One of the great challenges of our time is not the ability to find information, but our ability to interpret and process vast volumes of it productively. Where libraries and archives were once the purview of academics and the powerful alone, technology has now made it easy to find information, but offers no guidance in what to do with it. Worse, the massive amount of information we do take in seems to force us to rely more and more on our pre-existing notions, rather than challenging us to question what we believe and be willing to change our minds — confirmation bias rules our thinking just as much today as it did before the digital age.
In Parshat Ki Tisa, however, we learn that it is not only possible but the way of our greatest leaders to adapt and adjust our worldview when reality challenges our expectations.
The story of the Golden Calf teaches us a great deal about allowing ourselves to change our minds. When Moses goes up the mountain to receive the Law, he leaves the people in his brother Aaron’s supposedly capable hands. At three different points, Moses learns about the problematic behavior of his people, and in each he responds differently.
While up on the mountain, he is told by God that the people have acted basely. In an exceptional moment of persuasive communication, Moses is able to convince God to back off from wiping out the people for their crimes. He acts on his existing knowledge of his people — they may have misbehaved, but it is unlikely that they have done something that warrants God hitting a reset button on the whole exodus and Promised Land enterprise. So Moses does what he is supposed to do — defend his people and help reconcile their relationship to God, crimes unseen.
But then Moses finishes his business with the Divine on the mountain, and makes his way back down. In a second warning, Joshua meets Moses on the way and tries to set expectations in advance. When Joshua attempts to explain the sounds that Moses is hearing as post-battle cries, Moses rejects this interpretation and relies instead on his own faculties. “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) he said. Coming down from the mountain, Moses moves from the role of advocate to leader, with a need to begin questioning the motives and information he is receiving from his flock.
Finally, when Moses witnesses the behavior of the Israelites first hand, his perspective makes one final shift from leader to judge. “As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain” (Ex. 32:19). In the span of a few verses, Moses has gone from advocate protecting the people from an angry God to a man enraged by their behavior sufficiently to smash the Tablets he had gone up the mountain to bring back to them.
In each instance, Moses is provided with information that impacts his response. First, when all he knows is that his people have strayed, he maintains his insistence that they should be protected. But as he learns step by step the level of transgression committed by the people, his attitude rightfully shifts until he smashes the Tablets rather than give them to the apostates before him.
May we, each of us, be as willing to see what is before us, hear what is said and respond in full regardless of how it might contradict the worldviews we hold. JN
Herschel “Brodie” Aberson is a rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley.