Cathy and I finally had a chance to watch the Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. I was surprised by how dark and sad the movie gets in the middle as Freddie Mercury, the lead singer, sinks into the depths of substance abuse under the spell of a personal manager who does not have Freddie’s interests at heart. In the midst of this moment in his life he meets someone whom he will eventually be in a healthy relationship until his passing at age 45. During his first encounter with Jim, Freddie says, “I like you very much.” Jim’s response is, “Come and find me when you like yourself.” After all, how can you hope to be in a healthy relationship when you do not like yourself?
This may be the fundamental problem of our day. I am finding it more and more difficult to listen to the news, read the newspaper, and open up email from various other news sources. The level of personal attack is unprecedented. I find that people no longer care to focus on the positive or even on the critical issues of the day. Personal attacks, the demonization of the other, continues to dominate the public square.
The Torah portion for this week, Ki Tisa, from the Book of Exodus, continues the instructions for building the Tabernacle and how to use it effectively. The opening words called out to me with new urgency. Ki Tisa, when you lift up, when you take note of the people, see them as unique individuals each one of whom is vital to the strength of the community. Moses is told to treat all of them equally. Each person is to donate a ½ shekel to the functioning of the Tabernacle.
Moses is told to lift each person up perhaps to emphasize to each the value inherent within. It is no accident that this same portion contains the great sin of the Golden Calf. Even in acknowledging the value of each person there is the reminder that they are human and prone to great error.
Even so, there is forgiveness and there is instruction. Moses reminds God that these are not irredeemably evil people. Their actions, though evil, are not beyond redemption. The people are not denigrated. Even Aaron, who mistakenly guides them down this path, is not demonized. Aaron actually becomes the model for peace makers.
The Mussar masters see in this text a model for how we should act in this world. Moses, in the midst of this crisis, looks to God for better understanding of what God desires of us and what we should desire for ourselves. Moses asks to see God’s face. What Moses receives is a glimpse of the middot, the attributes, the character traits of God that we are to emulate and bring into better balance.
Moses “hears” or experiences these attributes as a vocal list. God is merciful and gracious. God is slow to anger and filled with great compassion, extending forgiveness endlessly offering up a clean slate. These middot, though they are easy to list, are quite difficult to practice. But, this is a time that calls for us to redouble our efforts. We must strive to lift people up and assume the best about them. Mercy and compassion should be at the forefront of how we treat those around us. How important it is to be slow to anger and quick to forgive. Yes, people do err and hurt us, sometimes quite deeply. But perhaps what makes us angry in these moments is fueled by the recognition of these same faults in ourselves.
Ki Tisa, when we lift ourselves up and see the value inherent in being created in the image of God, we can see this in others as well. Ki Tisa, let us reenergize ourselves to be more God-like, exhibiting the attributes of the Holy One in our lives: gracious, kind and merciful, slow to anger, and quick to forgive.
Rabbi Paul F. Cohen, D.Min., D.D.