Life can be very daunting at times; often our faith is put to the test. In this week’s portion we are going to be reading about one of the most tragic incidents of Jewish history, the Golden Calf. This tragic episode is a powerful example of how people reacted wrongly under a pressurising situation, and we can learn from their incorrect response.
The people had just received the Ten Commandments from G-d at Mount Sinai, Moses went up the mountain to receive the whole Torah, and he had told them he was going to be away for 40 days. But, as the Talmud tells us, the people had a slight miscalculation. According to their calculations Moshe was late and they worried he was never coming back. The people panicked and made a Golden Calf to replace Moses as their leader. This is truly bizarre; how could the Jewish People, who saw the ten plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the sea, who heard G-d’s voice at Mount Sinai, make a Golden Calf?
Living day-to-day with faith
We see from the Golden Calf what happens when people panic and especially when they panic about their own survival. Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky, one of our great rabbinic authorities of the 20th century, says that what drove them to this madness was sheer fear of poverty and deprivation.
The Jewish People had nothing of their own in the desert, no food, no water, no shelter – they were totally vulnerable and dependent on G-d for everything. The manna fell from heaven, they had a well of water, they were surrounded by the Clouds of Glory – all of this was miraculously provided for them on a daily basis.
The manna in particular was a test of their faith. It fell every day, in just the right quantity for that day. The people could not stock up on it in and in fact people who tried to leave over the manna from one day to the next found that it had rotted. It was miraculous food that was only enough for that day. They had to live with faith in G-d that he would give them their daily sustenance, day after day after day.
The day they made the Golden Calf they had got all their provisions for the day – their food, their water, their shelter. However, when Moses tarried, they worried: what about tomorrow? They worried that perhaps he had died and they started to panic. They thought that perhaps all the things that they had were in the merit of Moses, and with him gone, what would tomorrow bring? No food, no water, no shelter; they had their children to feed, they had themselves to protect. They were in the harsh environment of the desert and the fact that they had provisions for today meant nothing about tomorrow. They needed to have faith that tomorrow would also be okay. But they panicked out of the fear of the unknown and they felt they had to do something. This sense of total and utter vulnerability drove them to madness.
According to Talmudic tradition, one of the righteous leaders, Chur, told them to wait until tomorrow. He was trying to delay because he knew Moses was coming back. The crowd reacted very angrily. The mob attacked him because he told them to wait till tomorrow, and that was the very thing they didn’t want to do, because they were afraid of what would happen tomorrow. The main test in the desert, says Rav Kaminetzky, was a test of faith. But this proved too difficult when Moses wasn’t returning, and this failure resulted in the sin of the Golden Calf.
We face those kinds of tests every day. We are in G-d’s hands and we are vulnerable; we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Sometimes we think that we know but we actually don’t. We are entirely in G-d’s hands, from our food and sustenance to our health, wealth, to any blessings that we may have. All of it is in G-d’s hands. At times G-d puts us in challenging and difficult situations which test our faith. We have to work on living with faith in G-d that He is in control and will take care of us.
Keeping Shabbos is an act of faith
One of the most important commandments we have is the commandment to keep Shabbos, the Sabbath, the “day of rest.” Why do we rest on Shabbos? We rest on Shabbos because we are imitating G-d, as it says in the Torah, G-d worked for six days and rested on the seventh. So too we work and create during the six days of the week; as the Talmud puts it, we are G-d’s partners in the continuing process of creation. Our resting on the seventh day is an act of faith, where we stop all activity, step back from our role as “creators” and say, we are entirely in G-d’s hands.
It is interesting to note that the first time the Jewish People were taught about the concept of Shabbos was when they were given the manna from heaven. When G-d started giving them the manna, He said to them on Friday a double portion is going to come but on Shabbos nothing will come. They had to learn to prepare for the Sabbath on the Friday. This is why we have two loaves of bread with the meals on Shabbos, in order to remind us of the miracle of the double portion that fell on the Friday for Shabbos. They were tested to see if they would trust G-d that nothing would come down on Shabbos, and in fact some people failed this test – they went out on Shabbos morning to look for the manna. They didn’t have the faith that this could be a day of rest, where you do nothing, where you can close your shop, stop working, stop earning money, and be able to take a step back and say, we are in G-d’s hands and we have perfect faith in G-d’s capacity to deliver and look after us.
The message in this is that even though we may look at a bank balance or a person’s physical health or whatever blessing it may be and think, well, that looks like it will be here for many years to come, we have to view all the blessings we have like manna from heaven. It comes from G-d, day by day, and we need to learn to live day by day. Living day by day not only links us to a proper faith in G-d but it can actually bring a greater sense of tranquillity and peace and the ability to live in the moment.
Judaism’s philosophy: seize the day
Often people obsess about the future, concerns about what’s happening, anxieties about what’s not happening. We are obligated, according to our Talmudic Sages, to plan for the future. That is the way G-d has designed the world; we don’t rely on miracles, so we need to make plans for the future. But our mindset has to be that we have what we need for today and G-d will provide for tomorrow. We have to be responsible about everything but we don’t have to keep on living in the future.
