Divrei Torah BlogsHuman RightsKi Tisa

Ki Tisa 5767 – The Power of the Story

Golden_calf For people who witnessed a lot of miracles, like the plagues in Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea, our ancestors did not show a lot of faith.

Not long after the miracles of leaving Egypt, Moses went up on Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments from God. This week’s Torah reading, Ki Tisa, tells us that when Moses was delayed coming down from the mountain the people told Aaron, “…Make us gods, which shall go before us; we have no idea what happened to this Moses guy who brought out us out of Egypt.” 

Aaron told them, “take the golden earrings from your wives, your sons, your daughters, and bring them to me.” So the people brought their gold to Aaron and he took it, and the Torah tells us that he fashioned a molten calf. The people said “These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation, and said, “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.” And they rose up early on the next day, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.

God saw what was going on, and angrily told Moses “Go down; for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; They have turned aside quickly from the way which I commanded them; they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said, These are your gods, O Israel, which have brought you out of the land of Egypt…”

We read this story, and the people of Israel seem impatient, unfaithful, and in a hurry to turn astray. Aaron, the high priest, seems just as ready to act the role of high priest to a golden calf as he is to serve as high priest to the Lord our God.

But there is another way to tell the story. Drawing on sources in the Talmud and Midrash, the story comes out very differently:

The people saw that Moses was late coming down from the mountain. Moses said he would be gone 40 days, and people were sure that the 40 days were up. They were confused because Satan had come and confused them, displaying an image of darkness and gloom. The people saw this as meaning that Moses must have died up on the mountain, and they were afraid. The people felt that only a god could lead them as well as Moses had led them, and they needed a physical representation of that god, just as Moses had been present physically.

The people told Aaron “…Make us gods, which shall go before us; we have no idea what happened to this Moses guy who brought out us out of Egypt.” Aaron was desperate to try and delay them, so he told them, “take the golden earrings from your wives, your sons, your daughters, and bring them to me.” Aaron figured that women and children would be reluctant to part with their gold, and in the meanwhile maybe Moses would come down from the mountain. But the people did not delay, they rapidly gave Aaron their gold. So Aaron took the gold and threw it into the fire.

Now when the people of Israel left Egypt they were accompanied by an “erev rav,” by a large mixed multitude of other people who were eager to leave Egypt. Amongst this mixed multitude were skilled sorcerers, and when Aaron threw the gold into the fire they used witchcraft to create the Golden Calf. Aaron was startled when the Golden Calf came out of the fire and these foreigners said “These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”

When Aaron saw the people were eager to worship the Golden Calf he took it on himself to build an altar, figuring he could do it slowly, and perhaps Moses would finally get down from the mountain before the people could actually worship it. He also figured it’s better that he should build the altar and take the blame for it then for all of Israel to take the rap. He then told the people, “tomorrow is a feast to the Lord,” hoping Moses would return, and the people would forget all about the Golden Calf and would return to the Lord. 

God saw what was going on, and angrily told Moses “Go down; for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.” By this God meant “Your people, that mixed multitude you decided to bring out of Egypt, not My people,” i.e., the Israelites.

Same story – but a very different conclusion. In the first version the people of Israel are a bunch of sinners, and Aaron is their ringleader. In the second version, the people of Israel are innocent bystanders and Aaron is a hero trying to prevent the people from falling into idol worship. The Midrash even blames God for letting the people collect so much gold from the Egyptians – God should have known the people would be tempted to sin with so much gold!

Why did the later rabbis put such a “gloss,” do such a job of “spinning” the tale told in the Bible? It’s probably at least in part because of a natural desire to see one’s ancestors as honorable, and a tendency we all have toward scape-goating, to blame others for our own faults.

It’s bad enough when that kind of re-telling of a story happens within a context of talking to yourself – and that’s what the Midrash is – the Jewish people telling stories to themselves to try to make sense of their history and traditions. But when you have two different peoples telling competing stories of the same events, two peoples who are thrown together in a contentious relationship, the power of the different stories is a real barrier to mutual understanding and peace. And nowhere is this problem more pronounced than in the different versions of the story of the founding of the State of Israel that are told by Israelis and Palestinians.

