Transitions can be so difficult. Moving from a place of familiarity to something that is new and different often brings out the worst in us. We frequently see this with residents at Beit T’Shuvah, as they progress through their recovery. Sometimes it’s the transitions into Beit T’Shuvah that can shock someone’s systems and at other times relapse and regression sets in during the time of their Kadima, their process of moving forward.
This week’s parashah gives us a perspective into the stress that almost everybody in the Israelite camp is feeling. It’s still the early stages of Israel’s transition from slavery to freedom, about four months since they’ve left Egypt, and already: the tragedy of the golden calf. In stark contrast to recent celebrations, we see Israel in a time of impatience and faithlessness – the Israelite people AND their leaders – and of dire consequences. But we also discover the plus side of stressful transitions – as many of us have learned – that they can provide the basis for future growth and transformation.
The narrative opens with Moses and G!D, alone on the mountain top, continuing their conversation about the various laws and instructions that will govern communal life. Meanwhile at the base of the mountain, as Moses’ absence stretches from days into weeks, the Israelite community grows more and more restless. Eventually, this separation from their leader – the one they trusted; the one who led them out of oppressive bondage – becomes intolerable, and they act out in the most dramatic of ways. As many of us can relate, a prevailing sense of separation and aloneness drives them to search for relief in “old behaviors.” The Israelites’ gnawing spiritual emptiness blinds them into thinking that they could find a solution in a false god, in the form of a golden calf, which will fulfill their needs for certainty and guidance.
Let’s also keep in mind that it has been mere weeks since this very same community had had the most intimate of collective spiritual encounters. It was a moment so sublime, the Torah describes the paradoxical experience of “…seeing the sounds and the lightning…” (Exodus 20:15) when they were blessed to receive G!D’s revelation in the form of the Ten Commandments. Alas, gratitude and awe generally have a short shelf-life (Harriet goes by the 72-hour rule), and their despair – interfering, as it does, with spiritual centering – eventually led them to seek out a more accessible, but unholy (as we experience it – counterproductive), form of connection.
And it’s not only the Israelites who seem to be struggling, it’s also their leaders. A closer examination of the text reveals Moses, Aaron, and even G!D in cringe-worthy moments of acting out, with instances of tantrums, outbursts, and acts of unfaithfulness.
During Moses’s absence, Aaron stayed close to the community, to be present with them. In theory, this was a good plan, as Aaron was known as a “man of the people,” a leader deeply connected with people, whose spirit was focused on maintaining peace and good relations. However, as many of us know, one’s over-eagerness to maintain a state of peace can lead to enabling and co-dependent behaviors. Thus, the combination of the Israelites’ fears and Aaron’s inability to draw healthy boundaries resulted in a catastrophic outcome.
We also see that while all of this was happening at the bottom on the mountain, G!D seems to reach the limits to his patience with the Israelites’ restlessness and tries to cut a deal a deal with Moses to wipe them out and start over:
G!D further said to Moses, “I see that this is a stiff-necked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10)
Truly “as a man speaks to his friend,” Moses is able to walk G!D back from the ledge with a plea for second chances:
But Moses implored the Lord his G!D, saying, “Let not Your anger, G!D, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. (Exodus 32:11)
While Moses is a voice of compassion in this episode, we later find him losing himself in his own burning rage, as he witnesses the Israelites actions with the golden calf. His incendiary fury results in a fiery exchange that includes destruction of the tablets G!D had provided to him.
As the narrative continues, we learn about the inevitable consequences that resulted from the ways everybody was handling themselves. At the same time, as tragic as this episode was, it also provided the basis for a series of reconciliatory conversations – including between Moses and Aaron, Moses and the community, and Moses and G!D – which lead to greater trust, intimacy, and connection between everyone involved. The ensuing encounter between Moses and G!D provides us with a framework for better understanding a relationship with G!D and our own sense of Holiness. Among other things, Moses’ ensuing meeting with G!D sheds light on how we can use moments of destructive anger for ultimately constructive purposes… with the help of a little Divine assistance.
Chaplain Adam Siegel