Ki Tissa: Erase Me

A BRIEF NOTE:   Torah from Within is a weekly commentary that tries to uncover meaning from Judaism’s most ancient text. Before I go into this week’s Torah commentary, I want to say thank you to the HUNDREDS of positive responses from last week. I can barely keep up responding to you! To all of you who have written, posted, shared, I’m touched by your positivity!  Thank you!

Many of us want to be erased. There’s this incredible urge inside of us that wells up from the depths and compels each of us to disappear for a few moments. It might sound strange, but think about it. Whether it’s in a dark movie theater watching something thrilling or at a music festival in the desert, whether it’s in a massive arena full of sports fans, in the arms of our lover, or for some at the bottom of a whiskey bottle – those moments in time where the world around us quakes with presence – are flashes of erasure. There we can let go of ourselves, our problems and our troubles and evaporate into nothingness for just a minute. We get erased.

It makes sense today why we would want to be erased. There is so much out there in the world that causes us to feel put-upon or burdened. We are burdened by our work. We are burdened by our past mistakes. We are burdened by a future of uncertainty.  Life becomes so heavy and so full of anxiety that everything feels like a fight for survival. When another person comes at us with a different opinion we want to come back at them bare-knuckled. Wouldn’t it be nice to get away and just be erased for a few minutes? A taste of rapture with no worries about the past or the future. A place where we can go to not be freighted with the daily conflicts that make us anxious – wouldn’t that be nice?

Ultimately, getting erased might feel good, but it’s an illusion.  It appears to offer an end or an arrival at a place where there is no conflict and no constraint.  It looks like a destination we’d all like to go, but it is only a mirage. Whether we erase ourselves through drugs or sex or buying that new toy or shutting our ears to those who disagree with us, being erased is only temporary. We have to come back to our lives and deal with it all. This is the dirty trick of erasure; we think that turning our back on the world is the height of experience when in reality it’s an escape from experience. This world is what there is. Erasure is an illusion. It’s nothing. It’s vapor.

We find the urge for erasure in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa. Moses is at the top of Mount Sinai and the rest of the nation is far below.  The view from above sees Moses working to engrave the two Tablets of the Law with God. The view from below, however, is something very different.  In Moses’ absence the High Priest Aaron fashions the golden calf, and says “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt!” (Ex.32:4) When Moses came down from the mountain he saw the people feasting, singing and dancing. (Ex. 32:19)  When Moses saw them in this state of ecstacy, he threw down the newly engraved Tablets of the Law, shattering them into tiny fragments.

The commentator Sforno says, “Moses became angry because of the fact that people rejoiced over the damage they caused to themselves. (Sforno Ex. 32:19)  For Sforno, it wasn’t simply idol worship that made Moses angry, it was their complete erasure. He focuses our attention on a further point in the story where the Torah states, the Israelites were “out of control, and were a menace to anyone who opposed them.” (Ex. 32:24) The sin of the golden calf is not simply idol worship, but the total evaporation of control. They lose themselves completely to the golden calf.  They take unbridled joy in breaking covenant. Dancing around the calf, ecstasy becomes mayhem and joy becomes a menace. It is a world where dissent is silenced under the din of the drum and the voices of protest are lost to the motion of the inward-facing circle.

Each of us has these “golden calf” moments where we hurt others inadvertently by ignoring their wisdom or their offer to help. Being erased might feel like openness, but it’s really a closing-off.  We go on our journey and leave others behind. We silence others by drowning ourselves in our own need to disappear. We close our world off to those who don’t think like us or look like us. Our lives actually become smaller instead of bigger because of it.  Sforno teaches that the Israelites get erased and in doing so harm their lives. Erasure hurts others and hurts ourselves.

God never expected the people to give up on the covenant so quickly. (to be fair, God has a few things to learn here too) God is enraged at the self-inflicted wound of the Israelites and wants to punish the people utterly –  to erase them as much as they wanted to erase themselves. As we reach the pinnacle of the crisis, Moses rises to the occasion and steps into the breach between God and humanity. He says, “The people are guilty of this great sin…if you do not forgive them – erase me…(Ex. 32:32)    

When everything is on the line, Moses turns the tables on God. He reminds God that erasure is not the point of religion, presence is. By placing his fate with the people, he stops the cycle of erasure and is able to tame the Divine wrath by yoking God back to the earth. The true test of the covenant is in our ability to wake ourselves up to the world, not to hide from it.  Religion is meant to step into the breach and take a stand. Not to erase it.

The world needs God, and God needs the world.  There is no other partner for God than us and no other partner for us than God. Religion achieves its earthly fullness only when we are truly open to one another and include others in our greatest moments and worst failures. It is not at the top of a mountain or in the pulsations of the dance where God is found but when one person clasps the hand of another. When we live together – actively.

The urge to be erased is real, but we must remember that when we erase ourselves, we erase others. Learning this lesson we renew our spiritual life- new tablets are carved and forgiveness is possible. Grace is possible. We move deeper into the wilderness together.

Shabbat Shalom

One comment

  • Another splendid piece, Noah. I was struck by the relevance of our desire for erasure as one trope of the tragic and growing phenomenon of mental illness/suicide (the ultimate erasure).

    On a lighter note, I must confess that as a privileged inheritor of the Jewish tradition of study and learning, I’ve noticed that it is often during the most difficult, demanding efforts to study or write that I experience the temporary pleasurable erasure of any sense of time or fatigue or every-day concerns — I would miss dinner or bedtime if my wife didn’t take pity and bring me back into the real world. (Something similar happened once or twice in my life playing tennis or skiing, when I experienced a real change in the sense of time: what they mean by playing “in the zone.”)

    Thank you so much for sharing your gifts with the community.

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