How do you make peace with someone whose entire view of recent history is COMPLETELY different than yours?

For Jews, 1948 stands out as one of our finest hours – tiny, beleaguered Israel heroically stood up to vastly superior Arab forces in the War of Independence which gave birth to our dream of 2000 years, an independent Jewish state in Palestine.

For Palestinians the war of 1948 is called “Al-Nakba,” “The Catastrophe,” a time when the colonizing Zionists, with international support, expelled hundreds of thousands of Arabs from their homes and turned them into refugees.

The versions of the period leading up to 1948, and the period after the war, are equally out of synch.

The way we tell the story is that there has been a continuous Jewish presence in Israel going back to the days of Joshua. At times our presence was small in number and we were persecuted, but we’ve always been there. In the 1800s, wealthy Jews from the West, like the Rothschilds and Montefiore, began to buy up land in Israel, much of which had been vacant, or swamps, with the goal of bringing Jews to settle and build the land. The idea was to bring “a people without a land to a land without a people.” Jews living miserable lives in places like Ukraine, Russia, and Poland, were encouraged to move to Israel “livnot u’l’hibanot” to build and be built: to build a country, and at the same time to build themselves into a new kind of Jew— not a yeshiva bucher or a pale-faced ghetto dweller,, but a farmer and builder, working the land, with a plow in one hand and a gun in the other.

Under the British mandate Jews were given great hope by the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which said “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.” The British, however, caved in to Arab pressure, and in the dark days of the late 1930s, as anti-Semitism was spreading in Europe, they refused to allow open immigration of Jews to Israel. During and after the Holocaust, Jews working to save their brethren were frequently frustrated by the British.

In 1947 there were 600,000 Jews living peacefully in the land of Israel, on land that had been legally acquired by the Jewish agency, mostly from absentee Turkish landlords. In 1947 the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Even though it would have meant a very small Jewish state, without Jerusalem, with borders virtually impossible to defend, the Jews accepted the United Nations proposal. The Arabs rejected it. In May of 1948, the Jews announced the formation of a state in accordance with the UN’s vote; the Arabs, rejecting the UN proposal, immediately attacked the tiny and vulnerable Jewish state. Through their fierce determination and lack of other choices, Israel defeated the numerically superior and better-equipped Arab forces arrayed against her.

During the course of the war, Arab leaders encouraged Palestinians to leave the combat zone so they wouldn’t be in the way of Arab soldiers. The vast majority of Palestinians left because they wanted to; perhaps a small number were expelled by some over-zealous troops.

Since 1948, Israel has wanted nothing more than to live in peace with her neighbors. But the Arabs belligerently refuse to accept the state of Israel, and the Palestinians have repeatedly turned down reasonable offers for a state of their own, while they remain committed to the destruction of Israel.

The way the Palestinians tell the story, of course, is very different. We may not agree with the way they tell the story, but we cannot deny its emotional significance.

Before I tell the story from the Palestinian perspective, I suggest you sit back and take a deep breath. Relax. It’s a very difficult story for Jews to hear; but whether we believe their version of story or not, it’s important for us to hear it if we are ever to make peace.

Mordecai Bar-On, historian and retired Israeli Army Colonel, says that most Israelis begin the story of the War of Independence with the attack on a Jewish bus near Lydda on November 30, 1947, the morning after the UN resolution for partition. Five Jews were killed, and Bar-On says the Israelis understand this event as the first violent signal that Arabs totally rejected the UN resolution, which Israelis considered a fair compromise. Looked at this way, the Palestinians are the “aggressors” and the Jews the victims with no choice but to defend themselves.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, begin the story with the unwarranted “invasion” of Palestine by European Jews in the late 19th century, which from the outset, implied the eventual disposition of the native people who had dwelled there for hundreds of years. 

The Palestinians say in the late 19th century they were peacefully minding their own business, living in a country where they had lived for centuries if not millennia, when imperial colonizers started buying up land from absentee landlords, driving the local inhabitants off of land they had worked for generations.

Zionists, people who came from Europe and knew little about Palestine or its people, came to take the land away from its rightful inhabitants. Zionist literature openly describes plans to expel the Arabs and Judaize the country. The Zionists never intended to share the land with its people – the Palestinians.

