Monday, February 14, 2011


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi



And the Lord spoke unto Moses: ‘Go. Get down, for your people that you brought up from the land of Egypt has dealt corruptly. They have turned aside quickly from the path that I have commanded. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have bowed down to it and offered sacrifices unto it. And they said: This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt. (Ex. 32:7-9). 

At first blush, the collective apostasy of the Children of Israel is almost incomprehensible. Just forty days before this they had experienced the unprecedented collective epiphany of the revelation at Sinai. Never before had some three million people had a shared direct encounter with God and heard the divine utterance.  Ordinary sensory perceptions transformed as they “saw the thunder and heard the lightning.” (Ex. 20:15). Even the natural became supernatural. The effect was an extraordinary expression of collective commitment.  And the entire nation answered in a single voice, and said: All the words which the Lord has spoken we shall do.” (Ex. 24: 3). And yet, a mere forty days later, while Moses tarried on the mountain with God, unmindful of their extraordinary experience, and unconcerned by the commitment they had made to God, they built a calf of gold and made their graven image the object of their faith. How can we understand this astonishing turn of events?

Perhaps the roots of their apostasy are to be found in the immediate aftermath of the revelatory experience. For three days before the booming tones of the divine utterances forever changed the course of western civilization, the masses had been restrained on pain of death from ascending the mountain. Apparently they had needed to be restrained because their natural impulse was to ascend the mount and encounter the Divine.

But following their experience of the quaking mountain, the thunder, lightening, and increasingly powerful tones of the ram’s horn—and the divine utterances, Moses invited them to ascend the mountain with him: “And they said to Moses: You speak to us and we shall listen, but do not let God speak with us lest we perish. And Moses said to the people: Do not be afraid, for God came in order to test you, so that awe of him should be on your faces and in order that you should not sin. And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near to the thick darkness [arafel] where God was.” (Ex.20: 16-18)

These verses suggest three possible explanations, all interconnected, for the rapid atrophy of the transformative effects of the epiphany at Sinai.

The first was the Israelites’ perception of the thick darkness that enveloped the divine Presence. This was in stark contrast to Moses’ perception of the same phenomenon. “And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near to the thick darkness [arafel] where God was.” For the people, the arafel was a black, forbidding and impenetrable barrier to the Divine.. It became an obstacle they were incapable of transcending, and so they remained stuck where they were—afar off.

For Moses, on the other hand, the perception of the arafel as an impenetrable barrier was an optical illusion. He knew that when one enters the darkest bank of clouds they simply lose their substantial quality and melt away. From a distance they appear so substantial that one cannot penetrate them, but as one gets nearer one experiences them as essentially transient and ephemeral. Therefore, whereas “the people stood afar off, … Moses drew near to the thick darkness [arafel] where God was.” The obstacles to the Divine were illusory..

Too many of us are stuck in our illusions. We perceive the path to our successful completion of important tasks as blocked by insurmountable barriers. Like the ancient Israelites, we remain far removed from the destinations of our dreams.

I have often seen this in my clinical practice. Sometimes repeated failures have disempowered and depressed my clients. They have learned to despair of ever being successful. Their frequent defeats have convinced them that the barriers to their acquiring a sense of self-worth are impenetrable. As a result, they disengage from life and its challenges, and isolate themselves emotionally, standing afar off.

The losses of people with severe mental disorders are frighteningly real. They have lost not only their dreams, their sense of reality and, often, their friends as well, but also the people they themselves once were. It is easy for them to surrender to their cruel fate. But attitudes can either reinforce despair or help the healing process.

I once shared with a very psychiatrically disabled patient the story of the Israelites who were paralyzed by their misperception of the ephemeral banks of cloud. “Are you telling me that I can do what Moses did, and challenge my belief that I can never climb the mountain?” he asked. “Why don’t we test it,” I answered, “and try to get through just one ‘impassable’ barrier at a time?” Very slowly but surely one dark cloud after the other began to dissipate and melt away. True, the underlying illness remained, and medication treatment was still needed. True, the losses were real and also remained. But there was a gradual sense of optimism as small successes suggested that the losses were not absolute, and that the future was not utterly hopeless. Life could still be meaningful and personal happiness still possible.

Tragically, the ancient Israelites were not ready to risk learning this lesson, and the result was the very despair they sought to avoid.

The second reason for the unanticipated collective apostasy was the Israelites’ preference for encountering God vicariously, indirectly: “And they said to Moses: You speak to us and we shall listen, but do not let God speak with us lest we perish.” They were satisfied to have Moses as their intermediary. When their intermediary disappeared, so did the memory of their recent commitment.

Is this really surprising? The attempt to encounter God at second hand is as futile as hoping to see clearly with prescription lenses made for completely different eyes, and as unsatisfying as kissing one’s beloved through a thick cloth. Direct, unmediated I-thou relationships are alone authentic and fulfilling. Without being open to a personal I-Thou encounter with God, we cannot expect to reap the rewards of faith, or to remain committed to the relationship. Relationships at second hand are inauthentic and transient.

The third reason for the astonishing sin of the golden calf so soon after Sinai was a radical misunderstanding of the nature of the Divine. God is often pictured as dark, punishing and forbidding, “visiting [poked] the sins of the fathers on their children and children’s children, unto the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” (Ex. 34:7). Generations have been taught that the Hebrew verb poked means “visiting” or “punishing.”  It does not.  Classical commentators like Ramban [Nachmanides] focus on the etymological connection between the words poked and pikadon [bank deposit]. God does not exact immediate retribution for transgressions. The iniquities are, as it were, deposited in a multi-year account in the hope that the children and grandchildren of the transgressor will redeem their wayward ancestor through their own meritorious behavior.

This is a far cry from the terrifying image of a punishing deity enveloped in clouds of darkness. The terror evoked by an imagined personal encounter with God may actually be a projection either of our own insecurity, or/and the jaundiced understanding of the Divine attributes that we have been taught.  On the contrary, the verse that precedes the poked passage (Ex. 34:7) presents God as merciful, loving, long suffering, utterly forgiving, and eminently approachable and present to those who seek to transcend imagined barriers to Him. It is not fortuitous that this passage is read on fast days, which are periods of contrition, when we need assurance that God is close to those who call on Him. This was the faith of the Prince of the prophets who  “ drew near to the thick darkness [arafel] where God was.”

These are the three lessons we may derive from the incident of the golden calf: The obstacles to our happiness and personal growth are often illusions that keep us paralyzed; we can no more have an authentic second hand relationship with God than we can with a significant human life partner; the inapproachability of God is the result of the distorted concept we are so frequently taught by those who try to frighten us to obedience. Knowing that God loves us and wants us to ascend His Mountain is an invitation to shatter the illusions of inadequacy, guilt and disempowerment that keep us from connecting directly with Him.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Rabbi Weiss,
    Thank you very much for this very apt d'var Torah.
    The mussar lesson of "Punctuality Rather than Perfection" is something most all of us need to hear.
    Your words elevated our Shabbos table!
    sincere Best Wishes,
    -- steve fink