Exodus Two Ways to Tell a Story

By Rabbi Gray Myrseth
Rabbi Gray Myrseth

Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)

In Parshat Ki Tisa, a tremendous rupture occurs. Moses is still up on Mount Sinai, obscured by the God-cloud of Revelation, and the people wait long enough that they start to get scared.

They want something to worship, so they build a golden calf and call it their God. When Moses returns with the tablets of Divine testimony, he cries out and throws the tablets to the ground, shattering them into fragments.

The story could so easily have ended there, with a covenant broken almost before it began. But ultimately, Moses ascends once again to the heights and the Holy One. During this second ascension, God promises to let Moses come even closer than before, to see not God’s face but God’s back—so long as Moses carves a second set of tablets where the covenant can be reinscribed.

I read this parsha and I see my own family. When my father was a young man, he returned in love from a trip abroad. In a teahouse in Kathmandu on New Year’s Day 1982, he had met a woman from Norway. They both fell in love at first sight. Back in his hometown of Minneapolis, he went to his childhood rabbi, saying, “I’ve met the woman I’m going to marry.” He was right. My parents would be married within the year, my mother would move to San Francisco to live with my father, and the rest of our lives would unfold from there. But in that moment, when my father declared his momentous news, his rabbi could only say, “Don’t do it. This is the worst mistake you could make. What will happen to the children?”

I can tell my story as one of disruption: that rabbi nearly succeeded in pushing my family out of organized Jewish community and practice. I grew up with a Judaism that existed mostly in our own home, away from larger institutional Jewish settings. Like my parents, I learned a subtle discomfort in organized Jewish spaces, a fear of judgement and exclusion, a wariness and uncertainty about whether I belonged. And then, somehow, I found a way back in. As an adult, I fell in love with Jewish learning and practice. I learned the alef-bet. I became a rabbi. Now my parents are members at the synagogue where I work. It’s a miracle that we weren’t split off from Jewish community forever.

I can also tell my story as one of seamless continuity: one of my mother’s brothers is a Lutheran minister, a bishop in the Norwegian church, and another is a Catholic priest. It’s a family business. I grew up with no shortage of clergy role models. On both sides of my family, we’re inquisitive nerds, bookworms with insatiable appetites for learning. My parents are therapists with well-developed spiritual lives of their own. It’s no wonder I turned out the way that I did.

What’s remarkable is that both stories are the same story. Both lives are my life. This is not only true in the realm of my family’s Jewish story, but also in the realm of my own experience as a nonbinary transgender person. I can tell you that I’ve always been this way. That my love of flower patterns as a child has become a love of flower-patterned button down shirts in adulthood. I can tell you that I have always been exactly who I am. I can also tell you that for years, I had no idea who I was becoming. That I mistakenly assumed that being feminine meant I had to identify as a girl and then a woman. I can tell you that it took me decades to find a self I could inhabit fully and without fear.

I suspect that this double consciousness, this both/and narrative, will be familiar to anyone who lives, prays, and teaches in a tradition that never anticipated their leadership—and sometimes not even their presence. You know who you are. You know what I’m talking about. You know that to be at home in my own tradition, to declare my role as a learner and teacher of Talmud, I have to believe that the rabbinic sages are, for the most part, my allies. That, while they could not have anticipated me specifically, they are my spiritual and intellectual kin. I have to believe my presence at this table is one eventual consequence of their radical, creative, courageous project.

But to only tell the story in this way is to miss an essential half of the picture. Because there is also the audacity needed to claim my seat at the table. There is also the effort, the challenge, the loss and grief of living in loving, holy relationship with a tradition that was not originally designed with me or most of my colleagues in mind.

Our tradition knows this doubling, deep down at its roots. After his intimate encounter with the Divine, Moses comes back down the mountain carrying a new set of engraved tablets. In the Talmud, an elaborate debate emerges around the question of what is exactly inside the biblical ark of the covenant. When we learn (Bava Batra 14a-b) that the ark contained “just the tablets” bearing the Ten Utterances, or commandments, how are we to interpret this?

We are to understand that when Moses comes down from the mountain, the people receive him, receive the second tablets, and place those new slabs of stone alongside the broken ones into the ark. The story of continuity and the story of disruption—neither one is whole without the other. Our ancestors carry both in all their wanderings. One is sacred; the other is sacred as well.

Listen to Gray discuss this piece with Yeshiva University’s Joy Ladin on Hebrew College’s “Speaking Torah” podcast. Gray was ordained in 2017 by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, MA, and is currently serving as Youth Programs Director at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, CA.

Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson is Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.

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