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Emme, my friend and Carpooling With Rabbi partner, and I have started a new podcast. It’s a deep dive into the famous biblical story of the Golden Calf, found in Exodus 32. Have a listen:
Move beyond comfort.
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60 SECONDS TO WISDOM. Short teachings on the weekly Torah portion. Suitable for all who seek.
How do you say “FOMO” in Yiddish?
In this episode, Kirsten and I talk about her favorite Torah portion, the story of the Golden Calf. Idolatry, social media, and more…
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.
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.
Today is Valentine’s Day, the day set aside to focus on romantic love. I know this holiday isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It might seem too commercial, a “Hallmark holiday” as it is sometimes called. And it is a day that is especially hard for those who are not in a relationship at the moment, or who are having difficultues, and I readily acknowledge that. Also, the violent history of the day—the capture and death of a priest who married soldiers in opposition to a Roman decree—is off putting to some and the clear Chrisitan roots give some Jews pause.
We do mark the day in our house. In the schools I think it to be cute how classes will exchange cards and small gifts with each other, an expression of friendship and affection that knows no boundaries. And we in our house exchange little trinkets and gifts—I traditionally get candy and socks—as signs of sweetness and affection.
This Shabbat, which falls on Valentine’s Day, is parasha Ki Tissa—famous for containing the story of the Golden Calf. The story is familiar to us: After leaving Egypt the Israelites travel to Mount Sinai. Moses up on the mountain meeting with God and receiving the Torah. The people down below getting restless, imploring Aaron to make them an idol. The idol is made and celebration begins. God gets angry and threatens to kill them all until Moses intercedes. Moses descends and is so upset that he smashes the tablets, destroys the idols and has a bunch of people killed.
The story is told mostly about obedience and lack thereof, the dangers of idolatry, the passion of God, and the “failure” of the Israelites and Aaron to recognize the true divinity of the one God.
But what if we read this story as a tale of love?
Love—ahavah—is not a foreign concept in the Torah, but is different than what we usually think of as romantic love. In the Torah (and I say Torah specifically, not thinking at the moment of the rest of the Tanakh with the erotic imagery of the Song of Songs and the lustful passions of King David) we do not have much of what we consider to be romantic love. Most marriages are arranged, and for those that are not explicit about the arrangements, we do not know exactly why they choose the spouses that they do. The famous dictum “Love your neighbor as yourself” is about how you behave towards your neighbor, not necessarily about how you feel about him. And loving God, as in the Deuteronomy passage that finds its way into our liturgy in the Shema, “you shall love Adonai your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” is a covenantal love which is expressed in action, observance of the mitzvot.
But while love is an act, it is also a feeling. And in the story of the Golden Calf, we see perhaps the playing out of the drama of love—full of passion, emotion, pain and ecstasy—and the desire for, and fulfillment of intimacy. The different episodes of the narrative demonstrate a dynamic in a close loving relationship:
The desire for intimacy: We usually read the desire of the Israelites as a lack of faith, a turning away from God to worship the idols they once held dear. But what if it the desire for the Calf is not a desire to turn away, but a desire to draw close? The Israelites are longing for intimacy, for close connection. The God who saved them from Egypt is remote, and now their one link—Moses—is also gone. The Israelites desire closeness, touch, feeling. The appeal for the Calf is an expression of love, not rejection. But as with matters of the heart, when we draw near in intimacy we run the risk of making mistakes and the stakes are so high.
The pain of rejection of unrequited love. God does not experience the building of the Calf as a desire for intimacy. God experiences is as a rejection of God’s advances. The Exodus was God’s expression of love towards the Israelites. God now feels that the love God extended is not being reciprocated. And as the Israelites may have made a misstep in the ways of love, so too does God. The ability to overinterpret and overanalyze the actions and motivations of our partners is immense. When that happens, we need…
The ability to express intense feelings in the safe space held by a partner. God gets upset and wants to destroy the Israelites. What does God say? “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them” (Exod. 32:10). What does God mean, the rabbis ask, by “let me be”? The midrash teaches in Exodus Rabbah,
By a parable of a king who became angry at his son and brought him into a chamber for punishment. There, as he began preparing himself to beat him, he kept shouting loudly, “Let me alone, that I may beat him!”–so loudly that he could be heard outside the chamber. The son’s tutor, standing in the reception room, said to himself: The king and his son are [alone] inside the chamber.