The Palestinians immediately began a protest against these foreign colonizers being dropped into their midst. The use of force and violence was an integral part of the Zionist plan, since obviously no people would willingly vacate themselves from their homes.

The Zionist lobby in America, playing on sentiments stirred up by the Holocaust, was able to get the United Nations to authorize a colonial settlement on Palestinian land. The Palestinians refused to accept this injustice, and rightfully fought off the colonizers. 1948 was simply a continuation of the resistance which began years earlier.

During the war the Zionists massacred Arab villages and forced Palestinians to flee at gunpoint. 

In the years since 1948, the Zionists have continued to confiscate Palestinian land by force. Their peace initiatives have always been inadequate, failing to recognize the right of refugees to return home and giving the Palestinians’ a state without territorial contiguity, a state chopped into pieces by Jewish settlements and roads.

So that’s the Palestinian version.

How can people with such completely different views of history reconcile their views sufficiently to make peace with each other?

One approach, advocated by Ilan Pappe of Haifa University, is to construct a bridging narrative. Under this concept Israeli and Palestinian historians work together to try to put together a joint narrative that includes agreed-upon facts and multiple perspectives.

This might be an interesting exercise for historians, but I doubt such an approach could result in a joint narrative acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians: both sides are too firmly wedded to their own stories. Besides, I don’t want my story smushed together with the Palestinian story. We need to tell the story in a way that works for us, that focuses on our history.

It’s okay for different people to see the same facts in a different light. The Torah tells us shivim panim latorah, there are 70 faces to the Torah. We can agree on the facts – in the late 1800s Jews bought land from absentee Turkish landlords, and Jews from Eastern Europe came and settled on that land. Palestinians will have a hard time ever seeing that as anything other than a colonialist imposition; Jews will have a hard time ever seeing that same fact as anything other than the fulfillment of our ancestors’ dreams of nearly two thousand years, our return to our homeland.

I think a more productive approach is the idea put forward by Dan Bar-On (Ben Gurion University) and Sami Adwan (Bethlehem University). They propose two separate but interdependent narratives. They put together a group of Israeli and Palestinian teachers to develop materials for teaching the history of the conflict that presents the same basic facts or situation, such as the Balfour Declaration, with two different narratives telling the story side by side. In this way when Israeli and Palestinian children study the history in their own schools, they hear not only their own story, but they hear the same story as told by the other side. The experience of the teachers in presenting the two narratives side by side is promising. While the students’ initial reaction was often hostile to the narrative of the other side, discussions did produce some sensitivity and appreciation for the issues of the other.

Palestinians and Jews both have a very difficult time truly hearing the narrative of the other. The pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington, such as AIPAC and the ADL, react almost violently to any criticism of Israel, or any presentation of the Palestinian perspective.

Jimmy Carter’s new book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” is a case in point. From the reaction of the Jewish community one would have thought the book is completely anti-Semitic, and blames the Jews for everything. It does not. 

Unlike many people who condemn the book simply on the basis of the title, I actually read it. I can’t say that I liked the book, or that I agree with everything in it. The title itself is inflammatory, biased, and inaccurate. But I agree with many of President Carter’s conclusions, such as, “continuing impediments [to peace] have been the desire of some Israelis for Palestinian land, the refusal of some Arabs to accept Israel as a neighbor, the absence of a clear and authoritative Palestinian voice acceptable to Israel, the refusal of both sides to join peace talks without onerous preconditions, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and the recent lack of any protracted effort by the United States to pursue peace based on international law and previous agreements ratified by Israel.” I’d say that’s a pretty accurate assessment of the situation. Carter condemns terrorist attacks as dastardly acts that are morally reprehensible that have brought widespread condemnation and discredit on the entire Palestinian community, and that are almost suicidal for the Palestinian cause. So he certainly does not support the tactics of Hamas.

