Ki Tisa.

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Shabbat Evening Service

We watch more basketball at our house than seems humanly possible. Professional basketball, college basketball — we’ve even watched local high school basketball on TV. We all like the sport, but I also like the drama — no game is the same as any other, and you almost always see something on the court you’ve never seen before. Yet what I saw during a game last week was utterly unique. It was moving, and beautiful… and had to do with so much more than the sport.

The game was Duke vs. Clemson, on Clemson’s home court. During the first half, one of Duke’s guards made a quick steal. He ran the ball down in the backcourt for a fast break, and then jumped to dunk. But as he dunked, a pursuing player from Clemson ran into him with his shoulder, hard, and with seemingly clear intent, causing the Duke player’s legs to fly up from under him so that when he landed on the court, he did so, hard, on his hip, his back, his shoulder, and nearly (but thank goodness not) his head.

That was obviously not the beautiful part of the game. In fact, it was pretty clearly a dirty play — one that caused the Duke bench to clear, the Clemson coach to wince, and the Duke coach to run over to check on this player and to yell at the ref. Everyone else, I think, collectively held their breath. Thank goodness the player was fine. After a few moments he got up, walked around, and was even able to stay in the game. 

But then it nearly got much worse.

As I said, the players on the Duke bench and on the floor had jumped up and were livid, eager to protect their teammate. The Clemson players, while ostensibly also horrified by the play, weren’t going to stand by and allow their teammate to be attacked, verbally or otherwise, no matter what he had done. The bench coaches for both teams tried to get their players under control… 

And that’s when the beautiful moment happened.

The coach from Clemson came over to the coach from Duke, followed by his player, the one who had committed what would be determined to be a Flagrant 2 Foul — one for which he would be ejected from the game — and the player and Duke’s coach hugged, twice. They exchanged words which we in TV-audience-land couldn’t hear, but which seemed to be an apology from the player, followed by its acceptance, and the Duke coach’s assurance that the player (and everyone watching) understood: He was not just a better player, but a better person, than reflected by the egregious foul he had just committed.

And then the player left the court, and the game resumed… and everything was just fine.

In a world in which situations so quickly escalate from 0 to 60 —in which mistakes happen, get amplified, and are publicized all over the world; in which social media asks (sometimes it feels like demands) that everyone take sides and promulgate statements — this was the exact opposite. This was a powerful and all too rare example of de-escalation.

It was beautiful and encouraging — and we need more moments like it.

Including in this week’s Torah portion. 

This week’s portion, Ki Tisa, contains the well-known, deeply upsetting, Cecil B. DeMille-directed incident of the Golden Calf. With Moses up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments, the people turn to Aaron for comfort and guidance saying: “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” And so Aaron instructs them to take off their gold jewelry (which tradition says the men do, but the women do not), and after casting it into a mold which produces a molten calf, they exclaim: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Aaron, seeing their reaction, builds an altar and announces: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!” And so they celebrate — with sacrifices, food, drink, and dancing.

Meanwhile, up on the mountain, God tells Moses to hurry down, for “your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely” and are worshipping an idol. It seems God no longer wants any responsibility. And God further says: “I see that this is a stiff-necked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them.” Whoa, says Moses — in a moment we hope might let cooler heads prevail — “let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand.” (Nobody seems to want to claim the Israelites as their own right now.)

But then Moses heads down the mountain and at the sight of the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf, “he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.” And then all bets were off: Moses burns the calf to ashes, mixes it into water, and makes the Israelites drink it. And the Levites (on Moses’ orders!) take up swords and go on a rampage through the camp, murdering some 3,000 people that day. And God sends “a plague upon the people, for what they did with the calf that Aaron made.”

So, OK, let’s take the deep breath we wish someone in this narrative had had the presence of mind to take themselves. Because it simply didn’t need to be this way.

The first moment with potential for de-escalation comes at the very beginning of the story. The text tells us that the Israelites went to Aaron “when [they] saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain.” While the Israelites ask for an idol, what they’re really asking for is reassurance — a word that Moses will be back, confirmation that they have not been abandoned and are not alone. At the very least, rather than a golden calf, Aaron could have offered himself: “I know my brother has been gone for a long time, but I have confidence in him and in God that he will return. And until then, I’m here — what do you need? How can I help?”