Why does the king keep shouting, “Let me alone,” unless he wants me to come in and plead on behalf of his son? That is why he keeps shouting, “Let me alone.” Likewise, when the Holy One said to Moses, “Now therefore let Me alone,” Moses reasoned: Because the Holy One wishes me to plead on Israel’s behalf, that is why God said, “Now therefore let Me alone.” At once he began to beseech mercy in their behalf.
God relies on the relationship and understanding God has with Moses—God wants Moses to intervene! Sometimes with an intimate partner we rely on that partner to anticipate our needs or to accommodate our emotional swings. In our intense emotion we give loving permission to our partner to intervene, to keep us in check, to allow us to get emotional, because with whom else can we let our true feelings show? This dynamic is sometimes part of the drama of love.
To play out this drama, we need to remember that when things go bad in the relationship, it does not mean the relationship ends. Rather the fact of the relationship itself is the basis for healing. God’s initial reaction is to destroy the Israelites and start over with Moses—“I will make of you [Moses] a great nation.” Moses, however, challenges God. You can not do that, Moses says, because you have already made a commitment to these people. You formed a covenant with their ancestors and therefore with them. You may be upset, but the fact of the relationship stands. You can not just abandon that relationship when things go bad. And is Moses’s plea, it is the appeal to the relationship—the covenant—which leads God to…
Forgiveness: When we allow our emotions to be expressed in a safe space, and we are reminded of the primacy of the relationship itself, we are able to forgive and make amends. The gift of forgiveness to a loving partner is one of the greatest gifts we can bestow. When we seek and grant forgiveness we are humble and vulnerable. These intentions are their most intense and their easiest when with a loving partner.
After trial and forgiveness comes the renewed desire for intimacy. At the end of the Golden Calf episode, what does Moses do? He too makes a renewed appeal to intimacy. I don’t really know you God, he says, even though I am with you are you are with me. Can you show me your glory, so I can truly know you? Moses perhaps is still feeling as remote as the Israelites did when they desired a Calf, and in his desire for intimacy he does not want to make the same mistake. He truly wants to draw close.
God acquiesces to the request, but states that Moses can only see part of the divine, a human could not stand to see it all. So he shows him God’s “back” or trace. The intimacy is forged, but with a bit of the mystery remaining. As with any intimate partner, there should always be more to discover and reveal. Even the person to whom we are closest we can not truly know.
And after this? A beautiful image of Moses ascending the mountain again and God descending in a cloud to meet him. And God “passing by” Moses and revealing the 13 attributes of mercy. (Exodus 34:4-7) After his second time descending the mountain Moses’s face is “radiant”—flush from the close and loving encounter with the divine.
While traditionally understood as a story of obedience and punishment, a polemic against idolatry and lack of faith, the story of the Golden Calf is a story of love and emotion and relationship. It begins with a deep desire to draw near and be close, an act fraught with the danger of taking missteps. It continues with anger and hurt over a seeming rejection of love, and a demonstration of emoting in the safe space guaranteed by a loving partner. It affirms that the relationship itself is fundamental, especially as a basis for forgiveness, which needs to be sought and granted. Then finally an expressed desire for renewed intimacy, to guarantee the same mistakes will not be repeated and an even deeper closeness can result.
A desire to draw close? Renewed intimacy following a period of difficulty? Revelation and mystery, radiance and satisfaction? The ever-strengthening of bonds?
Sounds like love to me.
Recently I was asked by a member of the congregation about how we understand Exodus 31. She was asked by a neighbor about the Jewish understanding of this text and wanted to check about what she understood it to mean. The relevant text (v. 14-15) reads, “You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. One who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to God, whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death”
My read of this text is that while perhaps at one time, in another historical-sociological setting, it may have meant actual death or actual expulsion, the way we understand it today is as metaphor. Shabbat–a sacred day set aside for rest, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday–is so integral to Jewish practice and a Jewish spiritual identity that to turn away from Shabbat is to turn away from tradition, from one’s community, from God. Ignoring Shabbat cuts oneself off from among one’s kin; ignoring Shabbat is a type of spiritual death.
And this week this passage comes up in our weekly reading. This week’s portion, Ki Tisa, spans Exodus 30:11-34:34. The narrative arc of the parasha spans the last of Moses’s time on the mountain to when he descends to find the Israelites, left alone for 40 days, worshiping and holding a festival to a Golden Calf which they had built.
The details of the beginning part of the parasha, the time when Moses on the mountain, are concerned with the last of the laws God reveals to Moses: the Israelites are to take a census, the specs for the last of the tools of the Tabernacle (the portable sanctuary the Israelites are to build and use), the recipe for the incense and Shabbat.
