Ki Tissa Amcha Yisrael and Justice and Mercy
Have you ever wondered how Jews manage to find other Jews?
I served as Rabbi in Whittier, to the east of Los Angeles. Fifty years ago, before my time, Jews first came to that area on Veteran's mortgages, and began to build up a community. These were young couples with very little Jewish background or commitment. They just knew that they needed to have some place and community of their own in the midst of a heavily protestant, Anglo community that had been hitherto closed to Jews.
One day, into this new community, there appeared a very fine gentleman who introduced himself as an ordained Rabbi who was now in business, but was eager to help volunteer his services for this new Jewish community.
What a bargain-- since no one of these young Jews knew Hebrew or had any real Jewish background, this was a Godsend.
He would help them out with services, tell a few good stories, and all was well, until one day, on a Shabbes afternoon, one of the members was walking by the local movie house, when who should walk out of the matinee showing but the Rabbi!
Now, educated or not, he knew that Rabbis don't go to the movies on Shabbat. They began to inquire, and soon discovered that their Rabbi was none other than a Christian missionary to the Jews. That, you can be assured , was the end of his tenure.
Well, how do you find Jews in such a Jewish wilderness? One of the first members was the local bus driver. Whenever someone would get up on the bus, he would begin whistling not Dixie, but Hatikvah. If the passenger would look up at him, he would immediately tell him about the Jewish community being founded in that hitherto entirely Quaker and Anglo-Saxon community.
That was one way, in tolerant and open America to identify Jews. But what was done in Europe, after the Holocaust, to enable Jews to find each other?
My father told me that there was a password for Jews to identify each other after the Holocaust, when a Jew still took his life in his own hands to tell a stranger he was a Jew. He would see someone who looked Jewish, and he would whisper "Amcha?". If the other one would respond "Amcha!", then they knew they could trust each other.
Amcha-- How many know the word?
It is a word for the common man in Hebrew and Yiddish. To a great extent, to describe someone as “ Amcha” was a put-down—he was a commoner, maybe a step above a “proste yid” ( simple Jew) or a “grube ying”( a coarse young churl).
But Amcha is not originally an insult. Amcha means, quite simply, ”Your people”.
Where is this word from? It stems from the Torah reading of Ki Tisa, the account of the Golden Calf, the smashing of the Ten commandments, and the declaration by God, forgiving the sinners, Adonay, Adonay. The Lord, The Lord.
This declaration forms the kernel of the prayers of Selichot, of forgiveness, and of the Yom Kippur liturgy. It is also the prayer before the Ark on festivals.
First, as to the word. Amcha.Your people.
When the children of Israel make the Golden Calf, God is incensed. He calls to Moses,: “ Your people whom you took out of Egypt.” Amcha-Your people.
It’s just a like a father who is angry at his son and shouts at the mother: Look what your son did!!”
Moses responds, in short, with reasons why God should not get angry. It is , in short a very hutzpadik answer, especially towards God, and our Rabbis long ago declared, Hutzpah mehane afilu klapey shamaya--Hutzpah is effective, even towards Heaven. We Jews have had more than our share ever since.
First, Moses turns the tables on God--he repeats Gods words,” Your”
" Why are you angry at your people whom you took out of Egypt."
Now, whose people are we? Amcha-? Are we Moses people? Are we God's people? Isn’t this just like two parents bickering over the brats behavior!
The parallel, suggested our Rabbi's, is in a tale of a king of who had a vineyard run by his tenant. When ever it would be a good vintage year, the king would boast," My wine is great." When it was a bad vintage year, he complained to the tenant--Your wine is bad!. To this the tenant retorted," Listen, King--good or bad-- it's still your wine!
The Rabbis concluded the example,”When God spoke to Pharaoh, he said," Let My people go." But now he tells Moses--" Your people are corrupt"!
Moses is implying, so to say," When they're good, they're your people; when they're bad, they're my people ? Good or bad, they're your people!"
That is the essence of this idea of Amcha: we Jews may be good, and very often, we are not good.Good or bad, we remain God's people, won by freedom from slavery in Egypt, and again, by commitment, at Sinai. Good or bad--we are part of that covenant.
That is amcha, amcha yisrael. Your people, your people Israel.
