Parshat Ki Tisa • Exodus 30:11-34:35

I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to be Moses. Putting myself in his shoes (or, more likely, his sandals) I can only surmise that he was one exhausted dude. Leading a massive group through the wilderness with no map, no compass; nothing to guide him but hope and faith and a direct line to Hashem… how anxiety-inducing! How tsuris-ridden! How crazy-making! How would anyone be able to take on the burden of that level of leadership?

When we come to parshat Ki Tisa, we witness the ultimate Peter-Finch-as-Howard-Beale-“I’m Mad as Hell” speech-moment in the Torah. Moses emerges from Sinai with the tablets of stone, sees the people cavorting about a golden calf born of impatience and mistrust, and hurls the two tablets given to him by God, shattering them to pieces. So enraged is Moses that he “took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and made the Israelites drink it.” (Exodus 32:20) Not my top choice for a fine desert refreshment.

Yet a few paragraphs later, it’s clear Moses’ anger has subsided. In its place is his old friend doubt. As Moses speaks to God, it is clear he is stuck. Betrayed by the group, tablet-less, and uncertain of their direction forward, Moses says to God, “you say to me, ‘lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. Further, You have said ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed gained My favor.’ Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, so that I may know You and continue in Your favor.” (Exodus 33:12-13) Moses asks God for a sign that they’ll be okay – and a sign he gets: God reveals God’s back to Moses, the backbone serving as a symbol of strength and fortitude in uncertain times.

As we celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim this week, we are reminded again of an uncertain moment in our people’s story. When Esther and Mordechai raise their voices to save the Jewish people from total annihilation, they show Ahasuereus their backbones as proud Jews determined to survive. Despite its silliness and its costumes and frivolity, Purim is truly a recognition of a dire moment in Jewish history. Indeed, scholars frequently refer to Purim as “Yom Kippur – Yom ha’ki-PURIM” in disguise.

And so this week, as we celebrate Esther’s bravery and Mordechai’s boldness; as we stuff our faces with hamentaschen (my preference is gluten free dough with Nutella filling, FYI) and don our costumes for Sunday’s Purim shpiel and carnival in Seattle, let us remember that beneath the surface of this raucous holiday is indeed a much more serious message of hope, survival, and strength: a backbone of faith – like that which God revealed to Moses in Ki Tisa – is the undercurrent, sustaining us and helping us reach this present day.

Chag Purim Sameach,

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

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