Written by Rabbi William Plevan, Congregation Shaare Zedek, New York, NY.
In recognition of Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, Rabbi Plevan is the fifth contributor to our weekly D’var Torah (word of Torah) blog post, where guest bloggers link the week’s Torah portion to the theme of inclusion.
In this week’s parashah, Ki Tissa, we read about the Israelites’ rebellion against God by creating the Golden Calf. As part of their worship of the calf, the Israelites make a sacrificial offering, after which, the Torah says, “vayakumu l’tzachek” – “they arose to dance.” The word l’tzachek – translated here as “to dance” – has many connotations in the Bible. It can mean to laugh, to make sport and sometimes suggests sexual playfulness and intimacy. Because the word l’tzachek occurs here in the context of a sacrificial festival, dancing seems to be the appropriate translation. But saying that the Israelites merely danced doesn’t fully capture the spirit of this act of rebellion; there must be more to it than that. Indeed, ancient rabbinic commentators have suggested that the festival of the Golden Calf involved ritualized sexual activities, or perhaps violent and murderous gladiatorial games.
Sometimes, of course, laughter and dancing can be joyous. As these rabbinic interpretations suggest, however, laughter can also be used to ridicule, humiliate and denigrate. Who were the Israelites ridiculing? Because they arose to dance together, the implication seems to be that they were ridiculing themselves. That is the ultimate act of rebellion – God had taken this people out to be God’s people. In ridiculing themselves, they ridicule God’s plan to make them a great nation.
God’s promise to make Israel a great nation began with Abraham, but even he did not always believe. When God tells Abraham that he and Sarah are due to have a child, Abraham laughs (yitzchak) because he does not believe it is possible for the two of them to have a child at ages 100 and 90 respectively. Likewise, when Sarah is told about the expected child soon after, she laughts (titzchak), also because she does not believe she and her husband could bear a child at that age. Their laugh, like that of the Israelites, is an expression of disbelief. How could that possibly happen? How could a beautiful new life come out of people so old and weak?
What does a child hear when they are laughed at? They hear that they are different, that they should feel ashamed of their difference and that they are bad because of it. But at a deeper level, they may hear the worst lies: no one believes in you, you shouldn’t believe in you, and you will never amount to anything. Telling that to someone else is not only cruel, it is also a denial of one the Torah’s fundamental teachings: that something beautiful can come from any person, because we are all created in God’s image. As our parashah suggests, denying God’s reality in this way is self-defeating. When we ridicule others, we are only ridiculing ourselves.