The story of the Golden Calf, which we read in last week’s Torah portion, is a great lesson in punctuality.
In the story, the Israelites have left Egypt and have made their way to Mount Sinai. There they are to get the Torah from God which will form the basis for their new community and new covenant. Moses is to go up on the mountain for 40 days and return with the Torah, but the people start to panic and lose faith, and ask Aaron, Moses’s brother who was left in charge, to make them an idol. God and Moses both get angry, and the result is Moses smashes the stone tablets of the commandments and executes 3,000 of the Israelites.
So where does punctuality fit in? What prompted the Israelites losing faith in God and Moses was the fact that Moses was late coming down the mountain: “When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’” (Exodus 32:1)
The ancient rabbis in a midrash (Torah commentary) ask the obvious question of the story. How long, they ask, was Moses late in coming down the mountain? Their answer? Six hours. Their answer comes from a play on the Hebrew. The Hebrew word for “delayed,” is boshesh. The rabbis deliberately misread this to be bo shesh, or “come six.” Six hours. The Israelites waited six hours before building an idol.
It is an interesting question: How much time must elapse before we assume something is wrong? How long do we wait before we move on? Or give up? [I remember in college talk of the 15-minute rule, that if a professor did not show up for 15 minutes class was cancelled.] Did the Israelites not wait long enough? The story of the Golden Calf teaches that patience is a virtue, but it can also be tested.
Today, we could imagine that Moses could have simply texted Aaron that he was going to be late, and all of this mess might have been averted. But that too might not have been the best solution.
Our contemporary technology with cell phones and texting and other communication apps make life very interesting for us. There is a lot of talk about how technology is making the world smaller—that we are now closely connected with those who are geographically far away from us.
At the same time that these apps make the world smaller, they are also making time longer.
I think about my own habits. I am late in picking up my older son from high school more often than I care to admit. I tend to get caught up with things at work or home and do not leave enough time to drive cross town to the school. But because I rely on texting to make a connection—saying “be there soon” or “I’m on my way”—then I feel that its OK to be late. So when I’m supposed to be at the school at 5:00, I text at 4:55 that I’m on my way, and show up around 5:15-5:20. Texting thus just made time longer.
I’m not condoning this behavior, but it is a symptom of our day and age. We feel that we can be less punctual because we send a text or a Facebook message or whatever to indicate we are going to be late, then we don’t feel bad not showing up on time.
We can, though, extend time in positive ways. Earlier this week we had Leap Day, the day added to the end of February every four years (except in years divisible by 400) in order to account for the fact that the Gregorian year and the astronomical year don’t exactly line up. And in our Jewish calendar we are currently in the middle of our Leap Month added to the calendar nine times in a 13-year cycle, to balance the difference between the lunar year and the solar year, which is necessary to keep the holidays in their correct seasons. In both of these cases we extend time in order to make things work better.
But when we extend time in negative ways, in accepting lateness because of easier communication, in thinking we can send a text rather than showing up at an appointed hour, we invite trouble. We need only look at the story of Moses and the Golden Calf to see what disaster might ensue from a lack of punctuality and a lack of respect for another’s time.
The Torah portion this week, which immediately follows the Golden Calf, speaks of the building of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites are to carry with them as they journey through the wilderness. (An earlier portion gave the instructions, now we read how they were implemented.) But immediately prior to the description of the construction, the Torah gives a reminder of Shabbat, the sacred seventh day of rest:
Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that God has commanded you to do. On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to God, whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day. (Exodus 35:1-3)
A traditional reading of this juxtaposition connects the idea of Shabbat with the Tabernacle, that even though the Israelites are about to engage in a massive labor project, that they must not neglect the commandment to cease from that labor on Shabbat. (And indeed the type of labor done in the process of building the Tabernacle is the source for the types of labor traditionally prohibited on Shabbat.)
However we could read these verses about observing Shabbat not as a prologue to the building of the Tabernacle, but as an epilogue to the building of the Golden Calf. The Torah reminds of the sanctity of time immediately following a story in which a misuse of time led to communal discord.
Time is sacred. Maybe the Israelites should have waited more. But on the other hand, maybe they should not have been kept waiting in the first place.