hidden double meaning in this phrase. The words “יְה-וָ֔ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה” “G-d to Moses” very clearly shows the directionality of the phrase, however there is a rabbinic tradition that G-d’s various names are embued with differing assonances, and assert that the Torah is exacting when it chooses which name of G-d it addresses in each instance. “יְה-וָ֔ה” is G-d’s name that isn’t pronounced and represents G-d when they are compassionate, whereas “אֶל” can be read as a shortening of G-d’s name, “אֱ-לֹהִים” which is the one that is over-pronounced (even when it is not written) and represents the G-d of judgement. This provides a very powerful model for communication that tasks the receiver to not just be passive in their reception of transmitted information. When we hear information it is important to be compassionate and to hear the words that the other is not saying. And so our phrase begins with G-d’s “יְה-וָ֔ה” name. The name “יְה-וָ֔ה” is also a play on the word “to be” in the present tense while hinting at the “to be” in the past and future tense. To start with compassion means to hear where the person currently is, and “to be” present with them in order to hear what they are hinting at from their past experiences, or what their fears in the future are.

But this is not the endpoint, the word directly adjacent to “יְה-וָ֔ה” is “אֶל”. This teaches that it is also important to be prudent in your judgement. “אֶל” is a shortened version of “אֱ-לֹהִים” but also the suffix “הִים” refers to a single vs. Plural dynamic. This is to say that when someone is speaking we need to see how their words can be expanded when other people take them on. When two consecutive “יְה-וָ֔ה”s are written in the Torah we pronounce the second one “אֱ-לֹהִים” despite the letters not corresponding to this pronunciation. It is important to compassionately know where someone is coming from, but a true critical eye can perceive the far-reaching implications of the idea and can identify what it can lead to. The Torah invites us each to be truth-seekers, but we should not take truth for granted, and this model of communication  encourages the inquisitive mind to be open to hear the other side but to be ready to probe deeper and investigate.  

The second lesson that I want to call attention to in Numbers 19:1 has less to do with the disposition one must assume when receiving information, and more to do with the burden of being a transmitter of information. The two ideas are in lockstep with one another, and we can derive this lesson from the words that bookend this sentence. It is peculiar enough that the sentence repeats the word to “Say”, but it is even more striking that the Torah uses a different root in both instances, initiating with “דַבֵּ֣ר” and concluding with “אמֹֽר”. To understand the difference between these synonyms we can turn back to the rabbinic tradition. The rabbis distinguish the word “אמֹֽר” as a softer or dampened version of “דַבֵּ֣ר”. This teaches that when communicating it is important to be exacting in our language. It is important to present as little ambiguity in ones intent and to make an effort to speak concretely and veer from abstractions. “דַבֵּ֣ר” can also mean thing/object, while the letters of “אמֹֽר” are the same for the word “light”.    However, even in an ideal circumstance when one communicates with sharp precision, the transaction of information will always occur with an altered meaning. As the sentence passes from G-d to Moses, the word say instantaneously changes. Words reverberate with a multitude of meanings that are particular to everyone’s own lived experiences and so the pristine, objective meaning that a phrase carries when it is first conceived, will always be infused with the dna of each preceding individual in the chain of dissemination as it reasserts itself into new peoples’ minds eye. The interpretive deference given to those who stand in closer temporal proximity to the source is a core tenet of Jewish hermeneutics. The awareness that, over the coarse of an extended game of “Bro Kin Telephone”, information will metamorphose, imposes a degree of onus on the messenger to have the foresight as to what will unravel. 

And so, it is necessary to have a clear and concrete message to give, but to be able to alter the tone, and to soften the message in order for it to be best received. This phraseology introduces a divine quote. Therefore, we continue to follow G-d’s voice even after the “אמֹֽר” is uttered. This gives the “אמֹֽר” a character of softening oneself in order to stay with the other person as they process, and implement their new found information. This goes beyond anticipating what a statement will lead to, but staying present with them in order to, first, align the receivers with the message’s initial intention and then to allow flexibility without compromising the integrity of the first party. We often don’t remember the exact words that someone tells us, but the way that person makes us feel. The imprint of the “אמֹֽר” is what lingers in the aftermath, and so it is important to aspire that a conversation lead to fortification of the relationship once the words, themselves, fade and what’s left are the two tangoers.       

