Ki Tissa: Just Wait

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa/ Shabbat Parah 
“When the people saw that Moses was so long 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.’ “ (Shemot/ Exodus 32:1)
Good afternoon! The story of the Golden Calf is so strange: only a few weeks before, the people had seen the amazing revelation at Sinai, and just a short time before that, they had experience the miracles of the Exodus. Why on earth would they build an idol while waiting for Moshe? 
Many Torah commentators ask just that question, and one answer is: the Israelites were confused about where Moshe was and why he was late. If you go back to the end of chapter 24, we find that Moshe went back up Mount Sinai to receive the tablets and the law; before he goes up, he tells the elders to wait for him, putting Aharon and Hur in charge. Chapter 24:18 says that Moshe went up for “forty days and forty nights;” this is taught again in Deuteronomy 9:9, with the added detail that he was fasting the whole time. (!)
Now we can get to the misunderstanding that the ancient rabbis say caused the building of the Golden Calf: according to Rashi and others, Moshe told the people that he’d be back in 40 days, and they assumed that the day he left was day one of the counting. Yet from the verses above, which say he was gone “40 days and nights,” the rabbis learn that Moshe meant complete days, including the night, so the day he left was not the first day of the counting. (We discussed another midrash last year related to Moshe’s delay.)
Well, fine, that explains why they thought he was delayed- because they expected him on the wrong day- but it doesn’t explain why they would build an idol in response to his absence. Perhaps we should have more compassion on the Israelites; yes, they had just experienced Sinai but they were still only a few months away from being uprooted from the life (albeit a miserable one) they had known for centuries. In just a few months time they had experienced the plagues, the Exodus, the crossing of the sea, the manna, the miracles of water and the giving of the law- so much in so short a time might leave anybody shaken and confused and needing time to process and fully integrate their experiences. 
So perhaps it’s not so surprising that a delay in Moshe’s reappearance caused such a drastic reaction; could we really expect the Israelites to understand that they would be fine in the wilderness without him? With so much change associated with one man, it’s not hard to believe that the slightest indication of his absence would provoke huge anxiety; we must remember that the Golden Calf was probably a substitute for Moshe, whom the people may have understood as a divine being, rather than an idol of another god. They may have been worried that he abandoned them or died on the mountain, and panicked at the thought of being leaderless in the wilderness. 
What do we learn from this reading of the story? First: how many terrible problems have arisen from misunderstandings! It’s funny to think, but according to this understanding, if the people had only asked “hey, Moshe, are you coming back on the 40th day or after 40 days?” the great sin of that generation might not have happened! 
We also learn that sometimes at the moments of greatest anxiety the best course of action is simply to wait, to become mindful and calm ourselves. If the Israelites had simply waited one more day (or according to other understandings, as per last year’s discussion, even just one more hour), it would have all been fine. That, to me, is the challenge of this story: a reminder that impatience can be our undoing. I have made so many mistakes because I acted too quickly, without reflection, without judgment, without discernment, without faith in others or myself. It is not surprising that the anxious Israelites would rush to make an idol to replace Moshe. Perhaps with patience, pausing and openness, we might avoid similar mistakes. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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