This sermon was delivered at our Saturday morning service on March 2nd. You can listen to this drash now on the latest episode of the Contact Chai podcast or watch on Mishkan’s YouTube channel.

I recently took a break from social media. It wasn’t a long break, only a day-and-a-half while on vacation – but for someone who checks my phone first thing when I wake up in the morning and last thing before going to bed at night, it felt like a significant accomplishment. While I recognize the ways that social media is not good for the mind or soul (I also watched “The Social Dilemma”), I appreciate that it can facilitate connection in an increasingly busy and isolated world. I like seeing my friends’ pets and hobbies and trips to Mexico. But recently it has been causing me stress. It always does during an election year. But with the conflict in Israel and Gaza – and along with it, the deluge of updates and opinions and advocacy, it had become too much.

I’m not going to talk about the war, not today. But  what has bothered me most over last past few months has been watching the growing division between friends and acquaintances who see themselves on one side of this conflict or the other – and not just in the opinions they hold, but how they understand facts on the ground: facts that contradict each other, that cannot coexist, that tell two completely different stories about what is happening overseas. And more disheartening, what pushed me to take a break from social media because it consistently pushed me to tears, that these same friends and acquaintances see those who disagree with them as ignorant, immoral, or – at their worst – inhuman.

Polarization is not a new phenomenon, but it has become more intense, more entrenched, and more of a problem. It has repeatedly incapacitated Congress. It has torn apart our communities. It has broken up families. It’s not that we just disagree on important issues. It is that disagreement has become an indictment of each other’s character. Shortly before the advent of COVID, a study in the Annual Review of Political Science coined a new term for this shift: affective polarization. The authors observed that Democrats and Republicans “both say that the other party’s members are hypocritical, selfish, and close minded, and they are unwilling to socialize across party lines.” The fight over vaccines, the Black Lives Matter protests, the 2020 election, continued gun violence, the overturning of Roe v. Wade has only made this worse.

I get it though. In a world spinning out of control, having a clear sense of what is right and what is wrong (or who is right and who is wrong) gives us something solid to stand on. I’m a big fan of high fantasy – think JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. One of the consistent elements of the genre is that there is a hero and there is a villain, and although they might be given a particular motive, each is – at their core – good or evil, and the story ends with the triumph of the former and the defeat of the latter. There is something comforting about this construction, a world that can be fixed by eliminating a single entity or element. Our world is much messier, much more complicated. We cannot be divided into good elves and evil orcs. We are humans: all of us morally inconsistent, capable of both healing and hurting, with the capacity to build up and tear down. Fantasy is flat. Reality is much more complex.

When looking at our Torah portion this week, the rabbis ask: what *exactly* is the sin of the Golden Calf? Let me set the stage for us. The Israelites are camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, having only been recently liberated from slavery in Egypt. Their leader, Moses, has been consulting God on the peak of the mountain for forty days and forty nights. Seeing that he had not yet returned, the people turn to his brother Aaron. “Make a god for us,” they demand. “One that will lead us on our journey, because Moses – the one who got us this far – seems to have disappeared.” And so Aaron gathers gold from the Israelites, places it in a mold, and makes a molten calf. The people gather around the statue, celebrate, and exclaim: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

So let’s return to the question posed by the rabbis, what exactly is their sin?

Perhaps their sin is idolatry, a violation of the very first commandment of the decalogue: you shall have no other God beside me (i.e. that whole monotheism thing). But as the biblical scholar Joel Baden points out, the Israelites aren’t creating a brand new god. In fact, they are quite certain about who the Golden Calf is supposed to represent: the same God that brought down the ten plagues, that split the Reed Sea, that provided them mana to eat, and made them a free people. “They may be exhibiting a lack of faith,” he writes, “But they are not historical revisionists.”

Perhaps their sin is impatience, a lack of trust that Moses would come back when Moses said he would come back. The rabbis teach that when day forty arrived, satan (an adversarial, almost mischievous figure in our tradition, who likes to sow discord) started to spread rumors. Maybe he had forgotten them. Maybe he had abandoned them. Maybe he had died. The people begin to worry, and their worry soon turns to distrust and despair. The people need reassurance, something tangible they can hold on to. The Golden Calf is immediate, and easily understood – something they could see, something they could touch.

But perhaps this is their sin: trying to constrain God – the source of life, the creator of all things – into something small and pedestrian. The Golden Calf is an attempt to take something that challenges their understanding of the world and turn it into something familiar, something known, something not unlike the idols they had walked by every day back in Egypt. It is the sin of imposing the flatness of fantasy onto the complicated contours of reality.