Some people are so busy living in the future that they actually don’t live in the present. When a person is living in the future the whole time, he is not actually living. The future is elusive. It never arrives because as soon as you get there it’s not the future anymore. When you get to that point, it’s now the present and there is a always a different, elusive future.
In Ethics of the Fathers the Mishna says, “Do not say ‘when I will have leisure I will study Torah’ for you may not have leisure.” This is talking specifically about the study of Torah because it is a mitzvah about which people can say, look, it doesn’t seem to be that urgent, if I don’t do it today, I can do it tomorrow. I will have more time tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, when I retire, when I do this, when I do that, etc. What this Mishna is saying is life is too unpredictable; who says we are going to have that time? Perhaps we won’t.
The philosophy of Judaism is to live today and to seize the moment, not in the sense of ”eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” – that’s a secular way of looking at it, to grab as much physical gratification as we can. Judaism’s philosophy of living in the present is about doing as much good as possible today because life is short. Living in the present is the greatest gift we can give ourselves, to appreciate what we have at this moment. This is why we have so many laws in Judaism symbolising our appreciation of the moment, whether it’s the laws of the blessings that you say on eating an apple or a slice of bread, or the blessing upon viewing the ocean. These blessings we say on each one of these things signify that we don’t just pass over the moment, grabbing the apple and ignoring the experience. We try to savour each experience and live in the moment, appreciating what G-d has given us.
The ability to block out what tomorrow might hold and just live in the moment requires faith. But having such faith is then rewarded immediately because it gives us the ability to be alive and enjoy the present, without having our eyes always fixed on the horizon.
Shabbos is not only about the seventh day, but affects the other six as well
In this week’s portion, chapter 34 verse 21, it says “six days you shall work and on the seventh day you shall rest.” Rav Moshe Feinstein, one of the great Rabbinic authorities of the 20th century, asks why doesn’t it just say you shall rest on the seventh day? Why does it say Sheshet yamim ta’avod, six days you shall work? He answers that in the same way that we are commanded to rest on Shabbos, the seventh day, we are commanded to work on the other six. We should view what we do on the other six days as part of G-d’s command, and realise that what we are doing in those six days is part of G-d’s plan for the world.
Rav Feinstein cites the passage from the Talmud which says that a person does not even bruise a finger down on earth without it being decreed from above. Everything that happens to us is part of G-d’s master plan. Everything that takes place in our lives during the course of the week, the work that we do, the good deeds that we do – all of that is part of the command of G-d which He facilitates and enables to happen. As Rav Feinstein points out, we say in our prayers every morning hamechadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit, “G-d renews in His goodness every single day the works of creation.”
We look at the world as though it is static, as though G-d created it and now it functions on its own. Judaism says no, the world that we look at is actually fluid. If G-d were not giving it energy every single moment of every single day then the entire universe would cease to exist. By way of analogy, the world is like an inflatable structure, like a jumping castle children jump on at parties. The jumping castle is held up by air which is blown into it. If you turn off the motor for one second the whole castle collapses. It looks like a firm structure, but in fact it is being held up by the air that is blown into it. So, too, the universe is held up by G-d infusing energy into it every single day, every second of the day.
Rav Feinstein says that the six days of work that we put in constitute our work on behalf of G-d. Whatever we do is part of the commandment to work, to do good, to make a difference in the world and to continue sustaining the world as partners with G-d. Shabbos affects not only the seventh day of the week but the other six as well because the work during the six days is actually part of fulfilling G-d’s commandment which on the seventh day we fulfil by resting.
The quintessential existential question
Having faith is easier said than done. We know that everything is part of G-d’s plan and whatever G-d does is ultimately for the good; as the Talmud says, whatever event occurs, a person is obligated to say gam zu l’tovah, this too is for the good. But we are often confronted with pain and tragedy, which may affect us personally or people we know. The world is filled with pain and tragedy, and often the tragedy strikes people who are very righteous and saintly. Equally, we see many people who are evil, who harm others and bring destruction into the world and yet they seem to be thriving. How do we reconcile that?
This is one of the age-old questions which our Sages have debated for generations. In fact, we have a tradition that says this was Moses’ question to G-d when he went up to Mount Sinai. After G-d tells Moses that he is going to forgive the people for the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses sees an opportunity to ask G-d a question that he has always wanted to ask. In a rather cryptic fashion, in chapter 33 verse 18 of this week’s portion, Moses says to G-d har’eini na et kevodecha, “show me Your glory,” to which G-d responds, “I will call out in the Name of G-d, and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy.” Moses says I want to see the glory of G-d in its undiluted form and G-d answers him saying lo yirani ha’adam vachai, “no man can see Me and live.”
