This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35), is famous for the Golden Calf incident. On this day, many centuries ago, women said no, and men didn’t listen. Thy men were overcome by a desire for greater influence and took possession of that which didn’t belong to them. Our maternal ancestors resisted but the men didn’t pay attention. The women’s gold was taken without consent and formed an idol of artificially crafted divinity.
The screams of protest against modern manifestations of those idolatrous powers are still being silenced today with the same harsh consequences of the story in our text. The question remains: can men resist the impulse to occupy space that does not belong to them?
Discussions continue about women being given access to sacred spaces, whether in the context of becoming rabbis or at the Western Wall. Do any of us realize that these discussions are being had on men’s terms. Questions are framed around “granting” or “allowing” women to have more equality, as if it is ours to give. We may be discussing how women can gain better access to their own Judaism, but we have yet to have a more basic conversation – namely, the way men interact with women, even in mundane spaces. My colleague, Rabbi Michael Moskowitz strongly suggests that it is time for us to pivot inward and invite ourselves to start listening.
Rabbi Ellen Lippman in THE WOMEN’S TORAH COMMENTARY suggests that the rings that the women refused to give to their husbands as an offering took on a new meaning. The rings must be a symbol of setting apart, of wedding or engagement. An idol made of gold will shatter those bonds and as such, how can they remain married to these easily swayed men? Or, as she suggests, the rings in their ears symbolize their connection to God, their way of setting themselves apart as the people linked to the One who cannot be seen, but whose miracles are fresh in mind. If only the men would have listened to the women, how differently the story may have turned out.
Our rabbis teach that women were rewarded for opposing men in the building of the golden calf and were given guardianship over Rosh Chodesh, the new moon. Each new appearance of the moon represents a faulty attempt – similar to that of the golden calf – to expand perceived power and domination over a shared space. The Talmud relates that the moon wasn’t content with being equal to the sun and asked God, “Can two kings use the same crown?” Despite the fact that the moon is focusing on it’s own stature, it fails to recognize that the sun was the true source of light, and the moon only a faint reflection of it. God shrinks the moon as punishment for trying to claim dominion over what should have been a shared space.
We too reflect God’s light and are charged with recognizing that shared source in others. Each Rosh Chodesh encourages us to renew our commitment to be present with one another as equals.
We are in the middle of Adar I, a month that celebrates joy as well as help us prepare for the celebration of Purim as well as the preparation for the upcoming festival of Passover. Next Shabbat, we begin this process with Shabbat Shekalim, the sabbath that reminds us to take care of our yearly contribution to the maintenance of the Holy Temple. Once a year, every Jew would give half a shekel for the Temple. It was such a central event, there’s an entire tractate of the Talmud discussing its laws. It’s called “Shekalim.” But nobody gave a whole shekel. You weren’t allowed. Everyone had to give the same one half. So why is the tractate called “Shekalim?” Because the point was not that you should come and give a half shekel. Rather, it was that you should feel you are incomplete until another Jew gives another half shekel. And every Jew should feel incomplete until everyone has given their small and equal contribution of half a shekel. Because none of us are complete without the other, and each of us fills in that which the other is missing.
With that same logic, the men of Judaism need to do a better job of listening. We choose to hear by developing sensitive listening practices so as not to unintentionally contribute to the climate of misogyny. Today we experience the painful reminder that society still hasn’t learned how to listen to others’ experiences. It is our turn to start listening. What would need to happen for men to support spaces in which women speak first? Are we capable of accustoming ourselves not to interrupt or interject when a woman is talking? Rather than being dismissive, how can we increase our respect for women’s opinions and take their ideas more seriously?
God is everywhere and there is room for everyone. But if we fill this world with just self, then there isn’t space for anyone, including God. Let us accept this season as a time of restoration. We need to break the cycle of elevating ourselves through minimizing others. The world suffers when women’s voices are ignored. Are we ready to start listening?