This story isn’t the one Mama told me. I’m conscious enough to notice, even though one child is suckling at my bosom and the other is tugging at my hair and a third is making a mess of my weaving and there wasn’t much sleep last night. Moses’s voice blares over the camp, amplified by the Eternal One; it’s so loud it’s like he’s next to me. Who knew a man could speak so much? This speech has been going on for weeks… I admit it, I’ve mostly ignored it, tuning in and out as I’ve run after the children and fed them and put them to sleep. I’m used to getting on with things in the midst of loud noise. But I can’t drown out this story: the one about the Golden Calf.
Moses tells us how he interceded for us. How he fasted and prayed for forty days and forty nights to protect us from the wrath of the Divine. How he saved our lives. How he took the calf and ground it to bits and threw the dust into the brook coming down the mountain. And then, without warning, he moves on, to a different story, to the other horrible things that we did, and the ways in which he fasted and prayed and saved us.
This story isn’t the one Mama told me. She told me how the people made the calf, yes, and how Father and the others worshipped it. She told me how Moses was up the mountain and everyone was afraid, because he hadn’t returned. She told me how Father said to Aaron, “You need to do something. The people can’t go on much longer.” She told me how Moses finally came down and saw the calf and smashed the tablets. How Moses ground the calf into water and then made Father and the others drink it. How Moses called to the men of Levi, “Mi la’Adonai eilai? Whoever is for God is with me!” And how Moses told them to take up their swords and kill – and they did, 3000 people that day, including Father. After that, came the plague.
I look around at the rest of the people in the camp; nobody raises even an eyebrow. Do they not know the story Mama told me? Did their Mamas never tell them? Or maybe they are too busy with the day to day to even take note. It is so easy to block out the words of holy men; they sound the same after a while.
How can this holy man stand before us and tell the story as though there is no blood on his hands? How can he tell us that he rescued us, when he gave the order to kill?
Or, was Mama wrong?
She isn’t here to ask. It’s easy to tell new stories when everyone who remembers otherwise is dead.
If I had time, maybe I would go through the camp and collect all the shards of stories that each person’s Mama told them, piecing them together like a shattered clay vessel. If I could write, maybe I would write my own scroll, and tell the stories another way. But there are mouths to feed and cattle to herd and clothes to make and mend and medicines to brew and we must all prepare to cross the River and face what awaits us. We will enter the land with the story Moses poured into our ears. Who knows if any other stories will make it across?
Yael Tischler LBC Rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.