Thursday, March 15, 2012

After a Lapse

There are times we fail to live up to the standards of those we care about or to our own. It would be nice if these can all end in complete redemption, is that how it works? Let us examine the case of the Golden Calf.

The context for this lapse is the overwhelming experience of a downtrodden people being rescued and embraced by the most magnificent being. The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt followed by the experience at Mt. Sinai has been compared to a “great king showing great intense love to a lowly, despised man, who is dirty and sitting in the garbage. The King goes down to him with all his ministers and lifts him up from the garbage and brings him into the inner rooms of the palace…and hugs and kisses him and forms an attachment with him of “spirit to spirit” and real closeness”[1].  Part of what God wants is an exclusive relationship with this people. But they go ahead and make a golden calf.

A member of the Jewish community in Sydney told me about his conversations with Muslims in Lebanon who seemed to suggest that the Jews were rejected by God and replaced with the adherents of Islam. One of my religious, knowledgeable, Muslim friends tells me that this not what Islam teaches, while an Imam I know explained to me that there is a view that the covenant was conditional, was not an all time covenant, and was broken by the Jews later on". There are also arguments about whether Christians should see the covenant with Israel as having been superseded[2]. Pope John Paul II was of the view that the original covenant is current and continues to be binding. Still, the question is an interesting one. Can a relationship recover after a great betrayal?

A careful reading of the exact wording of God’s rage after the incident provides some clues. “And the Lord said to Moses: "… your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly. They have quickly turned away from the path that I have commanded them; they have made themselves a molten calf! … Now leave Me, and My anger will be kindled against them so that I will annihilate them, and I will make you into a great nation.[3]"

One the one hand God is distancing himself from the Jews. They are no longer God’s people; they are now the people of Moses[4], “your people”.  He also seems quite open to eliminating the Jews and replacing them with a new people to be descended from Moses.    

Yet there are a surprising few words in which God tells Moses “leave me”, as if saying; let me destroy them. Was Moses holding on to God that He needs Moses to let go?! This is compared to a king who was angry with his son and took him into a small room and began seeking to kill him. The king then begins screaming from the room, leave me to beat him. The prince’s teacher is standing outside. He thinks to himself, the king is in there alone with the prince why is saying leave me? Surely it is because the king wants me to go in to appease him about his son. This is what God was hinting to Moses, immediately Moses began to ask for mercy[5].  God was “opening the door”[6] and implying that this decision was negotiable and that “the matter depended on him, if he will pray they will not be annihilated[7]”.  

We are taught that Moses was rewarded for this prayer, meriting a “shining face” in this world from what God will give the righteous in the future, in the Messianic era[8]

We can more clearly see the hint that Moses’ prayer would be accepted if we compare this text with a similar text[9]. God tells the prophet Jeremiah. “And you, pray not on behalf of this people, neither lift up a cry nor prayer, and entreat Me not for I will not hear you[10]”. No ambiguity in that verse, in contrast with ours where God is almost hinting to Moses that his prayer will be accepted.

When I think of God’s rage from a Chasidic perspective I think of it (at least in a sense) as a bit of theatre[11]. God chooses to express great rage so that the people understand the seriousness of their lapse. I would see this as consistent with the following teaching about anger. “A person should train himself not to anger even on a matter regarding which anger is appropriate. If a person wants to instil awe upon his children and family[12], or if he is an officer of the community and wants to anger at the community members in order that they mend their ways, he should only feign anger in their presence in order to castigate them, but his mind should be composed within. He should act as one impersonating an [angry] man while not being angry himself[13]”.

I tried this once, when as a Yeshiva student I was responsible for a performance at a Sydney Public School the morning after some very late night Purim alcohol fuelled celebrations. One of the guys with a minor part told he was going back to sleep. I did not really need him, but I knew the guy I really needed to play the king in the other dorm room could hear what was going on. I could not let this seem ok. I screamed as if I really lost it. When I went into the other room, the other guy said, ok, ok, I am getting up. Cool, I thought, that went to plan.   

Regardless of how angry God really was, and putting aside the view that the Golden Calf was not actually idol worship[14], the bottom line is that we see the Israelites bouncing back from a dramatic betrayal of the 2nd of the Ten Commandments. God’s reconciliation with the Israelites is also illustrated by God’s instruction to them to create a house for him. It is interpreted as a testimony to all the nations that they were granted atonement for the sin of the calf[15].

Still, despite the reconciliation after the Golden Calf, it is not forgotten. Whenever the Jews would sin in the future, God would remember a little of this sin, (1/24th) together with the other sins[16]. This reminds me of the story about the nails in the fence.

There once was a little boy who had a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into the back of the fence. The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control his anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.

Finally the day came when the boy didn't lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone.

The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. He said, "You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. It won't matter how many times you say I'm sorry, the wound is still there[17]

Conclusion: Reconciliation is possible even after some serious lapses. In some cases the scars that remain are still serious.  This should bring us hope about the problems we already have as individuals, groups and nations, and caution about inflicting harm that might never completely heal.

[1] Tanya chapter 46
[2] I do not have a lot of knowledge about this complex issue of supersession, but it seems worth exploring
[3] Exodus 32:7-10
[4] Midrash Tanaaim 177, Pesikta Drav Kahana 16:128
[5] Midrash Shemot Rabba 42
[6] Midrash Tanchuma 22f
[7] Rashi
[8] Seder Eliyahu Rabba 4
[9] Rabbi Avraham the son of Maimonides, cited in Torah Shlaima vol 21, p.103
[10] Jeremiah 7:16
[11] This is based on my understanding of the concept of Tzimtzum – divine “contraction” in Chabad Chasidic teaching, God is compared to a father who wishes to play with his young son, so he takes on a playful persona and plays with the child. While the parent is present with the child in and in his role, this is very different to the way the father is essentially
[12] This text was written over 800 years ago in a particular social context, family dynamics have fortunately moved on from then
[13] Maimonides, Yad Hachazakah, Laws of De'os – 2:3, translation from
[14] Bchor Shor
[15] Midrash Tanchuma Teruma 8
[16] Rashi to Exodus 32:34, Talmud Sanhedrin 102a

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