Before the lizard brain takes over, let’s get a clear image of what we’re waiting for… and why!
Table for Five: Ki Tisa
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
When the people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Come! Make us a god that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we do not know what has become of him.”
Miriam Mill-Kreisman, President, Tzaddik Foundation
There is so much confusion in this one verse of the Torah. At the beginning it says “the people saw that Moshe was late.” Rashi states “Satan showed a semblance of darkness, as if indicating that Moshe had surely died.” Yet at the end of the verse, it states the people still “didn’t know what has become of him (Moshe).”
Some became hysterical and killed Hur, Miriam’s son, who was left in charge with Aaron. Some say only the erev rav, the mixed multitude who accompanied the Jews, maybe a few thousand, “gathered against Aaron.” That’s quite an imposing crowd but there were millions at Sinai. Yet as we saw in Washington, it doesn’t take that many people to destroy the peace. And did they ever!
“Make us a god that will go before us.” As if Aaron could make a god. But these people were out of their minds. “Because this man Moshe” – they didn’t want to depend on a mere man but wanted some god to lead them. “Who brought us up from the land of Egypt” – did they not realize G-d was leading them and Moshe only followed G-d’s will?
Maybe receiving the Torah at Sinai was more than some could take. And 40 days was too much time to wait. And they were too dependent on Moshe. All this confusion led to what was to become their worst panic attack. The worship of the Golden Calf. Never again. Patience. God’s anointed one is coming.
Rabbi Chaim Tureff, Pressman Academy and Director of STARS Addiction Recovery
According to Psychology Today, fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger that has been pivotal throughout human evolution. So what were the Israelites fearful of? Not having a leader? Feeling that they were alone or being abandoned?
It’s not so out of the ordinary that they went back to old habits at a time of fear. Although the Ramban and Ibn Ezra go out of their way to point out that the Jews were not interested in worshipping idols, it’s not strange to think that they were. They had just spent hundreds of years in slavery in a place surrounded by idolatry. All of a sudden God saves the Jews, there’s a pinnacle moment at Mt. Sinai and then silence. Working with people in addiction recovery, this is a common thread. People spend their entire lives battling addiction until finally having a Mt. Sinai moment and getting sober, but then something happens which causes an inordinate amount of stress and they go back to their old habits.
Even though the addictive substance is self-destructive and hasn’t shown any success in the past, it is where they go. Ultimately one needs to pick up and continue rather than allow one enormous misstep to define the rest of their life. As Hesse states in Narcissus and Goldmund, “There is no peace … that lives within us constantly and never leaves us. There is only the peace that must be won again and again, each new day of our lives… ”
Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Executive Director, Aish LA
How could the Jews worship an idol after receiving the Torah 40 days before? They turned the means into their end.
Imagine you’re driving alone at 2:00 a.m. on a dark country road. It’s freezing, with blinding sleet pounding your windshield. Your GPS is your lifeline. You have just enough fuel till the gas station up ahead and only 5% battery left on your phone. Suddenly you reach a fork in the road and simultaneously your GPS loses service. You are lost in the wilderness!
So too the Jews. Moses, their guide, is absent, seemingly forever. They feel abandoned and need a substitute intermediary between them and God. In a fit of total groupthink, they succumb to the madness of the crowd and lose sight of their destiny and purpose. They turn their intercessor, the mysterious Golden Calf, into their destination. Created through black magic and subsequently worshiped by the mixed multitude – the converts from Egypt who escaped with them – their new GPS morphed into a god.
It seems ridiculous and appalling until we examine our lives and ask ourselves what has become of the idealistic goals of our youth? Have we replaced them, instead, with what should’ve been the means to accomplish them? Do I control my wealth, status and position or does it control me, arresting the brilliant hope of my youth?
Let us not wonder in disbelief at the Jews panicking in the desert. Rather let us take stock of the direction of our own lives.
Dr. Erica Rothblum, Head of School, Pressman Academy
One of my daughter’s favorite bedtime books is Mo Willems’ Waiting is Not Easy! In this sweet story, Piggie has a surprise for his friend, Gerald, but Gerald will have to wait for it. Gerald gets tired of waiting and wants to give up. He groans and complains. And at the end of the book, the surprise is a star-filled night sky, which Gerald declares as “worth the wait.”
Like Gerald, the Israelites have a hard time waiting. And, like Gerald, when the waiting takes too long, they panic. They tantrum. They beg for relief. And they act irrationally. In applying neuroeducational psychology to this story, the Israelites’ response makes complete sense – when our prefrontal cortex goes offline, we can become dysregulated and move into our limbic brain, full of emotions and irrational thinking. In this case, the Israelites’ prefrontal cortex goes offline and they build a golden calf. But as we know, this wasn’t their best choice, and we are reminded that in those moments of upset, we are obligated to regulate ourselves in order to make thoughtful decisions.
Being resilient is nothing new to the Jewish people, but this past year has certainly tested our resilience. We have each had days, I am guessing, when we wanted to give up on waiting, when we wanted to tantrum, and to accept the easy fix. And the story of the Israelites waiting for Moshe reminds us – sometimes we must pause, regulate and continue to wait for the starry night sky.
Rabbi Scott N. Bolton, Congregation Or Zarua, New York City
There is holy waiting to do, because we become our own worst enemies when we rush. Before our teachers return to finish curricula prepared especially for us, we think we know it all. Without waiting for others to finish their thoughts we speak what’s on our minds despite the fact that two ears battle one mouth.
We have rejected a theology of waiting for the messiah, because we are realists. Our hearts incline toward loving our neighbors, but we become insular and self-absorbed. We burn bridges. Self-righteousness leads to erroneous, idolatrous pursuits.
Our ancestors could wait no longer for Moses. Since they thought they knew what was best they led everyone to anti-godliness. They wouldn’t wait for Moses’ Torah or to hear about how to develop a relationship with the Holy One. What stories Moses would have!
Sure, Hillel said, “if not now, when?” But there is holy waiting, patience to practice, taking the time to have our teachers help make deep clarifications. “Now, make for us a God,” they insisted. How many gods have we made?
The lessons are stark: we suffer from delusions that we control how long history should take, that we know God’s ultimate moral message. We insist that we have an inalienable right to know it all. The reading of Ki Tissa comes at Purim time when we celebrate the circuitous route to redemption ad d’lo yada – until we can’t tell the difference between and among all we thought we knew. Yes, we have holy waiting to do.
With thanks to Miriam Mill-Kreisman, Rabbi Chaim Tureff, Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Dr. Erica Rothblum, and Rabbi Scott N. Bolton.
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Read more at the Jewish Journal.