This week synagogues around the country will read from parsha Ki Tisa, a powerful portion which includes not only the Decalogue, but the famous (or infamous) golden calf story. We’re all taught it as youngsters in religious school. Moses is up on the mountain too long. The crowd starts to doubt, and comes at Aaron as a mob. Aaron gives in to the mob, and together they build a new god for themselves, made from their gold, and shaped into a calf.
When reading a Torah portion, I am always surprised when a new meaning comes from it. It is how our Torah remains alive to us, always providing us with morals and lessons thousands of years later. This year, when reading the story again, I became heartbroken, because I began to see something I had not before. A devastatingly true connection to synagogue life today.
Moses, the great rabbi, the great teacher, has left the congregation alone at the base of the mountain. He leaves his priest, his trusted ally, a man of the people, in charge of the congregation. For awhile, all is well, the people keep the faith. But time goes by, and emotions take hold, instinct takes over. The people get restless, they start to doubt, they forget what they have experienced, forget what they have learned, forget the system in place, and form a mob to rally against their leader. When cornered by the mob, Aaron did not defend his fearless leader, Moses, did not tell them to have patience, did not try to explain their lack of judgment, no, he yelled out “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” Aaron, the sacred priest of Moses and the Jewish people, caved. He took the easy way out. He gave them what they wanted, not what they needed, forming a molten calf and declaring “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” In this sentence, Aaron erases the memory of Moses, God, their work, their struggles, and says, “no, they did nothing.” Imagine that, here Aaron had an opportunity to support their leader, maybe Moses wasn’t perfect, but he was their leader. It was Aaron’s job to support him, to follow him. Instead, he followed the mob. He caved under the pressure.
It is a terribly sad story: Aaron who was put in charge of a congregation while the leader was missing, joined the mob and turned the Israelites 180 degrees, helping them to forget who they were, forget their purpose, forget their God. And worship: money. A God they could see.
Each week I speak to my rabbinic mentors, sometimes we study together, sometimes we just speak, and more and more I hear that congregations of all walks of life are changing. Congregations are relying upon rabbis less and less, and focusing on whatever they can to survive. URJ leaders themselves have stated recently that rabbis have begun to have to sacrifice their integrity, for the fear of losing members, losing income. In other words, Jewish law, Jewish ritual, and Jewish traditions, are all being ignored or swept under the rug, to make the powerful and the wealthy happy, and to keep our congregants in the door. I am not saying that religious institutions are dancing around the golden calf, worshipping a creation from their own valuables. But I’m afraid we might be heading there. We know people are leaving synagogues and churches all over the country. Religious affiliation is shrinking, people’s religious views are changing, the world is becoming more secular, and at the same time more fundamentalist. Education is down, teachers are underpaid, and praise is given to the loudest voice, no matter how ignorant. People are believing that they do not need anything to guide them except their internet phones, and a link to Wikipedia. The world is filling with Aarons, instead of Moses’. Aaron was popular for those moments, he joined and led a crowd, set up a festival of the new god, the golden calf which they praised at the base of God’s holy mountain. A student of mine remarked this week, that knowing Aaron and his position, his responsibility, the story just didn’t make sense. The truth is, it makes perfect sense. And what happened at the base of Mt. Sinai is happening around us. The Moseses are leaving, and the Aarons are taking their place. And what’s funny is that everyone seems so surprised when Moses gets angry on his way back down the mountain. I wasn’t surprised.
I, as the Rabbi, have found myself getting angry. I’m angry that lay leaders cave under the pressure of strong personalities, a mob, the threats of losing membership, or losing income. I’m angry that money steers us where to go rather than Jewish values. And I’m angry that my colleagues seem to shrug it off as simply a part of the rabbinate. Where are the rabbis of old? Perhaps they are on the mountain, trying to connect to God, but perhaps…they are long gone and what’s left are Aarons, not hesitating to give in to the loud voices of complaint, sacrificing our integrity to keep the wealthy happy, to keep membership up. God forbid we stand our ground! All of my colleagues know the phone calls we receive when we say “no” to a congregant, especially a powerful one. Perhaps at this point we have no choice. The system isn’t working as it used to. People are leaving. Each dollar counts, each member counts. But in reading Ki Tisa, I was saddened by the state of affairs in congregations, saddened that we have become the crowd at the base of Sinai, and sad that I do not see a Moses coming down the mountain.
What is there to do? In truth, there is a long and difficult road ahead of us, but many synagogues are taking the leaps necessary to evolve and change. Like all revolutionary changes, it begins from the bottom up, down in the grassroots. It is synagogues around the world that are challenging the status quo which are blossoming, and sending the message up the ladder to the religions unions and organizations. And the rabbis and lay leaders of these congregations? They are Moseses, not Aarons. They listen to the mob, listen to the crowd, and say, “no.” They steer the congregation away from temptation, away from comfort-ability, and instead push them hard out of the wilderness, and into the promised land. The URJ President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, stated recently, “Unless we change our approach, there is little chance that Jews in their 20s and 30s will even enter the revolving door of synagogue affiliation.” I was proud to see the addition to the URJ, April Baskin the Vice-President of “Audacious Hospitality” in Reform Judaism. For too long congregations have not been meeting people where they are, but rather where they were twenty years ago. The goal of Jewish leaders, today, is to begin the healing process for those who have lost their passion, understandably so, and to allow the new and young minds to steer us into what will be the new way of approaching religion and synagogue affiliation. We’ve spent too much time dancing around an idol, the memories of our glory days; its time to smash the old to pieces and press on as a people.