Welcome to the 21st century. The name of the communication game is a little different and the orders of magnitude of messengers and receivers are amplified. We have left the treacherous physical conditions of the desert and entered the wild west of a, perhaps equally as callous, communication wilderness. If you’re new in town, let me introduce you to the world wide web. The internet has some unique features. It’s been used as a an instrument of political mobilization in a profoundly novel way. The ability to leverage the power of social media to galvanize the masses and to rapidly see the fruits of the labor of these efforts is truly a hallmark of our time. The last decade saw a chain reaction of consecutive grassroots movements harnessing the potential of social media and feeding off of each other’s successes from the Arab Spring in the Maghreb, to the #MeToo movement over here. However, the incentive and facility of being able to spread misinformation has simultaneously led to a menacing game. Prioritizing the spread of what’s eye-grabbing or sensational has insidious side effects where controversy-for-controversy sake is more desirable than integrity-for-humanity’s sake. In this same era, attention spans have stymied and audiences have turned their heads away from traditional media with its degradated battery. However, the super-saturation of information, and the uninformed vitriolic diatribes make it challenging to parse out the truth from the folly on new-media. The free market of targeted story-telling has flu-like systems:

 1) Compassion Fatigue 

 2) Citing facts off the top of my head(aches)

 3) STUFFING info until who KNOWS  

 4) At each other’s (sore) throats

 5) Inflamed-nation

 and worst of all

 6) Viral Spread

In last week’s headlines we can see both sides of the bitcoin (https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2020-07-02-playstation-suspends-facebook-advertising). The hashtag #StopHateForProfit has created enough of an uproar to get a number of big companies to pull their advertisements from Facebook and Instagram. Coca Cola, Playstation, Microsoft, Starbucks and several others have taken a stand and have made demands of Facebook to be stricter on what they let pass through their sieve of acceptable content. The substantive change that was able to materialize out of thin air from a compelling hashtag and a sufficient number of retweets is nothing short of inspiring. But, on the other hand, the problem was only created through the dangers that these websites insta-gated. Allowing Facebook to exist as an open forum, where anything goes, will most certainly facilitate predatory or hedonistic conduct, but deciding when and how to intervene also leads to problematic outcomes.      

Addressing these issues becomes a game of wik-i-mole with endless questions to resolve; each with traps of their own. Does siding with these initiatives entail the advocacy of censorship? If not, should we be harsh with where we draw the limit of what constitutes free-speech? If not, should we hold the advertisers liable for the proliferation of misinformation? If not, should these websites advertise at all? If not, should they monetize their services through paid subscriptions? If so, would paid subscriptions de-democratize the widespread usage of these websites? If so, should governments front these costs to allow public access to what many perceive as a necessity? If so, would governments have access or control over these websites? If there is no way of sanely escaping these issues should these websites exist at all? If so, does the evil outweigh the good?

These questions, at their root, deal with the “דַבֵּ֣ר”-“אמֹֽר” dilemma interested in acting as a vehicle that accepts the responsibility encapsulated in being a “Messenger®”. However, all social media platforms, are designed with algorithms that weed out the heaps and piles of data in order to cater a palatable experience to its users. The individualized nature of these algorithms is crucial to the success of the platform , but it also takes for granted that the provided experience will take agency away from the user, and will manipulate the reception of information in a targeted way. This means that they are also responsible for the “יְה-וָ֔ה”-“אֶל” dilemma as well. Three dangerous side-effects that are perpetuated by these websites with sophisticated AIs is that they expediently pigeon hole their user base, pull them down a rabbit hole that they were already susceptible to falling into and aggregating all non-Atheists into Fox holes. These communities form robustly insulated echo-chambers that are packed with noise-canceling foam made from confirmation bias. Finding like-minded individuals, and building communities is one of the fruitful developments that emboldens the vitality of a society by increasing political engagement and encouraging protest politics, as mentioned earlier. What is scary is the feedback-loop that gets established in its wake. The line of communication between opposing opinions becomes severed and the residual effect is a steepened antagonization of all voices. Moral Superiority drowns out any desire towards reconciliation, and space for nuance is replaced with tendencies to double down.

A really captivating Ted Talk by Jonathan Haidt demonstrates how the intolerance Liberals have of Conservative thought (and vice versa) is existentially debilitating to the fabric of a country’s political makeup. I highly recommend watching it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SOQduoLgRw&fbclid=IwAR2wcbfSaraTOwupZ42OCtDNqNaIxwcB2rMrYDTHd8-ZeGhnJwSRboXhEsI). He explains how the Conservative propensity towards retaining traditional institutions ground us in a moral backbone that protects against entropy. Conversely, Liberal values question those established authorities and beg us to broaden our moral scope. Neither trumps the other, and when they cohesively collaborate they each hold the other side accountable in symbiotic harmony. In the Ted Talk, Haidt is fixated on the political climate surrounding Bush’s election, but we saw political gridlock play out in the last two senate elections, and that there has been increased vitriol amongst Liberals and Conservatives as if a wall is being built between them.