The second moment where things could have gone differently is when Moses comes down the mountain and his anger escalates into harsh punishment. Punishment serves two purposes: As a consequence for bad behavior, and as a deterrent against repeating the same behavior in the future. If Moses took a moment to assess the reason behind the Israelites’ behavior, he would have realized that a deterrent wasn’t necessary. They sinned in response to his absence; he is now back and will be back for years and years to come. A strong punishment shouldn’t be necessary to keep them from going down the path of idolatry again. So the punishment merely needs to be a fitting consequence for their actions. Yes, idolatry is a particularly egregious crime. But drinking toxic water AND turning Israelites against Israelite AND death by sword AND a plague? Punishment heaped upon punishment heaped upon punishment — it cries out for a lesson in de-escalation, perhaps several.

First, in any given situation, even when it seems blatantly obvious what is happening, there are always multiple possible explanations or interpretations. Moses failed to understand this, but his descendants, the ancient Rabbis, understood it implicitly.

Steven Resnicoff, Professor in the DePaul University College of Law, once heard Justice Scalia speak at a kosher dinner at the United States Supreme Court.

Justice Scalia said that during an interlude when there was no Jewish Justice, he — Scalia — was considered by the other Justices as “the Jewish Justice.” Why? Not because he was Jewish; he was a proud Catholic. It was because he studied Talmud. Why did he do that? When he was at Harvard Law School there were classes on Saturday. There were some religious Jewish students who attended but sat in the back and did not take notes (taking notes would be forbidden on the Sabbath). He said he asked himself why those students seemed to be ahead of him when they couldn’t even take notes. He decided it must be because they studied Talmud, so he decided to do so as well. He saw that in the Talmud, Rabbi X said this, Rabbi Y said that, and the other Rabbis said something else. Justice Scalia realized that he and the rest of the non-Jews in the class were always looking for the “bottom-line answer” and always left the lecture hall perplexed without finding it. He said the Jewish kids who studied Talmud knew from the beginning that there was no such thing as a bottom line answer!

If there can be many answers, many interpretations, many different understandings — then it behooves us in any moment when there seems to be a crescendo of voices all saying the same thing, or two different sides portraying a situation as only one thing or the other, to pause. To take a breath. To ask ourselves what else might be going on here. To engage those who are a part of the situation to better understand what they themselves understand to be going on, as well.

Second, there are actions and deeds, opinions and words, but de-escalation comes when we focus on feelings. In the incident of the Golden Calf, what the Israelites did was horrible; but why they did it, what they were feeling was entirely recognizable. They felt abandoned, they were scared. Those emotions are not only familiar, but relatable. We’ve felt them, too.

Matt Haig, bestselling author of The Midnight Library, wrote another book released during the pandemic called The Comfort Book — a collection of reflections upon lessons he learned during periods of depression that found resonance with a nation contending with its own. In this book, he writes: “We can look at the world through more than one lens. If we look at people through the lens of emotion, at the feelings that drive opinions, rather than the opinions themselves, it’s easy to see the things we share. The hopes, the fears, the loves, the insecurities, the longings, the doubts, the dreams.”

Finally, once we reach the place of connecting over feelings, emotions — we can make the choice to reinforce positive rather than negative ones. With a very small and simple gesture, I had the chance to do just that this past week. 

Author Ann Braden has written two amazing middle grade novels in recent years that made such an impact on me I decided to see if she had a presence on Facebook. After realizing we had a “friend” in common, I sent her a friend request, as well — which allowed me to send her a personal message about how much I had liked her work, and then she wrote back, … anyway, I’ll leave the fan-geeking part of the story for another time, except to say that authors, and many celebrities are often far more accessible than we think they are. Well, Braden’s second book, Flight of the Puffin, shares the story of 4 kids, each of whom faces forms of hardship and isolation in their lives. Then with one small card containing a message of hope, a chain reaction begins, “helping each kid summon the thing they need, whether it’s bravery, empathy, or understanding. But best of all, it makes each one realize they matter — and that they’re not flying solo anymore.” It really is a beautiful book about helping to turn momentum at critical moments; about deescalating negativity by interjecting love and light and hope. 

And Braden has brought the concept into the real world, too, putting out calls for kindness postcards that could make a difference in someone’s life. This week, she put out a call for cards to go to the GSA (the Genders & Sexualities Alliance) at Melbourne High School, where an LGBTQ bulletin board was defaced, on the same day the school board voted NO on an anti-discrimination policy. Here’s mine:

Friends, this is something we can all do — whether by postcard or dialogue, by what we choose to say and do, and what we decide not to say or do. When things seem to be spiraling out of control, we don’t have to spiral with them. We can refrain from escalating damaging emotions and behaviors, and even help to de-escalate them to some place much positive for all involved. By realizing there are always multiple perspectives in any given situation; by uncovering the emotions and feelings underneath actions and words; by doing the positive thing, the kind thing, the loving thing — we can each be what the world so desperately needs, and God calls us each to be: We can be ambassadors for shalom.