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Ki Tissa 5782     February 19, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

     The singing group, “The Loving Spoonful” released a song in 1965 called, “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind”. It would be a great theme song for this week’s Parsha. In both the Torah reading and the Haftara reading, the people of Israel are having trouble making up their mind.

     In Exodus, for example, the people had just heard the voice of God at Mt. Sinai but just a few weeks later are so terrified that something might have happened to Moshe Rabbenu that they convince Aaron to build for them a Golden Calf to replace Moses and to finish leading them through the desert to the Promised Land. After just learning that God will not tolerate other gods, they create a new god to lead them in Moses’s absence. Needless to say, it does not end well. Moses returns, the tablets of the law are broken, the calf is destroyed, and many of those who turned to worship that calf have been killed. The rest of the Israelites are “convinced” that they should stay close to God.

     In the Haftara, Elijah the prophet accuses the people of “hopping between two convictions.” Is God real or should they worship Baal? In fact, what they do in any single situation seems to be to follow the easier path. Sometimes, when convenient, they follow Baal, and sometimes, when necessary, they follow the God of Israel. It takes a monumental test to show them which is the correct choice and still Elijah wonders if they are really convinced or will they start hopping back and forth again in the future.

     “Well, you know you have to make up your mind, say yes to one and leave the other behind, it’s not often easy, it’s not often kind, but you know you have to make up your mind.”

     We have read ahead in the Torah, and we know that this will become the theme of the entire Bible. The People of Israel will have a tough time trying to wrap their heads around this invisible God that goes everywhere with them. To be like all the other people in the world, the Israelites wish to keep the God they worship nearby, easy to see and easy to talk to. Easy to appease and easy to convince to help them out of their trouble. Not too many demands and not too many responsibilities. And yet the power of the God of Israel is unquestionable. God sends plagues to Egypt, drowns the Egyptian army, provides food and water in the desert, and protects the people from all dangers. The God of Israel is a good god to have when standing on the precipice of danger.

      In the haftarah, Elijah accuses the People of Israel of hopping between two branches, straddling two worlds. But Elijah is accusing us as well. We change our minds so frequently that we can’t be said to believe anything. We have no stability. Even though, like the Israelites who follow Elijah after he wins the showdown, how can they be trusted and how can we be trusted not to stray back to our former shaky position? Can we even say we are changing our minds when we make no decisions and hold no convictions? We jump from branch to branch, following the latest fad, whether it is Aaron’s golden calf or Elijah’s fire beating the prophets of Baal.

     Both of these stories are part of the deep mythology of our people. Jews have a long history of sin and repentance. Straying from our God and then, in the face of disaster, returning. Clearly this is all part of the story about a God who is demanding but who is merciful and compassionate. God knows who we are, and God gives us the space to learn our lessons and return to faithfulness. This is an important lesson to take away from this week’s readings. But there is also a deeper lesson, one that not only applies to generations past, but to lessons that we can take hold of today.

     Bex Stern Rosenblatt, a teacher at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, writes in this week’s parsha lesson from the Fuchsberg Center, this assessment of the Haftara reading. She writes, “So Elijah prays. He asks for a deeper change, a return. As Robert Alter translates, Elijah says, “Answer me, LORD, answer me, that this people may know that You are the LORD God, and that it is You Who turned their heart backward.” Elijah may be thanking God in advance for allowing the people to return to God. Alternatively, Elijah may be accusing God of causing the people to go astray in the first place. Either way, it is a change brought about by an external power. We are not just hopping about, rather God is acting on our hearts. This type of change calls to mind the accusation God levels at us in this week’s parasha, calling us a stiff-necked people. We are proud and stubborn, insistent in our righteousness when we follow the flighty thoughts of a mob, but reluctant to examine ourselves closely and change ourselves. It’s a challenge to answer these accusations, to stop flitting from popular opinion to popular opinion and instead to examine our actual convictions.

     What is it that we actually believe in? I think we spend way too much of our time trying to figure out how “NOT” to decide. We are terrified that we might make a wrong decision, so terrified that we find it easier not to decide at all until we have to. This is all the more common in our days of email and social media. We try not to commit to any program, party, or invitation until the last minute. Sometimes we are waiting to see if we will get a better invitation from somewhere else. We do not commit until we have to.