Yossi Beilin, an Israeli politician, says there is nothing in Carter’s book that the Israeli peace camp hasn’t been saying for years. So why all the outcry about the book? It’s because Carter selectively chooses his facts to put more of the blame for the conflict on Israel than on the Palestinians. In other words, he has the nerve to tell the story from a Palestinian perspective. My perspective clearly is different, and I disagree with the way Carter tells the story, but I think the Jewish community shoots itself in the foot when it refuses to hear the other perspective, and goes so far as to say that anyone holding those opinions is anti-Semitic.

I believe the Jewish community’s tendency to “shry gevalt” every time something comes along that can be conceived of as critical to Israel is counter-productive. The lobbying organizations have an allergic reaction – they break out in hives and come charging out with Uzi’s blazing – anytime something remotely critical of Israel or Jews comes out. Look at all the attention that went to Mel Gibson’s bloody movie “The Passion,” or Speilberg’s “Munich,” not to mention the current uproar over Carter’s book. All that noise turns the Jewish community into the little boy who cried wolf when something really serious comes along – like the nutcase in Iran, Ahmadinajad, who is trying to build nuclear weapons. THAT’S something to get excited about.

Of course, Muslims also have trouble hearing the other side.  For a prime example of what happens to a Muslim who tries to tell Israel’s side of the story read the sad tale of Shoaib Choudhury of Bangladesh, which you can see at AmbivaBlog.

As I said, Carter’s book is highly flawed. A much better treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is found in former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami’s book “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace.” Ben-Ami’s is the most balanced account of the conflict I’ve yet seen. As Ben-Ami says “no one in this conflict has a monopoly on suffering and martyrdom; Nor is responsibility for war atrocities exclusive to one party. In this tragic tribal dispute, both Jews and Arabs have committed acts of unpardonable violence, and both have succumbed at times to the most bestial instincts. What is no less grave is that they’ve both too frequently chosen the wrong course, refusing to see the changing realities and adapt their policies accordingly.”

Hearing the other side’s narrative also needs to influence one’s own narrative. For peace to come the Jews need to understand that Palestine was not “a land without a people” That attitude for too long let Israel ignore the substantial Arab population that was on the land before the Zionists arrived. And the Palestinians have to understand that Zionism is not colonialism. Many Palestinians think of the arrival of Jews in Israel as a colonial phenomena, like the Belgians going into the Belgian Congo. So they think that just as other countries have managed to throw out foreign colonizers, they too can get rid of the Jewish colonizers. But unlike the Belgians who left the Belgian Congo, there is no other place for the Jews to go. Israel IS our home. The national language we speak in Israel is not some European import: Hebrew is a native cousin of Arabic. Our ancestors, as well as theirs, built the houses and the fortresses and the places of worship, our forefathers, as well as theirs, are buried in the tombs. For we and the Palestinians are part of one big dysfunctional family that has been filled with rivalry ever since Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishamel.

There’s no point in talking about who was there first: we both were, for we’re both part of the same family tree. The Jews aren’t going “back to” Europe and the Arabs aren’t going to move to Jordan. The Arabs ARE home — and so are we. Now we need to figure out how to share our common abode.

It is perhaps especially fitting that Herod the Great – the greatest builder in the history of Israel AND Palestine, who built Caesarea and the palaces at Masada and the tombs of the Patriarchs in Hebron, who rebuilt the Temple where the Dome of the Rock now stands, atop the great platform bounded by the Kotel– was both a Jew on his father’s side and an Arab on his mother’s. Perhaps these great works, still wonders of the world after 2,000 years, can be seen as symbols of the greatness that could be created if Jews and Arabs worked together.

On the band of Jerusalem stone that encircles this sanctuary are inscribed the words of our wise King Solomon, as recorded in Ecclesiastes: “there is a time for killing and a time for healing” and “there is a time for war and a time for peace.” Israelis and Palestinians have both had enough of killing and enough of war. This is a time for healing and a time for peace. The first step toward peace is for each side to be willing to listen – truly listen – to the story of the other side, and to understand how that story influences the road to peace.

May the Holy One bless each of us, both as nations and as individuals, with a caring heart that enables us to hear the pain of the other and to help us find a nonviolent resolution to our differences.


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

One thought on “Ki Tisa 5767 – The Power of the Story

  • thank you for having the courage to tell and hear both stories


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *