This is the Shabbat of parashat Ki Tisa, the most famous part of which is the debacle of the Golden Calf. On one foot (the Jewish idiom for “in a nutshell”): We have just lived through the glorious commitment ceremony between us and G-d, and received the promise of the Torah (at least the Aseret haDibrot, the “Ten Utterances”) as our ketubah. We begin to build a sacred space to celebrate that relationship and seek its intimacy. Then Moshe goes up to Mt Sinai to get the Torah from G-d – and there our troubles begin.
According to the midrash, it was all due to a misunderstanding:
When Moses ascended the mountain, he said to them: After forty days, in the first six hours of the day, I shall return. They thought that the day of his ascent should be counted as one of the forty, while he meant forty full, 24-hour days. In truth, the day of his ascent – Sivan 7 – should not have been counted, since it did not include its previous night, meaning that the forty days ended on Tammuz 17.
On the 16th of Tammuz the satan came and filled the world with darkness and confusion. Said he to them: “Where is your teacher Moses?” “He has ascended on high,” they answered him. “The sixth hour has come,” said he to them, but they disregarded him. “He is dead”–but they disregarded him. So the satan showed them a vision of Moses’ bier. This is what they said to Aaron, “For this man Moses, who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.” (Rashi; Talmud, Shabbat 89a).
The appearance of the satan in this story is fascinating, because in Jewish midrashic tradition, the satan is expressed as that which sabotages the relationship of the Jewish people with G-d, or between two Jews. In this story, the satan does nothing creative to bring about the disaster of the Golden Calf – it simply amplifies and “tempts” into hysteria something that is already there.
What could have caused our people to stray so utterly, and commit so painful a betrayal, so quickly after the joyous Sinai moment of “we will do and we will hear”? Perhaps it was really nothing more than letting themselves get caught up in a never-ending loop of mutual concern, which turned into escalating fear, which turned into catastrophic fantasy – thus we might all find ourselves falling down a big, black rabbit hole of our own making and without any reality other than that of our own, utterly unfounded conviction.
It’s too bad that they could not hear Aaron trying to tell them: there’s nothing wrong with Moshe; he’s on his way. All you’ve done is get nervous and mistake the time.
Where does the satan come to amplify your own fears or misgivings, and turn them into a stumbling block before which no good intention can possibly get through to you? Is it a feeling that you haven’t been heard, when if you checked you’d find out you had? Is it an ill-considered desire for your own definition of perfection that gets in the way of the communal good? If it keeps you away from G-d and feeling distanced from those with whom you share community, then maybe you need to try thinking outside yourself and your own, already formed convictions. Maybe you are wrong. Maybe there’s another perspective. Maybe you need to open your heart and listen.
The wonderful thing about community is the trust we are offered, and the chance to turn to someone and say “please check my thinking here”. Where one may be lost in the dark, two or more have a better chance of finding the light again.
I believed that the Soviet Union was dead and gone; I even thought that war between the nations of Europe was a thing of the past. I was certain that people carrying giant placards depicting the face of Stalin in Red Square during political rallies in the past twenty years were hopelessly anachronistic. I was sure that the rise of a new generation would bury the bad old ways beyond reclaiming.
The news of the last few weeks has surprised me. The ghost of the Cold War and all its related horrors – racism, persecution of minorities, and trampling of individuality – is not dead. As William Faulkner famously said, “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.“
How long does it take to make a clean break with the past? When do you know that you will never go back to Egypt? As anyone knows who has ever made a big change in life, the one thing that crossing a barrier teaches you for sure is that once breached, most can be breached again. And maybe it’s a natural thing – it is, after all, the path one knows best, having followed it with one’s own will. Backsliding is a human norm – the most difficult of all our self-made prisons to escape.
The parashat hashavua for the middle of Pesakh is a special reading, out of our normal Torah reading cycle: Exodus 33.12-34.26, followed by Numbers 28.19-25. In the first reading we are reminded of our very first backsliding. Following the great Escape from Egypt, we crossed the Sea and committed ourselves utterly to a new and better way of living; and within three months of that great crossing, we crossed back over. We did not actually, physically return to Egypt, but we did in our hearts. We repudiated Moshe, we built a calf-god made of gold, and we killed those who tried to stop us.
It took a state of war, and a lot of suffering and death, to bring the Israelite people back to the path of commitment we had begun. Most of our own personal backsliding is less widely destructive, though it can be no less personally catastrophic. An addict once recovered goes back to the addiction; a woman freed of an abusive relationship returns; promises we’ve made to ourselves and others to live more meaningfully starting NOW recede into last week’s sunnier horizon.
On this Shabbat hol hamo’ed Pesakh, the outer world is crying out to us as loudly as possible with this message and this question: what does it take for you to make a clean break with the past and become your best self? And what is the cost – to yourself, to your community, to the world – if you do not?