Over the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur.
- Gabriel García Márquez, The Autumn of the Patriarch
Gabriel García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch opens with a city waking up to the stench of rot coming from the presidential palace. For years they have been governed by an illusion, the shape of a man long dead propped up by myth and fear. Marquez's novel follows the unraveling of this dictatorship from multiple perspectives, closing when the people finally believe that the "uncountable time of eternity had come to an end" (Márquez).
In Parshat Ki Tisa, we learn that even though the Israelites have left Egypt, they carry with them the shape of a dictator long gone. While Moses speaks with God on Mount Sinai, recording the laws by which this new nation will live, the Israelites ask Aaron to make them a new deity, who according to midrash, was "like those of the Egyptians" (Pirke de-rabbi Eliezer, 45).
Aaron instructs the people to "take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me" (Exodus 32:2). In Aaron's call to the people, we hear an echo of God's voice in Parshat Terumah (read just two weeks ago), instructing the Israelites - every person whose heart so moves them - to bring aterumah, a gift, of gold, silver, or copper to build the mishkan, the movable sanctuary where the Israelites will worship God in the desert (Exodus 25:2).
After Aaron constructs the golden calf, he says: "Eleh elohecha, Yisrael - This is your god, Israel" (Exodus 32:4). Here again we hear an echo of an earlier episode: Moses and the Israelites singing God's praises after the splitting of the Red Sea and the passage to freedom. "Zeh eli v'anveihu"- this is my God and I will worship Him (Exodus 15:2). What of the Exodus? What of the mishkan? Is this, as the Sages of the Talmud proclaim, a sign that the people have accepted idolatry (Avodah Zerah 53b)?
On the cusp of freedom, the people demand a god like that of their oppressors, they seek to worship a dictator who is dead and rotting. What is the origin of this impulse? In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freier writes, "Under the sway of magic and myth, the oppressed…cannot perceive clearly the 'order' which serves the interests of the oppressors whose image they have internalized" (Paulo Freier, Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Though they have left Egypt, the land of their oppressors, the memory of Egypt looms large in the Israelite camp. Yet this episode is not the end of Israel's story, but rather a foundational lesson in dismantling oppressive structures and healing from trauma.
When Moses returns with the tablets and sees the people worshiping an Egyptian god, the Torah says he becomes enraged, shattering the tablets at the foot of the mountain (Exodus 32:19). Yet we learn from midrash that God ordered Moses to carry forward into the wilderness both the broken shards and the new tablets (Deuteronomy 10:1-3; BT Bava Batra 14b).
Why carry both the broken and the whole? Why sacralize the scars of this painful episode? Perhaps this act of rebellion, followed by an embrace of their brokenness, is the moment that Israel truly leaves Egypt and finds liberation from their internalized oppression.
On liberation and revolution, Freire writes, "Dialogue with the people is radically necessary to every authentic revolution…to impede communication is to reduce men to the status of 'things'-and this is a job for oppressors, not for revolutionaries" (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed). As Moses learns, true liberation cannot be initiated from the top down. It is a horizontal and collaborative project which re-humanizes and heals those who carry the scars of oppression. All people have a stake in their own freedom.
Ki Tisa offers a lesson for all people who seek to tear down the houses of Pharaohs and build new communal structures which honor every person's sacred dignity. In the words of Audre Lorde, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change" (Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches). The golden calf, the idol which comes to define all other idols, is a tool of Pharaoh's house, a false god which obscures the liberating force of the God of the Exodus.
At the foot of Mount Sinai, a mixed multitude of former slaves became a people. At Mount Sinai, the Israelites witnessed the revelation of the God of the Exodus, the God of liberation who brought them out of bondage in Egypt, the God who took down the house of Pharoah. In her retelling of the Exodus story, Zora Neale Hurston writes of the transformative impact of God's law, not only on the Israelites, but on the world. With Torah:
Men could be free because they could govern themselves. They had something of the essence of divinity expressed in order. They had the chart and compass of behavior. They need not stumble into blind ways and injure themselves. This was bigger than Israel itself. It comprehended the world. Israel could be a heaven for all men forever, by these sacred stones (Zora Neale Hurston, Moses Man of the Mountain).
Through the Torah, God gave the world the tools to dismantle Pharaoh's house, to wake up to the stench of rot around us and participate in the project of liberation.