There is another aspect to Moses’ questioning, typical of Jewish hutzpah. This again from the midrash, which imagines a further conversation with God:
" God, perhaps you can make the calf your assistant? Put it in charge of the moon and zodiac."
" Moses, God replies, "You are as foolish as the rest of them. That calf has no reality.!"
“Well, then,” Moses replies,” if that calf has no reality, then why are you angry at your children?”
There is Midrashic twist on the conversation:
Moses asks, "Why are you angry at your people whom you led out of Egypt."
His argument goes on." It's like the story of the wise man who sets his son up in business, in of all things, the perfume business. And in of all places, the red light district.! Well, you can imagine what business dealings he had and with whom, and soon the father caught the son together with the prostitute. The father was ready to hang his son, until his friends got the better of him.," After all, they said, You caused this! You set him up with a perfume business in of all areas-- a red light district."
Just so, Moses complains, “ Of all places to put the Hebrews! You had to put them in Egypt, and in what status?As slaves! In a country that worships calves! That's all they could learn in Egypt. You took them out, against their will, and you expect them to give up old habits.!"
What an charge by the Defense Attorney against the Porsecution:It was a case of entrapment!
There is now the shift in the account. Moses succeeds in making his case . He now presses his case yet further for himself.
The childrenof Israel wanted a god they could see. Now Moses wants to see God or at least God’s essence!
Hareini na et kvodecha,” Please show me your true glory." The children of Israel needed a God they could see--Moses wants to see God as well.
God answers," No human can see mean and live". Instead, God allows a vision of his back, which itself is not visual, but verbal image:
“The Lord, The Lord, a God of mercy and compassion, long forbearing, full of mercy and truth, keeping kindness unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and forgiving sin.” Hata-ah venakeh.
That’s what we have in our prayerbooks, but it’s not what we have in our Torah text , at least not on the face of it: Our Torah text continues venakeh loyenakeh. “Does not acquit but visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation.!
The text is telling us that good is repaid to the thousandth generation but the penalty of evil lingers only to the third or fourth. In other words, mercy is greater than punishment and the effect of good outlast the effect of evil. If you turn to good, it erases the evil down through the generations and the punishment of evil is limited.
But in our prayer books, the Rabbis have made a major edit. They have removed the entire last phrase and cut the nakeh loyenakh, which means “ won’t acquit” to only nakeh. “He will surely acquit!”
How could the Sages upend God's own declaration?
Our Rabbis understood that the Torah came to teach hope to humanity. Theology and philosophy speak about metaphysics, the underlying truth of all reality, all of these are delightful speculation on a warm sunny day, when our bellies are full. But for the other days of the year, the stormy days, we need the teaching of hope , that the doors are always open to Teshuvah ,Return. True, reality occurs in which the children do indeed suffer the fate destined for their parents:the crack baby is born with the mother's addiction and the children in a war torn land suffer for their father’s blood feud.
But if we close the door of hope, we close the door of Teshuva , then we are all condemned forever. The sages dared to tamper with God's words to get to his divine intentions. They reworded the text of the Torah and then defined these as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. This was the only vision of God that Moses was allowed to comprehend.
Perhaps. It was God’s intention to forgive all along, but He needed to see that Moses would understand that and it would be possible only by standing up for hisown people against God.
Finally, a message we can take away from this.
In physics, we ask if the building blocks of the universe are “God Particles”. Higgs Boson. For the Rabbis, the true building blocks of the universe are ethical and spiritual values. They told this story:
A man once had a glass. He wished to pour some water in it. If he poured boiling water, it would burst; if he poured cold water, it would crack. What could he do? He mixed hot and cold water together, and the glass stayed whole.
Just so, they said, God deliberated,” If I create the world with absolute justice, no one would escape the weight of the law. It would be like “one strike-you’re out” for taking a child's pizza. If I create the world with absolute mercy, it would be a nightmare! Crime and violence, uncontrolled and unstoppable! What did he do? He balanced both justice and mercy, and He prayed it would work! He prayed it would work! Yes, even God needed a prayer when it came to creating his world.
Let us, in our actions, try always to balance out the need for justice, need for righting wrongs, with the need for mercy and compassion. and let us pray that the world can survive so we can all live as “ Amcha”- the People of the Divine.