What was Moses asking for? What does it mean that he wanted to see the glory of G-d? The Talmud interprets these verses to mean that what Moses was asking for was an answer to this age-old question about the suffering of the righteous. According to the Talmud in Tractate Berachot, Moses was asking G-d why is it that there are some righteous people who suffer tragedy and pain, and some wicked people who enjoy prosperity and ease? Moses was asking G-d for an answer to this humanly incomprehensible state of world affairs.
This has an important message for us: Moses, the greatest of all the prophets about whom it says lo kam k’moshe od, there was no prophet who ever arose like Moses, could find no answer to this existential question of the apparent lack of order in the world, the suffering of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked.
This, according to the Talmud, was the question he put to G-d when he said, “show me Your glory.” G-d answered him saying lo yirani ha’adam vachai, “no man can see me and live.” What G-d was saying to Moses was that to understand the intricacies of how this world operates, all of the details of the interaction between people and events as they are controlled by G-d, is something that no human being alive can understand because we are so limited in our perspective. We are physical beings that look at the world from our limited personal perspectives and we cannot begin to see the bigger picture. G-d was saying to Moses, you asked Me that question but I cannot give you the answer, not because there aren’t answers but because you, as a finite human being, cannot understand them. No man can see Me and live. You cannot begin to see the broader picture.
G-d’s governance of the world is incomprehensible to us
When Moses said, “show me Your glory,” he meant show me how You run the world. The glory of G-d refers to how He holds the whole world together, and goes to the heart of the very purpose of creation. The glory of G-d is that part of G-d that we cannot even begin to understand and penetrate.
This question is deep and complex, and we should not be glib and give superficial answers to it. Moses himself could not answer it and when he questioned G-d h was told that he would not be able to understand. We, too, must accept the fact that we have to live with this unanswerable question. We live with faith in G-d, and our faith is tested in times of trouble, tragedy and pain. We have to rise to the occasion and show our greatness, our strength of faith, our capacity to have perfect belief in G-d no matter what happens, and to say gam zu l’Tovah, this too is for the good even though we cannot begin to see the bigger picture and its inherent good. We cannot even try to offer reasons or explanations because we simply do not know. Only G-d knows because His plan encompasses the billions of people on earth as well as the billions of people who have lived throughout the generations before us. There is a master plan that affects every part of creation and every human being has a role to play in it.
Prayer is proactive
While we do not have an answer to this existential question, we do have practical tools to cope with it, and that is prayer, tefillah. Prayer is not just a psychological benefit – it actually works. It can change the course of events and really make a difference in the world. This was part of the answer that G-d gave to Moses.
In chapter 33 verse 19 G-d says vekarati b’shem Hashem, “I will call out in the Name of G-d.” This is strange because G-d Himself is talking. What does He mean “I will call out in the Name of G-d”? According to Talmudic tradition, when Moses said to G-d show me Your ways, I need to understand suffering in the world, G-d answered him by showing him how to pray. G-d taught him specifically how to ask for mercy by saying the verse which describes the thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy, which we say during the High Holidays. G-d was teaching Moses not only about the fact that the governance of the world is impenetrable but also about the power of prayer.
But why does G-d need our prayers? Our philosophers have explained that G-d needs our prayers not because He needs them but because we need them and are elevated through them. Prayer is a transformative experience, and through it we can change and grow. Quite possibly, when we are on a lower level we don’t merit G-d’s intervention to change the course of events and when we pray to Him we raise our level and then merit it.
Prayer is about growth, about getting closer to G-d. Another dimension of getting closer to G-d is through doing teshuva, repenting and improving our deeds. The Talmud and the Code of Jewish Law instruct us that in times of trouble we repent and improve ourselves. This does not mean to say that all suffering is a punishment; rather, the message is that we must change and grow, and become elevated and closer to G-d. We achieve this through prayer and repentance.
The response to suffering is not to sit back passively and say, well, there is nothing that can be done. Our response to suffering is to pray as well as to act. Prayer itself is active. In fact, the Talmud compares prayer to going out to battle. We go out to fight, to change the world, and one of the ways that we change the world is through prayer.
We must also be proactive in other ways and do whatever is necessary to change the world and make a difference, all the while realising that we are in G-d’s Hands. This is what we have mentioned above regarding “six days you shall work.” During those six days of work we are engaged with addressing human needs or alleviating human suffering on one level or another, whether it’s a doctor dealing with illness; an engineer dealing with the challenge of how to construct things safely; a lawyer dealing with issues of conflict; a street cleaner dealing with dirt and pollution; a nurse, a policeman, or a teacher who is dealing with the suffering of ignorance – every single person deals with a human need and making a difference in the world.
Our faith is challenged all the time and is sometimes pushed to the limit. When we are in difficult situations, we have to rise to that challenge through prayer, through trying to alleviate the suffering, through making a difference in the world and by transforming and uplifting ourselves so that we can live with real faith and become better people through all of these trials.
May G-d give all of us the strength and clarity to live with faith, to have the capacity to change the world so that we keep not only the seventh day as holy, but sanctify the other six by working, making a difference, embracing every part of creation with faith, and acknowledging that we are all in G-d’s hands.