This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11-34:35.
The Israelite journey from slavery to freedom can be described as a process of maturation. As slaves in Egypt, the Israelites were as children who didn’t have to make decisions and daily life was set out for them. Leaving Egypt began a process of maturation, journeying through adolescence in the wilderness and ultimately entering adulthood as they stood to enter the Promised Land.
The Israelites were dependent on Moses, their substitute parent, from whom they received a semblance of stability. As with most children, they were likely not pleased when Moses went away, but accepted a finite absence, one of 40 days. The problem arose when the 40 days passed and the promised return did not occur. Why would Moses be late coming down from the mountain? He had to know that the people would not do well without him.
The simplest explanation is that Moses was not late, that a counting error occurred. Rashi explains that before ascending, Moses told the people that he would return at the end of 40 days, within six hours from sunrise on the 40th day. Rashi notes that Moses ascended in the morning, thus the first “day” of his ascent was not a complete Jewish day as Jewish days begin in the evening. By counting the day of ascent as the first day Moses would be expected to return a day earlier than he had planned. To complicate matters, the Talmud contains a midrash that holds that Satan got in on the action and caused darkness during the day so that the Israelites would become even more confused about timing. They end up waiting until the next morning and then begin construction of the Golden Calf, a physical manifestation of a God that they could not see.
Why couldn’t they have waited even one more day? They acted like children whose parent went away and left them with a babysitter. Things would be OK as long as their parents returned when promised. When that date passed, the fear of abandonment would blossom. Aaron the babysitter was not Moses.
It’s a matter of maturity. It’s a matter of faith. What is faith but a belief in something that cannot be seen? The Israelites were at a stage where they could easily maintain belief in the intangible. They believed in God when miracles were being wrought but the force of each individual miracle quickly faded as everyday life took hold. Moses was their lifeline to God.
With Moses away, the link went away as well. When Moses didn’t return exactly on schedule as promised, the people reacted as children will – rashly.
I think the rabbis understood this. Otherwise why create that midrash? They needed to come up with some explanation for the drastic action of reverting to the idolatry of Egypt after all that the Israelites had seen and experienced of God’s greatness. Extreme fear combined with a lack of maturity provides at least some sort of explanation for one of our ancestors’ most egregious acts of all time.
For faith to truly inform and enhance our lives, we have to be mature enough to accept that there are things we do not understand, that things exist even if we cannot always see or sense them. Only then will we have this faith to hold on to in our most trying times. The Israelites didn’t possess the ability to hold on to faith and to use it to temper their responses to crisis.
We do. The only question is whether we choose to acknowledge it.
Rabbah Arlene Berger leads the Olney Kehila.