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The Golden Calves of Our Lives #714

02/18/2022 01:40:00 PM

Feb18

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashah Ki Tissa 

The Rabbi is currently out of the country. His weekly e-sermon will resume in two weeks. Until then, here is a previous e-sermon, reprinted from 2017, on this week’s Torah portion — Ki Tissa(“When you take.")

The Golden Calves of Our Lives

At a conference last year on future trends in Judaism, one of the presenters a rabbi told of how he had aroused the fury of one of his congregants.

One evening, as he taught a class on the ethics of technology, his phone began to ping. Because his device had been tucked in his jacket hanging in the back of the room, he was not able to immediately respond to the text messages.

After his lecture ended, when he had the opportunity to check his messages, he realized that his lack of immediate response had triggered the rage of a usually mild-mannered congregant.

"Rabbi, can I ask you something?" the first text read.

"Rabbi, I need your advice on something," the next message stated.

"Rabbi, I really need to speak with you," the thread continued.

And then a series of messages followed in rapid fire: "Where the #%&@$!! are you!"

"Why are you ignoring me?"

From there, the language continued to deteriorate. And this entire one-way conversation took place over 45 minutes.

It's amazing of how expectations have changed regarding how long it should take for us to respond to each other. 

We expect instant answers. We demand responses with lightening speed. We have lost our communal patience. We want it now — and not a second later.

Where has our patience gone?

In this week's Parashah, Ki Tissa, patience becomes an issue. The Torah recounts one of the Bible's most famous stories — of a nation which wanted its gratification "now."

It is known as the story of the Golden Calf.

As we read in previous weeks, Moses, upon receiving the Ten Commandments, ascends Mount Sinai and begins studying with God the intricacies of Jewish law. He says he'll be back in 40 days. But there is minor confusion.

Did he mean 40 days, or 40 days and nights? And when did the 40 days begin?

As the 40th day dawns, the people become impatient. They demand Moses' brother, Aaron, to "come make us a god who shall go before us, for that Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt — we do not know what happened to him." (Exodus 32:1)

Golden earrings among other items are gathered and are melted into a golden calf — modeled after the Canaanite god El — depicted in the form of a bull.

Moses descends and sees the Israelite camp enveloped in a wild frenzy. At first, Moses thinks he's observing a post-battle victory celebration.

But reality soon sets in. "As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged: and he hurled the tablets from his hands, and shattered them at the foot of the mountain..." (Exodus 32:19)

God too becomes angry, but Moses eventually begs for forgiveness on behalf of the people, and this model would eventually form the basis of our High Holiday forgiveness and repentance service.

It is easy to understand why the Israelites reverted to materialism so soon after the Egyptian exodus. For hundreds of years, they lived under an Egyptian system of physical gods.

Then came Moses, who taught and reminded the Israelites that the universe was created, and is sustained, by a transcendent power. But when Moses did not return on cue, the Israelites reverted to a familiar system of comfortable and predictable gods.

When you think of it, not that much has changed. Even today, it doesn't take much for us to embrace false gods.

In an amazing interview on the nature of technology and addiction, author and lecturer Simon Sinek notes that increasingly, humanity appears to be obsessed with its physical idols. 

He notes that when we compulsively check our emails, or search the Internet to see what is trending, or feel compelled to instantaneously answer text messages, we are not always searching for information or connections. Often, he observes, we are seeking a surge of dopamine, and this quest for nonstop stimulation has become an addiction.

In a world, where more and more people are socially wired, psychologists point to a direct correlation between obsessive technological use, and loneliness and depression.

Over the centuries there have been many interpretations attached to the story of the golden calf. Yet as I read the essence of the story today what resonates strongest for me is humanity's perpetual obsession with immediate gratification.

Indeed, we were and continue to be an impatient people. 

In this week's Torah portion, we are reminded that the road to spirituality is a narrow one — surrounded by flashy gods.

Internet — video games — iPhones — Smart Televisions. Golden calves encircle us on all sides.

Yet, while technology has provided us with important forms of escape and stimulation, it cannot rest at the center of our lives.  

In spite of the lure of games and gadgets, each of us must remind ourselves that true life — a meaningful life — is based on direct human interaction and a direct and personal commitment by individuals and community to heal a broken world.  

Moses reminds us that godliness is not linked to physical shape. Rather, it is invisible. It is heartfelt. It is spiritual.

Let us remember the lessons of the golden calf as we seek to find balance within our lives. 

This week's parashah challenges us to return to our spiritual roots. It also begs us to reflect, as we reread the story of the Israelites and golden calf, how can we strengthen our capacity to love, and our ability to exhibit patience.

It also begs us to consider, as we navigate a world full of false gods, who and what are our idols today?

 Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

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Sun, November 27 2022 3 Kislev 5783