Take a moment to consider the last time you started something new. Maybe it was your recovery, or that of a loved one. Maybe it was a job or a relationship, a hobby or spiritual practice. Do you remember the excitement? The way it animated you with eager anticipation? The way you could feel yourself growing and changing? The inspiration that struck? One last question: Are you still in the pink cloud, or has the novelty faded? And if so, what does it take to stay connected to it?
This week we study a well-known story, where the Israelites, wondering when or if Moses will come down from Mt. Sinai, build and then worship a golden calf. One thing that can shed new light on a well-known parasha is taking a look at the corresponding haftara (prophetic reading) that is read after the Torah on Shabbat morning. The content of this week’s haftara mirrors much of what happens in the parasha itself, both stories depicting a generation of Israelites who’ve lost their faith in God. In Exodus the Israelites betray their covenant with God by worshiping the golden calf, and in the days of the prophet Elijah, depicted in I Kings, they do so by worshiping the pagan god Ba’al. Moses and Elijah, as leaders of the nation in the respective stories, both ascend mountains and fight the idolatrous behavior; and they both force the people to choose God, subsequently eradicating the sinners. The sin of the golden calf is widely known by Jews as potentially our gravest sin as a people, and though we tend to look back at it as a one-time mistake – after which our loyalty to God has since been secure – the scene described in the book of Kings tells us otherwise.
One of the reasons the sin of the golden calf is so striking when we read it each year is that both we – and the ancient Israelites – have just witnessed the miraculous splitting of the sea and the multi-sensory revelation at Mt. Sinai. How could they so quickly then forget and turn away from God to worship an idol?! Sometimes we make excuses for them – after all, it’s hard to change after centuries in Egypt, surrounded by idolatry and without communication with God. But what this haftara is pointing to is that the sin of the golden calf is representative of a larger phenomenon within religious life: the loss of faith and a turning away from God’s presence in our lives.
Now I’ll ask again: Are you still in the pink cloud, or has the novelty faded? When you lose your faith, your connection, your inspiration to continue on the path of t’shuvah, what does it take to find it again? For the Israelites in the time of Elijah, even an explicit display of God’s supremacy was not enough for them to maintain their faith for more than a short while – witness the book of Kings’ catalogue of the Israelites’ continued wavering fidelity and idolatrous practices. It seems that the sin of the golden calf was not the only time that we as a people managed to lose sight of our connection with God, where we lost our faith because we simply failed to see, to acknowledge what was there all along.
As this week’s haftara comes to teach us: the sin of the golden calf is not a one-time event – rather, periods of great connection, revelation, inspiration and faith can be just as easily followed by periods of great doubt. Times where we set out on a path of t’shuvah, open ourselves up to something new, challenging and discovering previously uncharted depths of our souls, can be quickly followed by plateaus, vast deserts of monotonous routine that feels like we’re running in place, going nowhere.
Our task then is to strive to continue to see God’s presence and majesty manifest in our lives – to never let a small miracle pass us by without acknowledgement and the giving of thanks. It might not be a revelation like those atop Mt. Sinai or Mt. Carmel, and it may not be inspiration like in the beginnings of recovery or other new endeavors. It may just be a small moment of blessing, before we walk into a meeting, to recognize the string of next-right-choices and influential people that helped get us to that room. Or it might be by taking a deep breath as we wake up in the morning, and acknowledging the miraculous workings of our bodies, even after we repeatedly poisoned them.
However this practice of acknowledging the miracles in our lives manifests for you, take strength from the fact that our tradition accepts that maintaining faith and dedication to your path is hard; and know that you have fellow “Israelites” standing beside you at the foot of the mountain, searching with you for those small miracles.
Rabbinic Intern, Spiritual Counseling