Shabbat Parah: The Joy of a Movie

Some of you know that I am a Beauty and the Beast aficionado. It was the first movie Sarah went to in a movie theater. I had married the Beast. Actually, before we were married I called him the Pest. Beast, Pest, it’s the same thing. And I tamed him. Sort of. Yes, I can say all this this weekend since we celebrate our anniversary. Sarah went on to be in a musical version at the high school for which she also won a state award for costuming that very show. She was a great dish and “Be our guest” makes me smile every time. To help, we took her to Broadway to see it live. And yes, we just ran the Beauty and the Beast 5K as part of the Glass Slipper Challenge. So, no surprise, all three of us were at the theater, with both Sarah and Simon on Thursday night for opening night.

Any one else there?

It remains a Tale as Old as Time…It is about the triumph of love. About transformation and some would argue resurrection.

By now you are wondering…how does this connect to the parsha. How does this possibly connect to my life?

Here’s the connection. This week’s parsha is about the Golden Calf. Moses was up on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights. That’s a long time to be on a hike all alone. Something must have happened to him. The people are afraid they have lost their leader. They are scared. Deeply afraid. Panicked. They don’t want to lose their leader. They don’t want to have been brought into the wilderness only to die right here. They go to Aaron. His brother. They demand he do something. He has to tame their fear. He demands their gold. The gold they carefully absconded with as they were leaving Egypt. And they make a golden calf. They throw the gold into the fire and it comes out a calf. Something they can dance around. Something they can rally around. Something they can worship.

Moses comes back down the mountain. He is shocked and appalled. He is angry. He saw that the people were out of control and they were being led by his own brother. He can’t believe he has been betrayed. He smashes the original tablets. Destroys them. Then he tells the people that “Whoever is for the Lord, come here.” And he commands those to “slay brother, neighbor and kin.” Together with the Levites, they kill 3000 people.

That seems to be the very opposite of the commandment to “Love your brother, your neighbor, your kin as yourself.” What happened here? The rabbinic commentaries try to mitigate the brutality of Moses’s response. .


As Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky points out: “On the words “and slay brother, neighbor, and kin,” the Midrash Tanhuma commented “anybody who has witnesses [who can testify to their wrongdoing] and was forewarned [before they acted], was killed immediately.” (Tanhuma, Ki Tisa, par. 26) We find here an attempt to read back into the Biblical text procedures that are found in later rabbinic literature without which the death penalty could not be carried out. The fourteenth century Midrash Hagadol expanded upon the explanation found in the Tanhuma: “Since Moses saw [the people worshipping the Golden Calf], he sat with his court (beit din) and said “Whoever is for the LORD, come here!” Anybody who didn’t participate in the act [of the Golden Calf] should come to me…”Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp,” He said to them, “establish many courts, anyone about whom witnesses will come and testify that they worshipped idols after they were forewarned will be put to death.” (Midrash Hagadol, Ki Tisa, par. 26-27)”

Establishing courts holds people accountable. There need to be real witnesses and in capital offenses at least two (males). This makes good sense to me.

Nachmanides, the 13th century Spanish commentator was also troubled by the apparent arbitrary killing. He wrote:

“Since there were many worshippers of the calf, and they could not have all been brought to the court, therefore Moses commanded all of the sons of Levi to put on their swords, in a similar way to that which our Rabbis said, that if you cannot administer to the guilty the specific kind of death mentioned for his case, you may execute him by any means that you can. Now this procedure was a decision only for an emergency, (hora’at sha’ah) in order to sanctify God’s name, (lekadesh Hashem) since those who worshipped [the calf] had not been forewarned [of the death penalty], for who had warned them beforehand? The sons of Levi, however, recognized those whom they killed as the worshippers of the calf. (Ramban: Commentary on the Torah, trans. Charles B. Chavel)”

Clearly, we are not comfortable with the Moses’s or the Israelites response. Not now. Not then. What each of these commentators are describing is mob mentality. How do we limit this kind of mob mentality? One way is by not giving into fear. One way is by establishing courts. These concerns are not new.

I don’t go to movies very often. I tend to fall asleep. But once I went to see Passions of the Christ. This Mel Gibson film tells the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. I went with my dear friend and colleague the Rev. Larry Zimmerman. The Catholic Church paid for the tickets. We were the only non-Catholics in the audience on that opening night. I had just been elected president of the Greater Lowell Interfaith Leadership Alliance. The press wanted our comments, especially on whether it was anti-semetic. It was a very violent film. I had to look away, close my eyes. I wanted to be anywhere else.