This is not the only mention of Shabbat in the Torah. It is found in the 10 Commandments (both tellings) and in other places as well. And the mention of Shabbat in our parasha is not exclusively in the verses above. In fact, the next two verses are probably two of the most well-known verses relating to Shabbat since it is a part of our liturgy–the “veshamru,” which we sing on Friday night and as part of Saturday morning Kiddush.
The veshamru, verses 16-17, reads:
“The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all times; it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed.”
I love this version of the Shabbat commandment because of the verbs found in these verses and what it means for our relationship to this sacred practice. First, in the end of the text is a wonderful verb, “and was refreshed” (vayinafash), derived from the noun nefesh. As quoted in the JPS Commentary on Exodus, nefesh is “a multi-valent term that can refer to a person’s life essence, vitality, psychic energy, or essential character. The verbal form used here conveys the notion of a fresh infusion of spiritual and physical vigor, the reinvigoration of the totality of one’s being.” (p. 202) Wow. This provides, too, a nice counterbalance to the talk of death above. Not observing Shabbat is like death because the point of Shabbat is to be life-giving.
But the verbs in the first part of the selection are just as powerful. First we are to “keep” (veshamru) Shabbat, and observe (la’asot) Shabbat. Both active verbs. And the translation of “observe” for la’asot makes sense in context, but loses another valence of the verb: to make, or to do. So the irony is that to observe the day of rest we must be active. In other words, Shabbat will come no matter what. Time passes, six days pass and the seventh day will come. But to mark the seventh day as Shabbat takes affirmative steps on our part.
There is a traditional means of Shabbat observance. But there is also different ways to have a Shabbat consciousness, to “make” Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to us. Each week as part of a short meditation during Friday night services, I invite those assembled to ask themselves, “How am I going to rest this Shabbat? How am I going to renew myself this Shabbat?” So, how do you observe Shabbat in a way that is life-giving? [Check this out if you are looking for a way, the Sabbath Manifesto. The folks here are declaring this weekend the “National Day of Unplugging”]
Recently I was having a conversation with my new colleague the Rev. Elsa Peters, who recently came to town to assume the pulpit of The United Churches. We were talking about the role of “Sabbath” in Christian and Jewish practice. When I was talking about this week’s Torah portion, about the move from Tabernacle to Shabbat to Golden Calf, she asked, “what does Shabbat have to do with the Golden Calf?” It was a wonderful and intriguing question; it was something I hadn’t thought of before. Jewish commentary usually relates this mention of Shabbat to what comes before, to the Tabernacle. It serves as a reminder that even for sacred work, one needs to take a break for Shabbat. And, that in a Jewish theological framework, time trumps space. And, the description of the building of the Tabernacle is also the source of the traditionally prohibited types of work. Connecting Shabbat to the Golden Calf provided some new fodder for thought. (Pun intended)
So what might Shabbat have to do with the Golden Calf? The Golden Calf is the paradigmatic story of idolatry, one of the worst sins according to the Torah. It represents in the ancient framework a turning away from God to worship other gods. That is what happens in the story of Exodus, the Israelites, worried that their leader Moses has disappeared and God is seemingly absent, construct an idol that they can then worship.
But understood outside this ancient framework, idolatry is something which we see operating today. In our contemporary framework, we often speak of “idolatry” not so much in making and worshiping images of false deities, but in the things, the objects, the material goods which we elevate to an exalted status in our lives. We become obsessed with what we have that we lose sight of relationships or human connection. Idolatry represents the substitution of the tangible for something that is ultimately intangible.
But perhaps we can think of idolatry in relation to time as well. Another characteristic of idolatry is control. Our ancients made the Golden Calf because the absence of Moses reminded them of the lack of control over their lives. They needed something they could manipulate, something they can control. They wanted certainty in the face of uncertainty, without realizing that certainty is an illusion. In our contemporary lives we make idols of time. In order to feel that we are in control, we try to conquer time, we multitask, we overschedule. We use it up and try to create more. We use our mastery of time as a barometer of success, as a source of pride. Those who fill up their time are seen as important, worthy of admiration and accomplished.
But this may not be really the case. A recent study shows that slowing down may lead to a better life. But the Torah has already told us this.
So what does Shabbat have to do with the Golden Calf? The proximity of the stories tells us that we have a choice: we make Shabbat, or we make an idol of time. We focus on ways to rejuvenate our nefesh, or wear ourselves out worshiping the clock.
The Torah’s message is clear: we need to turn away from the idol, and turn towards the idle.