Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Measuring Stick

Few episodes in the wilderness story of the People of Israel are as inscrutable as the story of the Golden Calf. Here the nation only just received the Torah at Sinai. They were daily recipients of the manna, special bread from heaven. They had witnessed miracle after miracle in there behalf. Yet when Moshe ascends the mountain to bring down the luchot habrit, the Tablets of the Covenant, and is, in their estimation, tardy in his return, they immediately revert to the idolatry of their past and indulge in the worship of a graven image.

Many of our greatest Torah commentaries have sought to explain this startling and calamitous turn of events. But for us and the purpose of this blog, which asks us to think about what the Torah story says to us about ourselves, the question is more personal. How are we like the generation of the midbar? In what ways do we have a similar propensity to slip badly in times of crisis and return to habits and behaviors in our past, habits and behaviors we long thought we had over-come.
I mean, it does no good to learn the Parsha and its story simply as a part of the history of our people. We need to ask ourselves, where am I in the story? How might I be vulnerable like my ancestors and what can I learn from them?

The first point that seems relevant to understanding the human side to the tragedy of the Egel Hazahav, The Golden Calf, is to realize that the sin happened in a crisis environment. The People found themselves alone in the wilderness without a leader. They could not go back and did not know how to go forward. All the coping mechanisms they had known, few indeed since they were a slave nation, were absent. In moments of crisis regression is natural.

In the recovery community, whether dealing with recovering alcoholics or gamblers, what we know is crisis makes people vulnerable to relapse. Its hard not to rely on the old, even though it be harmful, to get you by, when you have little experience trusting the new. In relationships, even those who fought so hard to separate from a bad spouse will often be tempted to return to him/her if they find themselves in a crisis and frightened.
Over and over again in moments of fear people return to harmful situations, thinking, " bad as it was then at least in that environment I survived." In crisis one often is only thinking about what it takes to survive.

Crisis often reduces us to childlike ways of thinking. We feel powerless to fend for ourselves. We so desperately want to hang on to something. We may make all kinds of deals with G-d if He saves us from our plight. We may give magical qualities to some Tzadik or to some tikun believing that he/it will save us. We need answers; we need deliverance. We struggle to find our mature spiritual self, the one that can find balance in a storm and say "no matter what happens Hashem is with me". "Gam kee alylech b'gay tzalmavet lo irara, kee ata imadi. " Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for You are with me".
In crisis its not that there is no G-d for us. Its that there is no me. I lose myself.

In recent memory there was no time of national crisis like the years of the Holocaust. The crisis brought out both the best and worst in people. And it was not really possible to predict who would rise above their circumstances and demonstrate greatness of character, be generous, self sacrificing and heroic in caring for their suffering brethren. And who would succumb to the fear, become predatory, do whatever it took to survive, even if it meant taking from others suffering alongside them. Its no wonder our Sages taught "al taamin b'atzmecha ad yom motcha", "Don't be sure of your self until the day you die".

No, the fall of the People of Israel at the time of the worship of the Golden Calf should not surprise us. They had not yet developed the coping skills to respond to crisis. And we can find a bit of our ancestors in each of us. Its rare for the best in us to come out in crisis. More likely we will look for safety and survival, perhaps not in a Golden Calf, chas vshalom, but in familiar ports often neither good for us nor manifestations of authentic faith.

Yet crisis is the nisayon, the testing by which we may truly measure ourselves. While we don't seek out the crisis that tests us, we need to know that only in those times can we really see who we have grown to become and how much more we yet have to do. Crisis is in many ways the instrument of discernment. For most of us, crisis is humbling, it inevitably shows us we are far from being as complete as we once thought ourselves to be !

Shabbat Shalom

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