Hear no evil Maybe we should start with speak no evil

Ki Tissa

Exodus 30:11-34:35

I Kings 18:1-39

Hearing and listening are among the most important skills a person can develop. Our tradition puts heavy weight on these abilities, and even demands aptitude. In the Torah: “Sh’ma Yisrael” — Hear O Israel. We are to hear, and implied in that command is also to internalize and to “do.” In the Talmud: “Ta Sh’ma” — come and hear — is a common phrase our rabbis use to introduce a prooftext within a Talmudic discussion, one that challenges a learner to examine an argument more carefully.

When we listen, what we hear has the possibility of guiding our actions, leading us to act and think in certain ways. In time, the words we hear, the sounds we are exposed to, the voices of the experiences we have had also become filters for us, teaching us how to approach and make sense of the world. We learn to hear, and to act, according to the paths we have been shown and exposed to before.

The action of Parashat Ki Tissa takes place in two locations. On the mountaintop, Moses, accompanied by Joshua, is receiving the Torah and, specifically, the two tablets.

Simultaneously, in the valley at the base of Mount Sinai, there is a completely different scene: The Israelites and Aaron are building the Golden Calf.

In heavenly anger at the sin of the people, God virtually chases Moses away. Joshua and Moses begin their descent, and the sounds of Israelite dancing and singing rise up to them. The Torah relates: “When Joshua heard the sounds of the people in its boisterousness, he said to Moses, ‘There is a cry of war in the camp.’ But Moses answered, ‘It is not the sound of the tune of triumph or the sound of the tune of defeat; it is the sound of song that I hear!'” (Ex. 32:17-18).

How can one confuse joy and festivity with war and battle cries? What would foster such confusion for Joshua or bring about such a complete misreading of events?

When we are introduced to Joshua, the Israelites have left Egypt and crossed the Sea of Reeds. Amalek is attacking from the rear, and Moses appoints Joshua to lead the Israelites in battle. When Joshua returns home victorious, a strange thing happens. God tells Moses to write down a reminder of God’s war with Amalek and to literally “place it in Joshua’s ear” (Ex. 17:14).

From the beginning, Joshua is presented as a man educated entirely on combat. He is a trained warrior, successfully leading the Israelites in battle. His victory is made complete through hearing and being taught words of war. Such training is meant to serve him well; Joshua will not only become a political leader after Moses’ death, he will be the military commander of the Israelites. He will be the one to lead the Israelites in the conquest of the land.

With such an education, should the words of this week’s parshah surprise us? Of course Joshua will hear the Israelites’ enthusiastic and excited worship of the Golden Calf as a “cry of war.” Joshua has been so conditioned toward battle that even the sounds of celebration are misconstrued and misinterpreted as violence.

I see in this development a clear message about the words we present to others, and most especially to our children. When we introduce them to violence and teach them a language of violence, the probability is that they, like Joshua, will internalize that message and only understand the world through that lens.

On the other hand, when we teach them positive messages — of prayer, respect, support for one another and kedushah (holiness) — those will be the terms they use to interact with the world.

May we each become teachers who introduce others to words of praise, gratitude and love, thereby giving a positive foundation to guide all our lives. Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Michelle Fisher is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.