If we look passed the first sentence of this week’s Torah portion, we begin with the mysterious law of the Red Heifer. It is considered such a mystery that King Solomon, known for his wisdom, was able to explain the other laws, but was stumped when he wanted to explain the Red Heifer’s significance. If this does not symbolize an ancient institution that is held onto, for the sake of tradition itself, I don’t know what does. But the need for symbiosis between Conservative and Liberal thought can be further derived from the Red Heifer ritual. Rashi explains that the Red Heifer was the child of the Golden Calf, in other words the atonement for the momentary loss of faith at Mount Sinai was achieved at every Red Heifer purification ceremony. The Red Heifer was used to purify people when they were in contact with blood or death. Within the ritual there is an odd detail that is inserted in the text. The priest who performs the purification ceremony becomes impure in the process. This insinuates that similarly to G-d’s “אמֹֽר” that stays with the receiver, when bringing someone out of their state, one needs to empathize and enter that state with the other person. The juxtaposition of both purity and impurity in the ritual perplexed our rabbinic authorities. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, opens his commentary on this Torah portion with a very poignantly description of the Red Heifer “מטהר טמאים ומטמא טהורים” “The purifier of the impure and the impurifier of the pure”, in his commentary on the Torah entitled the Mekor Mayim Chaim. The Red Heifer, being a child of the Golden Calf, in one breath symbolizes death and in the next it represents new life. The Red Heifer exists in contradiction, it embraces the stability of disagreement. Especially when people are closest to the fear of death or the blooming ecstasy of birth, we see that they are quick to establish empirical dichotomies. But this is both Jonathan Haidt’s fear and the dissuasion that this portion tries to teach. We must see the entire spectrum, and appreciate the diametrically opposing perspectives equally to our own, because when we alienate them and coin them impure, we become rigid and alienate the impure within ourselves.

Much can be learnt from the two words of purity and impurity: “טהר” and “טמא”. They both start at the same place—the letter ט, with it’s numeric value of 9— but they quickly go in different directions. The point of entry as we established earlier is at birth and death. 9 is half the value of the numerological value of life, Chai, 18 and so it exists in that in between state. The number 9 in Jewish tradition exists on both registers, representing both life and death. We can easily determine its association with birth in the second to last song in the passover Seder is a childish song akin to something that would be heard on Sesame Street. The song goes through each number from 1-13 asking each of their symbolisms. Number 9 is associated with the 9 months of labor. The number 9 is also related to death. The day in which all historical calamities of Jewish History converge is, 9/11, the 9th day of the month of Av, father. The rest of the word for impure contains the word mother, “אמ”, while the rest of the word for pure has the gender neutral term for parent “הר”. The word “הר” translates to mountain, while the numerological value of impure equals 50. The 50 days of impurity are the 50 days that followed the emancipation from slavery in Egypt until the reception of the Torah at Mount Sinai. With this in mind we can see impurity as a representation of the path towards growth while purity is the instantiation of holiness. But the Temple Mount is also the location where the sin of the Golden Calf occurred, and  so the contradiction of holiness is that it must exist in tandem with impurity.  The authority of mount sinai is the source moment that attributes the destination of the oral and written tradition, and so in the metaphor of Conservative and Liberal discourse we can associate the notion of Purity with Conservative values. If we combine the word “טהר” and “טמא” we get the word Seder, which means order. The Passover Seder is the moment that we commemorate the starting point of the 50 days before Shavuot. 

In this portion there are seven distinct references to an earlier biblical story. 1) The water that is used in the Red Heifer ritual is called “מַ֥יִם חַיִּ֖ים” 

2) The Red Heifer’s hair must be completely red 3) The phrase anyone who is in contact with the dead, “הַנֹּגֵ֥עַ בְּמֵ֖ת” is repeated, 4) Moses calls the region “מֵ֣י מְרִיבָ֔ה”  The waters of quarrels 5) 7 water sources (especially wells) are referred to (1) Sea of Reeds 2) The Well of Miriam 3) Mei Merivah 4) Edom 5) Sihon 6) The Song of the Well 7) The Bank of Jordan) 6) the interaction with Edom 7) The people spoke bitterly about Moses “שִׁמְעוּ־נָא֙ הַמֹּרִ֔ים”. These seven references refer to the story of Isaac’s succession of the birthright to Jacob.

