This week’s Torah portion Ki Tissa tells the famous story of the Golden Calf. The Israelites, having escaped Egyptian slavery, are encamped around Mount Sinai. Moses is up on the summit receiving the Torah from God. When he is late in coming down the mountain, the Israelites begin to worry and ask Aaron, Moses’s brother who was left in charge, to make them an idol to worship. Aaron gives in and makes a gold calf. God is furious and tells Moses that the Israelites will be destroyed and that God will start over with Moses, who will be the ancestor of a great nation. Moses pleas with God to spare the people, and his pleas is successful: God steps back and rescinds the punishment.
In his plea to God, Moses says, “Let not Your anger, O God, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand.” (Exodus 22:11) The midrash (ancient Torah commentary) asks, why does Moses mention the exodus from Egypt at this point? The answer given is that Moses was making a specific argument with God, it is not just a throwaway line or a rhetorical flourish. The midrash fills in the story by saying: “Moses was pleading: ‘Master of the universe, from where did You bring them? Was it not out of Egypt, where they worship calves?’”
The midrash continues:
The aptness of Moses’ plea will be understood, said Rabbi Huna in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, by the parable of a sage who opened a perfume shop for his son in the street of harlots. The street plied its trade, the perfume business plied its trade, and the lad, like any young male, plied his natural inclination–he strayed into depraved ways. When the father came and caught him with a harlot, he began to shout, “I’ll kill you!” But the sage’s friend was there, and he spoke up. “You yourself ruined your son, and now you are yelling at him! You ignored all other occupations and taught him to be a perfumer; you ignored all other streets and deliberately opened a shop for him in the street of harlots.” Likewise, Moses said: Master of the universe, You ignored the entire world and deliberately enslaved Your children in Egypt, where the inhabitants worship calves; and so Your children learned from the Egyptians, and now have even made a calf for themselves. Therefore Moses said, “That You have brought forth out of the land of Egypt”–bear in mind from what kind of place You brought them forth. (Exodus Rabbah 43:7)
The parable of the harlot may be extreme, but the point is, the Israelites were deeply influenced by their surroundings, and to break that of them so easily would be hard. Of course they built a calf, Moses is saying, they were slaves in that calf-worshiping country of Egypt for so long…what do you expect?! (And, Moses goes on, it is your fault God for enslaving them there in the first place!)
So, are the Israelites absolved? We know that our upbringings are deeply influential, they imprint upon us behaviors and ideas that are hard to change, even if a change would be for the better. Habits are hard to shake even if rationally we know we should make a change.
There is a lot written about how to change habits, steps one can take to turn away from bad behaviors to good ones. There are always things we want to change–for me, I know I want to and should exercise more–but there are always things that seem to get in the way.
Or do they? One article I came across recently is called 5 Unexpected Ways to Break a Bad Habit. One step that I thought was particularly interesting was “Think Doom and Gloom”:
Positive thinking absolutely has its time and place, [Art] Markman [a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, author of Smart Change: Five Tools to Create Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others] said, but one of the biggest mistakes he sees is being too cheery about your habit-breaking prospects. “People don’t take the obstacles they’re going to face seriously enough when they set out to change behaviors,” he said.
“Turns out, each of us has a finely honed ability to really be able to talk ourselves out of anything,” Markman continued. Instead of pretending that’s not the case, “engage that process,” he urged. “Figure out all of the things that can go wrong, and use those as guideposts for the things you need to be prepared for as you embark on the process of making change. Because a lot of obstacles are very real.”
Bad habits are hard to break. Whether its worshiping calf idols or living a sedentary lifestyle, its not easy to move to the better habit. Knowing the obstacles and being real about them is one of the steps.
And this is what Moses is telling God. We can ask, to what extent is Moses’s argument an explanation and to what extent is it an excuse? It’s a little of both. The behavior of the Israelites isn’t desired, there is a movement to positive change, but its important to be real about what the Israelites have experienced and lived through. It’s important to know what the real obstacles are. Don’t destroy the Israelites, argues Moses, remember where they are coming from. Remember their history and their realities. Remember that change is possible, but we need to be real about what it takes to make it.
We remember this for ourselves as well. We ask, how do we make personal change when known and comfortable ways of being are so deeply held? Realistically, persistently and with a healthy dose of self-forgiveness.
God was swayed by the argument and forgave the Israelites, recognizing, perhaps, that they were at the beginning of their journey and understanding the true obstacles to change. We can, therefore, forgive ourselves, recognizing how our journeys are always beginning anew, and understanding our obstacles to change.
If we do then yes, you can teach an old calf new tricks.