After the movie, Larry and I sat in his van for a very long time, about a half an hour without speaking. Unusal for us, who more frequently have lots to say. Finally he said, “I now understand the holocaust.” I was stunned. My take away was that this the best argument against the death penalty. Somehow I managed to ask, “Why”. He said, it was an argument against mob mentality. Once it was decided to kill Jesus, it couldn’t be stopped. The mob couldn’t be stopped. The Holocaust remains a primary example of what happens when a charismatic leader preys upon the people’s fears and stirs up a mob.

The sin of the Golden Calf is one of the sins about which the rabbis argued. Did G-d really forgive the remaining Israelites? Perhaps every subsequent generation bears some of the guilt of the sin of the Golden Calf? Perhaps it is one of the reasons given for the idea that the entire generation that been slaves in Egypt had to die before the Israelites could enter the Promised Land.

That mob mentality—both the people’s and the leaders is one that we need to keep in check—and this is not a new idea as we have seen in the commentaries. But it plays out in Beauty and the Beast.

The demand to kill the beast. Gaston plays on the townspeople’s fears…

Gaston: The beast will make off with your children,
he’ll come after them in the night.
We’re not safe ’till his head is mounted on my wall.
I say we kill the beast!

Man: We’re not safe until he’s dead.
Man 2: He’ll come stalking us at night.
Woman: Set to sacrifice our children to his montrous appetite.
Man 3: He’ll wreak havok on our village if we let him wander free!

Gaston: So it’s time to take some action boys!
It’s time—to—fol—low—me!

Through the mist, through the woods,
through the darkness and the shadows.
It’s a nightmare but it one exciting ride.
Say a prayer, then we’re there,
at the drawbridge of a castle,
and there’s something truly terrible inside.

It’s a beast, he’s got fangs razor sharp ones.
Massive paws, killer claws for the feed.
Hear him roar, see him foam,
but we’re not coming home,
’till he’s dead, good and dead. Kill the beast.

Belle: NO! I won’t let you do this!

Gaston: If you’re not with us, you’re against.
Bring the old man!

Maurice: Get your hands off me!

Gaston: We can’t have them running off to warn the creature.

Belle: Let us out!

Gaston: We’ll rid the village of this beast, who’s with me?!

Light your torch, mount you horse,

Screw your courage to the sticking place.

We’re counting on Gaston to lead the way.
Through a mist to the wood, where within a haunted castle,
something’s lurking that you don’t see every day.
It’s a beast, one as tall as a mountain,
We won’t rest ’till he’s good and deceased.
Sally fourth, tally ho! Grab your sword, grab your bow!
Praise the Lord and here we go!

Gaston: We’ll lay seige to the castle, and bring back his head!

Belle: We have to warn the beast. This is all my fault.
OH papa what are we going to do?!

Maurice: Now, now. We’ll think of something.


Chorus: We don’t like what we don’t…
understand and in fact it scares us,
and this monster is mysterious at least.
Bring your guns, bring your knives,
save children and and your wives,
we’ll save our village and our lives!

We’ve heard language like this before. And even recently. I even read a version of this very song for Purim redone as Kill the Jews. It was chilling. Playing on all the old stereotypes, all the old scapegoating of Jews. We’ve heard those _______ before.

So this Monday I will be attending a workshop at JUF on synagogue safety and security. Last week we talked about Purim Jews and Passover Jews. What we concluded is we need to be both.

And that is the message here too.

Here there is hope—even in this parsha. Where we begin reading today, we are still learning about the klei kodesh, the holy vessels that G-d is instructing Moses how to make. We learn about Shabbat being a sign of the covenant between G-d and the people of Israel for all time. Sacred vessels, sacred time. Then immediately thereafter the Israelites panic and demand that Aaron do something. The result—the construction of something else out of gold—the golden calf—the antithesis of a sacred vessel.

But then after G-d gets angry and after Moses gets angry and he is back on the mountain for a second time, he hears the most remarkable thing. That the Lord, the Lord, G-d is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, full of lovingkindness and truth, extending forgiveness to the 1000th generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.

And since we are to be like G-d, this passage of our ability to be moblike is surrounded by text reminding us to be G-dlike. Make time and space holy. Observe Shabbat. And be like G-d. Merciful. Compassionate. Slow to anger. Full of lovingkindness and truth. Forgiving. Do not become a mob.