Drash Vayakel 5765 - Drum Circles, the Mishkan and the Golden Calf

This portion I'd like to contrast between the golden calf and the Mishkan. The golden calf of course, is the idol created by Aaron with an inscribing tool, at the insistence of men who believed Moses wasn’t coming back. (Exodus 32:1-4) Aaron claimed he collected earrings from these men, threw them into a fire and a golden calf jumped out (32:24). The celebration to this golden calf was loud and chaotic. Midrash claims that among their chaos was sexual abuse of others. The chaos was so loud, Joshua thought from his position on Sinai that the camp was under attack (32:17).

On the other hand is this week’s portion. Moses delivers the message he received on Sinai to build the Mishkan, and ask for donations and workers for the cause (35:4-5), lead by Betzalel, appointed by God as the chief workman(35:30). Both men and women come with their hands full of stuff. The response for donations of gold, linen, wood, blue thread and purple thread is so overwhelming Betzalel implores Moses to tell the people to stop bringing donations(36:5-6), as they have plenty to finish. Betzalel and his crews finish the job with impressive results.

Recently I was remembering something that happened the summer of 1999, that is the heart of the difference between the golden calf and the Mishkan. This story started at the end of the ALEPH Kallah in Corvallis Oregon. While driving several friends to the airport in Portland, one of them complained that she would miss the drum circles. My response was simple: We'll make one when we get home. So I started a drum circle.

I think the best way to summarize the next few months is this: the drum circle was a disaster. I gave up after three months, seriously burnt out from the effort, actually falling into a deep spiritual crisis because of it. One of my best friends took over and gave it one of the most serious and earnest attempts to keep the thing alive. Eventually, however the format changed and guitars replaced drums.

It was with an incredible irony that the three of us, my best friend, my friend from the car and me were together again. This however was different. My best friend was leading services, but no one could hear his guitar over the percussion. I was sitting next to him, tapping out a bass rhythm on my shaman-style frame drum. A week later I was drumming again, this time at someone's house, and once again the vibrations one could feel in the bones- and it felt really good. But that Saturday evening I realized something about drumming I never realized before. Here were drummers, beginners to professionals, with an amazing number of percussion instruments, shakers, sticks, cowbells, jembes, congas, wood harps, and my little (but loud) frame drum. It should have been total chaos - but it wasn't. It all worked and sounded together. All these different skill levels and sounds meshed together into one beautiful incredibly moving and holy sound. It was collaboration of individuals creating something that one alone could not.

There was another collaboration about a year and a half ago that I think of too. In a translation class I take every Wednesday, we translated and discussed the story of the golden calf in both Hebrew and Aramaic. My classmates come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. I noticed something the bothered me as a former sculptor. Aaron "Inscribed" in order to make the calf. Inscribing is a method for scratching on to a surface, leaving an indentation, which doesn't seem to be a way to make a three dimensional idol. A metals engineer noticed something else. He wasn't even sure that a large gold statue even with an armature would stand: gold is too soft but heavy and the thing would fall apart pretty quickly. Another person noted that the word for "your God" referring to the calf was written as if it was in the plural (32:8). While Elohim God looks like it is written in the plural, that word uses singular verbs, both the Hebrew and Aramaic Targums put the verbs in the plural.  As we talked this out, we meshed out an interesting hypothesis: this was not one golden calf as shown in the Ten commandments or any other biblical film. The reason our engineer friend came up with is that the calf came straight out of the fire was it was not one but a whole bunch of small cast amulets. One would throw the gold into the fire, and as gold has a low melting temperature it would pour out of the bottom of the fire where a mold would shape it. This is why the text said the Aaron "inscribed" the calf. He simply made the mold and the gold pouring out made the rest.    

Thinking about this now, I think there is one more part to my class’s Midrash. For there to be individual gold amulets meant everyone did as they pleased with the same identical mass-produced object. There was no building, just partying, rape and chaos. It was “the people” who did this. Tradition also records it was just men, not women who engaged in the sin of golden calf- “the people” was just the men. In this weeks portion it is not “the people” Moses speaks to but “all the assembly of Israel.” And the text is very clear here: both men and women responded who were “wise in heart” to the asking for donations, both of materials and of skills. Everyone had skill, which was used to its best. Both men and women made the Mishkan, building together, from the skills they had. By what the text says, it was the women who made and dyed every thread used in the Mishkan. The Mishkan was a collaborative effort which somehow worked, because of something that the text called the wisdom of the heart, hochmat ha lev.

Sitting in a drum circle, I feel that wisdom. It is in every drumbeat that we hit. Be it Djembe, shaker, cowbell, or frame drum, there is a deeper beat that we will feel. It is the beat of our lev, our heart. Even before the drum circle is fully in motion, while a few of us are just goofing individually, my drum cannot help but play out a beat, one that others are also starting to play. Whether it was my beat or theirs didn’t matter, it was just the beat. Over and over again, the beat continued, and more drums start to play. I play in a style that takes not one but at least five cultures into play with an instrument which has so many names: the Hebrew, Tof, the Egyptian Tar or Deff, the Persian Daff, the Irish Bodhran, and the Native American Shaman’s drum. I play a Middle Eastern rhythm on a drum strung for Native American play tied with tzitzit, with hand strokes from Ireland. Hochmat ha lev is unique to each of us as I sat here looking at Jembes and congas and shakers, not to mention those dancing to our beats.   It is not a mass produced amulet that we party to. Each drum was played differently each were unique. Our strong players, like Betzalel at the Mishkan work site, kept the tempo for all of us, but each played something entirely different. But together it was an incredibly beautiful sound, the sound of an assembly of hochmat ha lev, and I truly believe, like the completed Mishkan, the Shechina rested among us.

 The Torah portion and the drum circles give us an insight into something more: the survival of the Jewish people. Betzalel could not build the Mishkan all by himself. One drum, even when played by Mickey Hart, Layne Redmond, or Babatunde Olatunji sounds nothing like thirty. As I continue to read and get depressed about the future of the Jewish people, I can now think about drum circles. Many claim we are turning into people who do everything by choice, we have “privatized” our religion to a personal style, in a sense we follow our own golden calves in a mass produced society. We become a form of idolatry, the critics claim. But no one person ever could do or remember all the mitzvot. When we take all of our styles in concert, in collaboration, we create something holy and sustainable.  We are not one in that we all are some kind mass produced Jew, identical to every other Jew because we are forced to follow the same rules. We become part of the One when we, as the unique expression we are, join our hochmat ha lev to the rhythms of the rest.

As Psalm 150, indeed the book of Psalms, concludes (v. 3-6)

Praise Him with the sound of the shofar
Praise Him with the harp and the lyre
Praise Him with drum and dance
Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe
Praise Him with the sounding cymbals
Praise Him with the loud clashing cymbals
Every soul praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!

Or in the simpler words of Bob Marley:

We’re jammin’ in the name of the Lord.