Parashah Ponderings

Patience: The Virtue Lacking at Sinai

Parashat Ki Tisa

Exodus 30:11-34:35

In case we forget the story about the Israelites’ ill-advised creation of a golden calf at the base of Mt. Sinai, Jewish tradition provides a ritual flare to jog our memories. During the High Holy Days we blow a shofar to awaken our souls to take an honest accounting of our deeds and to work to make change in those areas where we’ve fallen short. What we often overlook is the fact that the shofar itself must come from a kosher animal, such as a ram or a gazelle, but there is one kosher animal from which we may not make a shofar: a cow. Why? Perhaps, this is because using the horn of a cow (or a bull) as a shofar might have the opposite effect of that which is intended. Rather than lead us on the path of righteousness, a shofar from a bull might remind us of the incident of the golden calf and stir within us thoughts of idolatry and licentiousness.

Perhaps, too, there’s another reason: to teach us patience. It’s not that we have to search longer and harder for a ram’s horn than for a cow’s horn, and it’s not that it takes more time to blow a cow’s horn. I suppose the former is not the case, and I know nothing about the latter. No, the lesson about patience emerges not from any practical concern but from the story of the golden calf itself: as the Israelites grow impatient waiting for Moses to return from his 40-day-long campout atop Mt. Sinai, they seek an immediate fix for their pent-up craving for a connection to their God. In so doing, they press Aaron into fashioning a familiar representation of a deity out of the men’s gold jewelry (Supposedly, midrash teaches, the women refuse to hand over their bling.), outraging God to the point of wanting to obliterate the people, causing Moses to smash the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and setting off a series of drastic punishments by God and Moses against the Israelites, not to mention having Moses go back up for another 40 days to inscribe a new set of tablets (with a different set of commandments!). Patience truly is a virtue lacking in this sad tale.

The 11th-12th century Spanish philospher Judah Halevi in his work The Kuzari writes that the real sin of the Israelites is, in fact, their impatience. It was not in making the calf itself and celebrating a festival to God afterward. Scholar and rabbi Harvey Fields summarzes Halevi’s take by stating, first of all, only about 3000 of the 600,000 people who left Egypt actually requested that Aaron build the golden calf. It was hardly a majority of all the people. Furthermore, by building a “tangible object of worship like other nations” around them, they weren’t really rejecting God. As a matter of fact, one could argue that elsewhere in the Torah, God is the one who commands the people to make an object, i.e. the ark with the cherubim on top, as a marker of God’s presence. Halevi, Fields contends, sees no substantive difference between a golden calf and the ark with the cherubim. On the real sin of the Israelites, Fields writes:

Having waited so long for Moses to return, (the people) were overcome with frustration, confusion, and dissension. As a result, they divided into angry parties, differing with one another over what they should do. No long able to control their fears, a vocal minority pressured Aaron into taking their gold and cating into a golden calf…. If the people made a mistake, Halevi says, it was not in refusing to worship God, but in their impatience. Instead of waiting for the return of Moses or for a message from God, they took matters into their own hands and acted as if they had been commanded to replace their leader with a golden idol. Fields, Harvey J. A Torah Commentary for Our Time. (New York: UAHC Press, 1991). pp. 81-82.

The modern bible scholar Nehama Leibowitz disagrees with Halevi’s assessment of the nature of Israel’s sin, but draws a conclusion that could very well have come from Halevi himself. Leibowitz sees in the story a failure of leadershp on Aaron’s part and great sin on the part of the Israelites, to be sure. But ultimately, she suggests, the story points to the need for a sustained, deliberate commitment to study of Torah, a commitment that requires extraordinary patience. Fields explains that Leibowitz:

…sees in the story of the golden calf… a deliberate warning that human beings are capable of acting nobly at one moment and ugly at the next. Leibowitz observes that ‘we should not be astonished at the fact that the generation that heard the voice of the living God and had received the commandment ‘You shall not make other gods besides Me’ descend to the making of the golden calf forty days later. One single religious experience, however profoud, was not capable of changing the people from idol worshipers into monotheists. Only a prolonged disciplining in the laws of Torah directing every moment of their existence could accomplish that.’ (Studies in Shemot, pp. 554-556)

The Torah relates the tale of the Israelits’ sin to teach that yesterday’s charity may be followed tomorrow by selfishness and insensitivity. Each day is filled with new choices. The role of contant Torah study is to keep an individual asking, ‘What is the next mitzvah I must do?'” Ibid., p. 82.

Just as Halevi points out that a number of Israelites grow restless in Moses’ absence and take matters into their own hands beyond what God had commanded them, so, too, does Leibowitz show that human beings in all generations grow restless, or more accurately, distracted and indifferent, and fall back into old habits. Had the Israelites been more patient, they would have soon received the original Ten Commandments in pristine form. If people in our own day allow themselves the opportunity to study Torah and to develop spiritual practices over time, they will be more likely to make their study and their practice routine and, ultimately, to experience God in a consistent way, without having to reinvent the wheel everytime they have a longing.

We live in a fast-paced world that seems to get faster daily. Our attention spans follow suit; our minds and bodies have become conditioned to move from idea to idea, from activity to activity. We’ve lost the art of waiting quietly for change to take place over time. Maybe we should come back to the story of the golden calf more often to remind us of the dangers of our impatience.

Patience is, indeed, a sacred virtue well worth cultivating. Remember that next time you grow antsy waiting for the final blast of the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dan

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