Sunday, March 8, 2020

Ki Tissa: Making a Difference


One of the challenges we face in working on climate change is the trap of hopelessness.  Because the problem is so immense, in both scope and consequences, it is easy to despair of our ability to make a difference—and without faith that our actions matter, we are likely to do nothing. 

Our Torah portion for this week—and some commentary on it, old and new—offers an important insight into this conundrum.

Ki Tisa presents the infamous episode of the Golden Calf.  After forty days atop Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah from God, Moses heads down with great energy and enthusiasm, ready to bring the Word to his beloved Israelite people.  But when he sees what they have done in his absence, constructing and then worshiping an idol of gold, he becomes enraged and despondent: “As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the [people] dancing, he grew furious.  He hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.”

This account in Exodus raises a significant difficulty: Even though he is understandably angry, how can Moses intentionally destroy God’s handiwork, containing the Divine Name?  The midrash Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer offers an ingenious answer to this problem.  It proposes that in the instant Moses beheld the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, the letters flew off the stones and they became too heavy for him to bear.  In other words, Moses did not throw the tablets—he dropped them out of exhaustion.  This gets him off the hook for demolishing God’s words—for God’s words are no longer on the tablets when they shatter.  It also suggests that Moses was a victim of hopelessness.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner interprets the scene: “When Moses felt he was bringing God’s word to a people eager to receive it, he was capable of doing something difficult and demanding.  When he had reason to suspect that his efforts were in vain, the same task became too hard for him.”

Our efforts to combat catastrophic climate change can feel very much like this.  When we can’t see ourselves making a difference, the task becomes inordinately difficult.  That is why it is important to remind ourselves that what we do really does matter.  The website offers three reassuring truths to keep us going:

1.     The size of an individual’s footprint is mind-boggling. 
Our impact over a lifetime really adds up!

2.     The macro dictates the micro.   
When enough citizens, employees, and consumers start to advocate for climate-friendly policies and products, government officials and companies will step up to supply them.  By using our power, we incentivize better products, services, and innovation.  Each of us plays a role in this.

3.     The ripple effect—we are a highly social species.
Sustainability can and will start to spread rapidly once it gets going. If just one person starts acting sustainably – if you start acting sustainably others are sure to start following suit. You won’t even know all the people you influence. By being the change you wish to see, you will have an outsized impact and help to build momentum in the fight against climate change.

As our Torah portion ends, Moses and God and the people of Israel reconcile.  The sacred labor of building the mishkan, the portable sanctuary, continues and takes up the rest of the book of Exodus.  God and Moses learn that their labors are not in vain—but that progress is incremental, and often filled with setbacks.  The Israelites are given a second chance—and this time, fare better.  Each side learns to see its work as meaningful, and that sense of purpose will sustain them for forty years in the desert. 

So may it be with our sacred labor on behalf of God’s creation.

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