When the Burden of Patience Became Unbearable, Our Ancestors Created a Golden Calf

Parashat Ki Tisa 5781 / פרשת כִּי תִשָּׂא
Torah Portion: Exodus 30:11-34:35

One of my favorite Hebrew words is savlanut, patience. I remember hearing it often in Israel. Savlanut. There’s more than a little irony in my association of this word with everyday Israelis because one stereotype of Israelis is that they are notoriously impatient.

On the website of a travel agency called Culture Trip, I found an article entitled 6 Things You Only Learn About Israel When You Live There. Number four on that list is “Israelis are extremely impatient”:

From incessant beeping on the roads (sometimes it seems like there’s a national competition for who can honk their car the longest and loudest), to pushing their way through lines and losing their temper in supermarkets, Israelis show their impatience and short fuse in a multitude of ways.

You can picture someone trying to make their way to the front of a line who is then nudged by someone else also trying to make their way to the front of the line. Suddenly person one turns to person two and says, “Savlanut!”

What’s most interesting to me about the word savlanut is that it derives from the three letter Hebrew root samech-bet-lamed that means “to carry a load; to endure; to suffer.” Several times in the book of Exodus the labors of the Israelite slaves were referred to as sivlot, heavy labor, heavy burden. In Lamentations, when the text says (5:7) “Our fathers sinned and are no more; And we must bear their guilt” the word for “we must bear their guilt” is savalnu.

To be patient means to carry the burden of waiting for a certain outcome. If you don’t remember what it feels like to wait for something you want or even for an outcome you don’t want, just hang out with young children and they’ll remind you. Waiting stinks. 

Sometimes patience involves real suffering. It’s not just the waiting that stinks, it’s also the inconvenience, or worse, the pain we must endure while we wait that poses the heaviest of burdens.

When I think of patience as bearing a burden, as enduring real suffering, I become much more sympathetic to our ancestors who pressed Aaron into fashioning a golden calf out of the people’s gold jewelry. In this week’s Torah portion, the people freak out because Moses hadn’t come down from receiving the Tablets of the Ten Commandments on the exact day they expected him to come down. In that moment of feeling that they lost the one person who could safely intercede on their behalf with God, they grew so insecure that it was too much to wait one more day for their leader to return. So, out of fear, they created a replacement for Moses — a calf — which was a symbol of deities which would have been familiar to them from life in Egypt or, perhaps, from their encounters with other peoples in the ancient Near East. 

The calf wasn’t an idol. They weren’t going to worship it. Biblical commentators of the middle ages wrote that ‘“the people could not have been so stupid” as to believe that this freshly manufactured image was itself a deity. Rather, it was a symbol of God’s presence, perhaps an instrument to discern God’s will. In other words, the sin of the Golden Calf was not that the people had abandoned God and had reverted to idol worship. It’s that they buckled under the burden of their patience. 

They had only left Egypt three months earlier and had just begun to develop faith in Moses and, therefore, in God. So at the moment they felt the most vulnerable, they took matters into their own hands. This really made God mad. So mad that God yelled at Moses, “Get out of my way. I’m going to kill them all!” Fortunately, Moses convinced God to be patient and to cool the Divine jets. He reminded God that God had made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that Israel would become as numerous as the stars of heaven. “Be patient, God. Give it time.”

Who here cannot relate to the Israelites, who had the base of Mt. Sinai, in Moses’ absence, looked at the second in command, Aaron, and said, “Enough is enough. No more waiting!”

It has been about a year since we at Ahavas Achim close our doors to in-person services. And despite the re-opening of some businesses, churches and other institutions around us, we have chosen to err on the side of caution. And we will continue to err on the side of caution, even as more and more people get vaccinated, until our hospitals no longer face the prospect of being overrun by Covid patients and our funeral homes face the prospect of being overrun by death. We have seen over and over again this past year that it’s when we as a society become impatient that we experience a surge in cases. As Jews, our priority is always the health and safety of the living. Pikuach nefesh — saving life — is the most sacred of all mitzvot. So, while it hurts to be patient a little while longer — It hurts to tell your parents not to come to your child’s bat mitzvah. It hurts not to be able to hug people you love. It hurts not to be able to wrestle with your best friend or give a classmate a high five. — it’s what we have to do.

When the time is right, we will begin to open our doors to in-person gatherings as will every other synagogue in the world. When we do, it will happen gradually, at a measured rate, to ensure that we can re-open without contributing to greater community spread and putting lives — our own and others — at risk. 

It is painful to be patient. The alternative to patience, however, comes at great risk, as we learn from this week’s Torah portion and as we have seen time and time again in our country. The reward for patience will be great. We will gather with renewed commitment to love and care for one another. We will emerge from this dark period satisfied that we did our part to end this pandemic. We will look at ourselves and realize how incredibly strong and resilient we’ve been this past year. We will do great things because we know we have already done something great together as a community. We have carried the burden of patience, and what a burden it has been.

For a little while longer, let us avoid public gatherings, let us practice wearing masks and keeping our distance, and let us continue to practice savlanut — patience.

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