“The people saw that Moses had delayed in descending the mountain, and the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Rise up, make for us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt – we do not know what became of him!’” (Exodus 32:1)*
Few episodes in the bible are better known, and fewer still provoke greater amazement and disbelief. How could the Jewish people forget the stupendous miracles they had witnessed just months beforehand and build a golden calf! It seems inconceivable and yet, if we’re honest with ourselves we may just recognize elements of this story that we can relate to our own lives. After all, aren’t there times when we seem to forget what we know to be true? Haven’t we ever found ourselves looking back on a dumb decision realizing that deep down, we knew all along it was a bad idea?
Not long ago, virtually every Jewish child knew the story of the angel who taught them the entire Torah while they were in their mother’s womb. According to this well-known Talmudic tradition, just before the child is born, the angel touches her above the upper lip, forming the indent known as the philtrum and causing her to forget everything she had just learned. Parents shared this story with their children to teach them that human beings have a powerful, innate knowledge of truth; a direct connection to the source of all wisdom via the tiny spark of God – or soul – that resides within each of us. According to this story, we may have “forgotten” what we know at birth, but our innate wisdom is never far from us. In fact, it’s right beneath our noses. So while it may seem strange that the Jews could fall for the illusion of idolatry so soon after their encounter with God, our own ability to choose nonsense over what we know to be true should be no less perplexing to us.
The great biblical commentator known as the Ohr HaChaim (1696-1743) references our oral tradition to provide us with a fascinating insight into this important aspect of human nature as he seeks to understand what the Jews “saw” in Moses’ delay that compelled them to build an idol.
“The Satan came and showed them an image of darkness and gloom, and the image of the death-bed of Moses who had died. This is why the verse says: ‘The people saw.’ They saw these things, and they supported their conclusion (that Moses had died) by reasoning that the sixth hour of the day had already passed, which was the time limit that Moses had set for his return. Without this vision they would never have been swayed by these calculations.”
Our innate sense of goodness and wisdom may indeed be potent, but it is offset by an equally robust capacity for craziness and illusion. Judaism teaches that we are each created with a powerful inner drive – known as the evil inclination or satan – which is sort of like our own mini Madison Avenue PR firm. In fact, its sole function is to make utter nonsense look not only viable but downright appealing. The Ohr Hachaim’s comments are meant to shed light on the way this part of us works. It works smart, not hard. It knows that people want to be good, and it knows that they have a natural feel for truth. So rather than fight us head on, it employs a strategy that virtually guarantees victory before the first shot is even fired.
This devious little part of us understands that talent and practice may be important factors when it comes to winning a competition, but the only way to insure success is to make sure your opponent doesn’t show up in the first place. The way it accomplishes this is by demoralizing us and upsetting us. It gets us to feel hopeless, or angry, or anxious, or insecure because it knows that once we’re in a negative state of mind, we can no longer show up in our lives with the wisdom and common sense we need to succeed. Yes, like the Jews in the desert, we still have our logic, but we no longer have perspective, and logic without perspective equals disaster. As soon as our world becomes distorted, the game is already over.
We all lose perspective from time to time. The bigger problem is when we don’t realize we’ve lost it. One of the main issues I encounter in my spiritual coaching is people trying to figure their lives out from a place of negativity, who are completely clueless about how distorted their thinking is. Of course, they can’t see the distortion because distorted thinking happens to look great when we’re in a low state of mind. I know that when I’m upset I have tons of logic to support my point of view. In fact, I could probably argue my case before the Supreme Court. The only problem is, when I take a look at my thinking the next day – not to mention the things I’ve said or done based on it – my biggest challenge usually becomes finding a rock large enough to hide under.
Sorting through life’s issues can be complicated and confusing, but it’s relatively easy to identify our state of mind. Instead of focusing on what life looks like, we need to be aware of where we’re looking at life from, and if we’re steeped in negativity we must recognize that we’re heading in the wrong direction. This may not make the negativity go away, but it can keep us from taking it too seriously. When we don’t dwell on our negative thoughts, they tend to pass, and when they do, life usually looks a whole lot different. One thing’s for sure: never make decisions and never take action based upon low-state thinking. As our story so painfully reminds us, even the wisest and most well-intentioned people can make foolish mistakes and fall from great heights when they rush to action from a low state of mind. If we can just be aware of what we’re going through and wait it out, it’s usually not too long before the dark clouds pass and we once again have access to the wisdom that the angel taught us, long ago, in our mother’s womb.
Wishing you an easy and meaningful fast,
*The incident of the golden calf took place on the 17th of Tammuz, a national day of tragedy that we mark each year by fasting (This year on Tuesday June 29th). According to our tradition, a number of other tragedies took place on this date, including the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem prior to the destruction of both the first and second temples.