Revelation is uncomfortable. It had upset everything our ancestors thought they knew about the world, not only in toppling empires and dismantling social structures that had been in place for centuries – but in showing them a God that is expansive, both capable of being experienced by each of us yet unable to be fully known or understood by any one of us. The rabbis teach that when our ancestors stood at Mount Sinai, every person encountered the divine in their own way – whether because of where they stood, or how tall or short they were, or because they lived with a disability, or because of their age or their gender identity or the abundance of blessing they had been given or the heartbreak they carried in that moment. The rabbis go even further, saying that our ancestors were joined by the souls of every single Jew who had come before them and every single Jew who would one day come into existence. And not only Jews, but all people; Rabbi Yochanan teaches that when God spoke, God spoke in seventy languages so that the whole world could understand. The result is that the only way any of us could construct a complete picture of the divine is by speaking to every single person who was, who is, and who will be.

How much simpler to stand around a golden statue and have each person say: that is a cow. That is a cow. That is a cow. How much more challenging to create mutual understanding but how much richer for all of us to share our moment of revelation, precious and unique. For me to say that God spoke like thunder. For you to say God came to you like a flash of lightning. And for her to say that God felt like being cradled by her mother. And for him to say that God held him with the ecstasy of a lover. And for them to say that they don’t believe in God at all, but that there is something there – a thread that ties us together, reminding us at our loneliest or most selfish that we are always part of something greater than ourselves.

The sin of the Golden Calf is a reminder that the truth is much larger than what any of us are able to grasp alone. It is also a warning to not make idols of our own worldview – even when it is shared by others.

A recent study by MIT philosopher Kevin Dorst explored the processes that drive polarization, showing that people will aggressively scrutinize evidence that contradicts their existing point of view while more readily accepting that which supports it. It is trusting what is familiar, of imposing the flatness of our own biases on a reality that is complex, nuanced, and shot through with uncertainty. “People who develop radically different views,” Dorst concludes, “are not necessarily being misled or reacting emotionally, but, in part, responding rationally to genuinely ambiguous information.” The problem is that in our drive to reduce ambiguity, we can oversimplify – and in our oversimplification, we lay the groundwork for affective polarization. For if we don’t trust information that contradicts our worldview, we become equally suspicious of the people who believe it. And if what they know to be true is wrong, they must also be wrong. And if they are so intractably wrong: well then perhaps what would set the world right again is them not existing at all.

“It’s not that specific issues are unimportant,” Jonathan Weiler, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, recently opined, “But they become secondary, in a sense, to the gut-level hatred and mistrust that now defines our politics.” He cites poll data that shows a startling increase pre-pandemic to this moment in how we perceive those who do not think like us: it’s not that we simply feel they are misguided, we believe that they are inherently immoral. And why would we want to associate with someone who is dishonest or unprincipled? So we surround ourselves with the people who agree with us, those who see a broad truth through the same narrow lens. We create an idol of our own opinions, tests of moral purity that determine who is in and who is out. Do you agree that God is a Golden Calf? Great, you’re in.

As the journalist Jessica Grose wrote a few months ago: “The attitude seems to be: You have to agree with me about everything or you’re my enemy and we can’t work together on anything.” We give in to the fantasy that we are the heroes (we’re always the heroes in this story) and they are the villains, a tale of elves and orcs that reduces the complexity of human beings into dangerously inhuman caricatures. Dangerous because it is much easier to kill an orc than a person.

I don’t want to suggest that any of us wish harm on those who disagree with us (although I am sure we’ve seen this suggested by politicians and pundits alike). But I do want each of us to take seriously how the belief that we, and those who are like us, have an exclusive claim on the truth contributes to an affective polarization that dehumanizes those who think differently – and that this so easily leads to hatred and violence.

The thing is, maybe you’re right. Maybe you’re right about this particular issue. Yet perhaps you’re wrong. Chances are you’re partially right – and so are the people you disagree with. And the only way to know, the only way to continue refining our understanding of the world is by remaining open to other ideas of what could be true. Some of these might be easy to dismiss out of hand, because they are so far removed from fact or unmoored from commonly shared ethics (I am not proposing moral relativism). However, I imagine many more ideas will challenge us, provoke us to think about our own opinions more deeply, and reshape how we think for the better. The author Adam Grant suggests that we should approach the world as a scientist: we have a hypothesis of what is right, but we are willing and ready to correct it for the sake of truth. And like a scientist, we are excited to learn new information because it helps us refine our understanding and grow in our knowledge of that which we care about most.

At the very least, by seeing every person as holding a piece of truth that we are not able to access by ourselves we work against the forces of polarization that would divide our country, our communities, even this room into intractable groups of us and them.

And so, when I was done with my (admittedly short) social media break, I decided that I wasn’t going to unfollow or unfriend the people I disagreed with. Sometimes their posts challenge me. Sometimes their posts break my heart. But in each moment, I am able to learn – about myself, about people who are like me, and most importantly about people who are not like me. And then I click through to their profile, to see their photos of pets and hobbies and vacations somewhere warm to remind myself that they are human: as complex and complicated, frustratingly irreducible and beautifully nuanced as the world we live in.

My blessing for all of us, is that we are able to see – in ourselves and in each other – that glimpse of revelation, uniquely our own yet part of something so much larger, more magnificent, more inspiring than what we could imagine by ourselves.

Shabbat shalom.