Isaac goes down to Gerar the land of King Abimelech’s Plishtim, and fibs to the people of the land, saying that Rebecca, his wife, is his sister. After, having been found out and after being perceived as a threat to the other people, he is asked to leave the area, and proceeds to find several wells, with different reactions from the people. The people attempt to reintegrate Issac back into their community, because they see how powerful he is, and Isaac reluctantly agrees. In the end he makes peace with the people and discovers another well. The chapter ends with Isaac and Rebecca’s spirit being bitter about the two wives Esau married. The 7 parallels to the story are as follows: 1) One of the wells Isaac found was called “מַ֥יִם חַיִּ֖ים”

  2) Esau’s hair was completely red 3) The punishment for touching Isaac or Rebecca is death “הַנֹּגֵ֜עַ בָּאִ֥ישׁ הַזֶּ֛ה וּבְאִשְׁתּ֖וֹ מ֥וֹת”

  4) Each of the first three new wells that Isaac finds the people quarrel of the water with the same root word וַיָּרִ֖יבוּ as the name Moses gives the region 5) There are 7 groups of wells that are referred to. The region that Isaac lives in is also called “Beer Sheva” (seven wells) 6) In the following chapter Isaac blesses Esau with the power of the Edomite kingdom. 7) Isaac and Rebecca have bitter spirits when finding out Esau’s two wives. 

        This chapter parallels the chapter just before Abraham receives the birth right, which is fitting because the last sentence of our Parsha is the final resting point before The nation enters the land— On the bank of Jordan adjacent to Jericho. In seeing the difference between Abraham and Isaac in these two stories we are able to tie together the importance of Conservative values and the importance of Liberal values. Abraham demonstrates tendencies towards left-wing ideology, non-tribalism, and economics. Abraham represented Liberal values, by virtue of breaking free from the polytheistic mould that preceded him. If we want to compare Abraham’s world philosophy to the extreme left we see that it has some Communist tendencies as well. He is willing to give up his wife, in other words his sense of property is very tenuous. Abraham wants everyone in Sodom and Gomorah to be spared based off of the goodness of the kindest. Abraham allows his descendants to marry the people of the land. Between Lot and Ishmael this is clear and even Isaac, he entrusts his servant Elazar to choose a women. Abraham does not ask Elazar to marry a women within his family, however, Elazar does add that detail when he is on the lookout for Rebecca. Isaac on the other hand, with his Conservative values, is bitter when his son does not marry within the family. Finally, Abraham gets wealthy through the Gerar government and taxes himself in order to maintain peace between he and Abimelech’s people. He mentions to Abimelech that there have been an unjust redistribution of wealth, through his own earnings and when Abimelech gives a less than satisfying response, Abraham does not protest.

Isaac’s character is different, his relationship with the world around him is very individualistic. His wealth comes from his own work and not the gifts of Abimelech. Upon finding success Isaac perceives himself as great with the triple repetition of the word “To be big” Genesis 26:13: “וַיִּגְדַּ֖ל הָאִ֑ישׁ וַיֵּ֤לֶךְ הָלוֹךְ֙ וְגָדֵ֔ל עַ֥ד כִּֽי־גָדַ֖ל מְאֹֽד” This is in contrast with the three times the term Kindness repeats itself in Abraham’s story. Isaac is scared to death of the moral base of those around him and when conflict arises, he merely leaves the others. He doesn’t allow his wife to be taken, and as soon as his property is defaced, he acts. We see his deference to the old guard, when he finds 7 new wells and names each of them after his father’s 7 wells. We then see the names of each of his wells reflect the capitalist model of scarcity of resources, and how his possessions and blessings ensnares jealousy.  He explicitly names the city the same name that his father named the city, Beer Sheva and it follows that sentence by saying it was hence called “Beer Sheva” until the present (Genesis 26:33), this line parallels the line in which Abraham inserts the eternity of G-d’s name into “Beer Sheva” (Genesis 20:33). This shows us the importance of preserving the institutions and names his father came up with. Where Abraham calls the city Be’er Sheva, with an actual purpose I.e. because of the promise made with the 7 lambs that there would be a peace treaty between Abraham and the Philistines, Isaac calls the city Be’er Sheva because he named one of his newly discovered wells, Shiva. In a way this acts as a nod that this is as things have always been. Isaac is not being innovative, but his homage to his father’s work safeguards the attempt to erase history that is seen among the Philistines. 

Abraham and Isaac pass on the birthright in similar but distinct ways. They both didn’t know which son would get the Brith right, but Abraham is willing to give up his son in a communist way of not having having any ownership over his son, while Isaac is swindled in a capitalist duping where he essentially let the market decide. When both forefathers take to Communism/Capitalism in an extreme way, with no nuance, both Abraham and Isaac lose their own agency. This is why both needed to have cross-dialogue in their political philosophy. Connecting both stories back to the Red Heifer allows both stories to be seen in a new light. The answer to the Birthright mistake given at Mount Sinai is to return back to Edom. Esav is a character that lives consciously of his mortality at all times 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: