In this week’s Torah Portion Moses is finally invited to ascend to the top of Mt. Sinai so he can receive the Ten Commandments. Moses is on the mountain longer than the people expected. When he doesn’t return in what they deem a “timely manner” they become concerned. After a bit more time passes they become frantic. They don’t know what has happened to Moses and begin to worry he might not come back.
They turn to Moses’ brother Aaron and demand that he make them a god. Unsure how to proceed, Aaron acquiesces to their demands. He takes their gold rings, casts a molten calf and looks on as the people begin to worship it.
God tells Moses to hurry down the mountain and threatens to destroy the people for being “stiff-necked.” Ultimately, three thousand Israelites who were at the center of this religious “coup” are put to death and Moses successfully begs God to forgive the rest of the people. God eventually forgives the people and allows Moses to carve a new set of tablets. In response Moses states,
“The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.”
The portion captures one of the most dramatic scenes in all of Torah. But what is often overlooked in the rabbinic discussions of this episode is the question of “why?” Why were the people so quick to turn to Aaron and demand he make them a god? Why was Aaron so quick to do as they demanded and create the golden calf?
The answer often offered by tradition is that the people’s faith was not strong enough. I, however, would offer a slightly different perspective. I think the people were reacting out of anxiety. And who can fault them? They had recently fled Egyptian bondage, and while they suffered under Pharaoh’s cruelty, at least life in Egypt was familiar. Now they were in the Sinai wilderness and had no idea what new challenges each day would bring. Then, as if the situation didn’t already feel threatening enough, Moses disappeared on top of the mountain.
The Israelites were in a strange place, living in a nascent community that was just beginning to learn how to work together, and their leader had gone up a mountain and disappeared.
How could they not be anxious?
As a result, they looked for an easy solution to allay their fears and found it in the form of the golden calf.
I suspect Nachman of Bratislav understood this when he famously wrote,
The whole world is a narrow bridge and the main thing is to not be afraid.
Reb Nachman understood that, when faced with the challenges of life’s “narrow bridges,” it is only natural to be anxious and afraid. But he also understood that reacting out of anxiety is often counterproductive. Thus he counseled that we acknowledge the challenges when “narrow bridges” confront us and keep our eyes on them while doing our best to keep the fear and anxiety at bay. That is, he taught, the best way to keep the fear and anxiety from overtaking us.
We live in an age of heightened anxiety. The COVID pandemic, the toxic social and political climate in our country, the explosive growth of antisemitism here and abroad and the upheaval in Israel are just a few of the current challenges we face.
As I have written previously, the world DOES feel far more narrow than I can ever recall. But, if we ignore the Rebbe’s guidance, we, like our ancestors, may find ourselves seeking easy, quick “reactive fixes” and, as the episode with the Golden Calf makes clear, that rarely works to anyone’s benefit.
Now, more than ever, we need to follow Reb Nachman’s advice. We need to acknowledge the challenges we face. We need to assess them through the lens of our individual and communal values. And then we need to do everything possible to slow down, take a breath and consider what we say, write, Tweet or do in response. When we do, we will not only address the issues we face but we will deepen our communal bonds in the process.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen