I love going into the Nursery School. It is always such a breath of fresh air. These little human beings express themselves so honestly, without the inhibitions which they will acquire soon enough.
Every year, the nursery school celebrates the morning of Purim, and I get to join them for a visit. I usually tell them the abridged story of the Megillah, and then join them in a Purim parade. Loads of fun.
By the time I got to them this week though, they were out of control. I walked into the social hall and they all jumped up and swarmed around me, announcing themselves and their costumes.
“Look at me! Look at me! I’m a firefighter. I’m a princess. I’m Darth Vader! I’m Batman! I’m Elsa! I’m Elsa! I’m Batman! I’m Elsa! I’m Batman! I’m Elsa!” There were a lot of Elsa’s and Batman’s this year.
I was really struck by their desire to be seen and recognized. It was contagious. Once one of them announced herself, the rest soon followed, and I was soon surrounded by a gaggle of screaming preschoolers.
In just a few years, they will not be shouting out “Look at me! I’m Elsa!” But that innate need to be acknowledged will not go away. These kids will find other ways to call out for recognition, some constructive, some destructive.
It is a core human trait. We want to know that we matter. We want assurance that the people in our lives see us. In religious terms, we want to know that God cares about us.
The Israelites want the same thing. They want to know that they matter. They want to know that Moses, their leader, sees them, and is not going to abandon them. They want to know that God is with them.
As this morning’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, opens, Moses has been up on Mt. Sinai for approximately forty days – depending on who is counting. The children of Israel, encamped at the bottom, have been waiting patiently for their leader to finish talking to God, come back to them, and tell them what to do next.
But something goes wrong. Day follows day. Week follows week. Still no Moses. The people grow impatient. Rashi explains that when Moses told the Israelites that he would be gone for forty days, he meant that they should start counting that night. But the Israelites started counting right away, and so they were a day off.
In any event, the Israelites gather in front Aaron and ask him to make them a god to go before them, because “that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32:1)
Aaron gathers gold, melts it, and casts it into a mold, producing a golden calf. The people, overjoyed, announce “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4) and then plan a celebration for the next day.
This episode, the Sin of the Golden Calf, is usually depicted as one of the worst catastrophes in the Torah. Right after leaving Egypt amidst signs and wonders and receiving the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites have already violated the fundamental mitzvah of not worshipping idols.
But let’s think about it from their perspective for a moment. The Israelites do not know where they stand. Moses is gone. He had been unclear about precisely how long he would be away. When he does not show up after the allotted time has passed, the Israelites feel abandoned.
And God? God is terrifying. Brings plagues, splits seas, and drowns armies. Creates earthquakes and thunderstorms. Invisible.
So it is understandable that the Israelites are feeling a bit lost by now. They want something tangible that they can see and interact with to lead them on in their journey. They want to know that they matter, and that they have not been forgotten and abandoned in this wasteland.
What better thing to reassure them than a shiny gold cute little baby cow. Remember what they say after it comes out of the fire: “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” They are not worshipping another god. To the Israelites, this is the Lord and Moses all rolled up into one.
But God is not sympathetic to the Israelites’ fears. For making a statue, God wants to destroy them in an instant. Moses talks God down, and then hurries to see what is going on.
Moses’ reaction to the Israelites seems almost feigned. He already knows what they have done and has even spoken up on their behalf. He waits until he is actually within sight of the Golden Calf before he turns on the anger and shatters the Tablets of the Covenant.
Perhaps Moses recognizes what the Israelites are going through at that moment. Consider what he says to God afterwards when God threatens to wipe out all of the Israelites and start over with Moses. Moses refuses point blank, instead delivering God an ultimatum: “If you don’t forgive them, then You can erase me from Your book!” Why would Moses go to bat for these people unless he empathizes with them?
What God does not seem to understand yet is that the Israelites are emotionally fragile. They really do need to be reassured. Moses gets it. He understands that, as a Prophet, the intermediary between the Israelites and the Lord, it is up to him to teach God how to relate to the people.