     There is a whole culture now in American society, where people are promoted by their ability to convince us of what we should do, what we should buy and what we should think. Consider how news organizations are no longer just concerned with promoting the facts of what is newsworthy, now the line between journalism and opinion has become so blurred that it is almost impossible to tell the difference. Just this past year, we have seen multiple cases in multiple news organizations, where those broadcasting their facts and opinions are directly and personally influencing the actions of the same people who are the focus of these same news programs. We never really know if what we read and see in the media is really what is happening or if it has all been staged for the most impact in our society.

     And while this is serious when it is trying to influence our opinion on matters as critical as how we select who we will vote for and what we hope our government will accomplish, it also filters down to even the most mundane facets of society. Everything that we do in public is now recorded, analyzed, and researched so others can precisely target their sales to us. There are places where shopping carts in supermarkets know what aisle we are in and target the advertising in the cart to what we are looking at in the moment. There are stores that record everything you look at online in order to predict what you might want next. For example, if we order maternity clothing the store calculates when we are likely to have our baby and then target advertising for diapers and baby clothing after that date.

     If you look up a store online to buy some luggage, our online browsing later will feature advertising related to travel. If we buy a shirt, we will become the target of every shirt retailer looking to get our business. The hope is always that we will not make up our mind until we are sure that we have the best deal and so we are bombarded with good deals. And even after we have made our decision, we are still bombarded with advertising so that next time we might choose differently.

     And then there are groups of people who are called “influencers.” These are people who have so many followers on social media that what they do influences the actions of all their followers. These are like little cults. It is nothing new for designers to set styles for the coming spring or fall, but now they can influence our decisions moment by moment. Why should we want to miss out on the latest new “thing”? And we want it just as soon as it becomes a “thing.” That is, of course, until we are told that our “thing” is so yesterday and today we must have a new “thing.”  Unable to decide, we are always chasing what is just over the horizon.

     It does not have to be this way. The prophet Micha taught us long ago, “You know what God requires of us, only to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.” In Pirke Avot, in the Talmud, ben Zoma teaches, “Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with what he or she already has.” Our inability to decide is making other people very wealthy. It does nothing of any value for us. If we stand for everything then we stand for nothing.

     How long will we be hopping between different opinions? How do we know what is the right thing to say, think, or do? The short answer is that we never really know anything for sure. Only God has all the necessary information. We have to look at our lives, consider the possibilities and then set our course of action. We have to be open to innovative ideas and new ways of doing things, but they are not all good just because the ideas are new. In the book of Kohelet, it reminds us on almost every page, “There is nothing new under the sun.” More often than not, what we see as new is something quite old that has just been repackaged for modern times.

     My mother sold shoes for most of her life. But she did not have a closet full of shoes. She had a small selection of assorted styles and heels so that no matter what was stylish on any given day, she already had it in her closet. How many different styles are there really to choose from? I am one of five children, four boys spread over 17 years. Whatever my older brothers wore that they did not wear out, was put away until in became stylish again and then it was handed down to my little brother and me.

     Elijah is reminding us that we should be true to ourselves. We should examine our personal choices in the light of who we are and who we want to be. We need to examine ourselves closely and work to change ourselves with the same intensity that we examine what we think everyone else is doing. Judaism has been going against the grain theologically from most other religions from its very inception. For centuries it has made people of other faiths crazy that we do not conform. Those other faiths, some have come and gone. Judaism is still here. It still stands for One God, the importance of all human life and that saving a life is like saving the world.

     Jewishly, it does not matter how big our house is, how expensive our car is or how many things we own. What matters is how much we give away. It is not about what we get, but it is often about what we can forget. It still costs us nothing to love our neighbors as ourselves.

     Let us examine our convictions. Let us not chase after the false gods of materialism and popular opinion. Let us proclaim this day and every day, as all Israel does at the end of our Haftara, “Adonai Hu Elohim – Adonai is the true God”

     May God help us to decide today and to choose what is right, to choose what is just and to choose what we know to be the best path for all humanity as we say……. Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783