This week’s parashah gives us one of the starkest insights into our fragmented nature – of our often conflicting inclinations that, when combined together, make us both imperfect humans and holy souls. We see the struggles created and endured by the Israelites and their leaders during the tragedy of the golden calf. And we rediscover the plus side – as many of us have learned – that catastrophic experiences also 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 is growing 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.” For the Israelites, this gnawing spiritual emptiness resulted in the mis-guided craving for a god they could see – a false god, in the form of a golden calf.
Here it is essential to remember that it has been mere weeks since this 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), and they were blessed to receive G!D’s revelation in the form of the 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, form of connection. For me, knowing that this group of individuals were still in the very early stages of recovering from the trauma of oppressive slavery, allows me compassion to relate to their continual tantrums, outbursts, and acts of unfaithfulness.
A hallmark of Beit T’Shuvah – as a program founded upon the spiritual principles of compassion and t’shuvah – is our striving to meet people where they’re at, especially during the early stages of their recovery process. And while it’s possible to accept the Israelites’ shortcomings as a function of their immaturity, making sense of the role that Aaron plays in the episode is more troubling. During this time, Aaron was present with the community, staying close to them throughout Moses’ absence. 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, pushed to an extreme, over-eagerness to maintain a state of peace can lead to enabling, and the combination of the Israelites’ fears and Aaron’s inability to draw healthy boundaries resulted in a catastrophic outcome.
Creating healthy boundaries is difficult. At times, our unwillingness to connect and honor our own intrinsic holiness causes us to acquiesce to the interests of others at our own (and ultimately others’) expense. This shrunken sense of self-worth is a trait, a symptom of a lack of humility; it is an unwillingness to claim (and protect) an appropriate amount of personal and relational space.
Not surprisingly, G!D’s path of t’shuvah for Aaron contains elements born of his missing the mark. As we’ll see over the next few weeks, Aaron is installed as the High Priest, where he is continually required to stand in front of the community and lead them in ritual observance. To do this, Aaron needed constant humility – a right-sized-ness that often is found through an engagement with our mistakes; when we commit to remember what we learned from them and how they taught us – rather than putting them behind us and trying to forget them – thus transforming these shame-filled experiences into holy encounters.
In our continual march from slavery to freedom, may these lessons of imperfection, t’shuvah, and transformation continue to guide us.
Chaplain Adam Siegel