After a bit of negotiating, Moses makes two important requests. One, he asks God to reveal God’s self to Moses. Moses wants to have a better understanding of with Whom he is dealing. The second request is on behalf of the people. “Unless You go in the lead,” Moses instructs God, “do not make us leave this place.” (Exodus 33:15) Moses knows that the Israelites need more recognition than God has given them so far.
God, scolded, agrees to both of Moses’ demands.
While no human can be exposed to God’s Presence and survive, God makes an accommodation. God summons Moses up to Mt. Sinai once again, and instructs him to hide in the cleft of a rock. The Divine Glory passes by, and Moses is able to see God’s back (whatever that means).
From then on, the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, travels with the Israelites through the wilderness as a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night.
Thanks to Moses’ insight and boldness, the Israelites finally have the reassurance they seek. They know that God is with them, because they see signs of God’s Presence. They know that God speaks to their leader, Moses, on a regular basis, because Moses himself has been permanently changed by the experience. Plus, God’s Presence descends upon the Tent of Meeting whenever Moses goes inside to commune.
In our world that is full of distractions, it can be difficult to be fully present. Gone are the times when families and friends would have to talk with one another because there was literally nothing else to do.
Nowadays, we are surrounded by electronic devices, guaranteeing that we are never bored, and offering us excuses so that we never have to be fully present with another person.
But the need to be seen and acknowledged is buried deep inside of us. It is a need that is not replaced by technology. Indeed, technology provides a lot of distractions that interfere with our ability to see one another and to interact with the world.
As I prepare to depart with my family on my sabbatical in a little over a week, I have been thinking a lot about a particular electronic device which I expect will feature prominently in my experiences – a camera. Nowadays, pretty much everybody has a camera in their pockets at all times. We have the ability to record every moment of our lives – in high definition.
Think back to a vacation you once took. Try and remember what happened. The people you were with. The sites you visited. If you are like me, you have photographs of most of those memories. It is because the photograph itself reinforces the experience. We are far less likely to remember vacation experiences for which we do not have the pictures.
Why is that? Is it that those experiences are less real, or less significant?
Not at all. Cameras have changed our brains. They have altered the ways that we store memories.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a camera person. I like to take pictures. I think I have taken some pretty good ones. The most practical class I took in high school was photography.
But for me, a camera often interferes with the experience itself. I find it difficult, if not impossible, to be fully present through a camera lens.
I suppose that for some really talented photographers, a camera can actually become an extension of oneself. When such an artist looks through the lens, he or she is indeed fully present with the subject.
But when I look through the lens, I am thinking about other things: Do I have enough light? What image do I want to focus on? How much do I want to zoom in. Is my subject backlit, or washed out? The camera then becomes a barrier to being fully present and in the moment.
This is true if I am out in nature somewhere, looking out at a gorgeous valley. It’s also true when I am with my kids. I can interact with them, roll around on the floor, cheer them on at a sports game. Or I can create a permanent record and view the experience through a glass lens.
While the camera may create a lasting image, it often comes at the forfeiture of genuine experience.
As I prepare to live in Israel for the next four months, I expect to take a lot of pictures. But I also am reminding myself that the experiences that really matter in life are the ones in which we are fully present with our environment, and the people in it.
Judaism offers us many opportunities to be Present. Right now, we are here together celebrating Shabbat. One of the blessings of Shabbat is that it forces us to pay attention to one another. To be Present, in this moment, and to not let the distractions of the week get in the way of our relationships.
Because whether it is Nursery School students clamoring for the Rabbi to acknowledge them in their Purim costumes, Israelites longing for a sign of God’s Presence to reassure them that they have not been abandoned, or our own quests for meaning in life, we human beings are hard-wired to seek opportunities to be Present.
It is those intangible moments when we truly connect with the essence of the other which matter most. May we have the courage, and the privilege to see and be seen clearly.