Reflections on Human Error
Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
One of the most shocking events depicted in the history of the Jewish People was the sin of the golden calf. It nearly destroyed us. It damaged the most delicate elements of our spiritual beings to the extent that the entire suffering of our long exile is laid directly at this sin’s feet.
Atonement for our mistake has not been achieved to this day. This is because we have not overcome the internal mechanism that drove us to make the mistake in the first place. Yes, when we saw that Moshe (Moses) had not returned after forty days on the heights of Mount Sinai (according to our mistaken calculations) …we made ourselves an idol and began dancing around a piece of yellow metal shaped in to a calf (Exodus 32).
It is difficult to find the logic in this act. We had heard the Almighty speak to us “in person”, so to speak, mere weeks prior. Know what He said? “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Know what else He said? “You shall not make yourself a carved image nor any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth. You shall not prostrate yourself to them nor worship them…” Got the picture? We got the picture back then, too.
How could we, after something like that, have just gone ahead and made ourselves a nifty little idol out of melted gold jewelry fashioned to look just like Dolly? Sane, rational people do not look at the work of their own hands and declare, “This is your god, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” Do they?
Many exegeses provide ample explanation for the psychological and philosophical issues driving the golden calf event. These ideas are followed by many compelling proofs in support of the fact that the Jewish People never really involved themselves in the actual sin of idolatry at all. Beyond all that, though, another more simple message might be voiced by this Torah story as well. Maybe our story is a warning: You’re human. Don’t get too hung up on yourself. No matter how fervently you think you believe in your way of life, your hard-earned wisdom, or your value system, you’re still only human and in danger of being as changeable as a weathervane.
I mean, look at us. Just look at us. We were a nation that had only recently heard the voice of G-d Himself speak to us on Mount Sinai. Does it get any bigger than that? We could remember the miracles and wonders of the redemption from Egypt like it was yesterday because it had been. We were at the zenith of our spiritual awareness and even then we slipped. The terrible, awesome vision of Sinai wreathed in lightening and flames still shimmered behind our eyelids every time we closed our eyes. Every nerve ending in our body still glinted with that subtle edge of knowing an experience that words will never describe yet when our first spiritual challenge showed up and demanded to be shown a good time, we totally blew it. With flying colors. So what does that say?
It’s simple: Man, a complex, involved, self-contradictory creature, is simply not changed by one-time events. No matter how mind-blowing of an impression they leave shining like neon lights on his cerebral cortex, the essential nature of the human is not fundamentally moved by fly-by-night drama.
Do events like this make our hearts pound? Yes. Do they make our imagination soar? Sure. Do they make our knees weak, our eyes water, and our hands tremble? Certainly. But do they change us into a different creature? They do not. Our habits stay the same and so does our basic internal vernacular.
Changing our habits, our way of processing what we experience, the way we perceive our lives, and the basic structure of our communication and interaction with others takes a lot more than whiz-bang first impressions. It takes years of internalizing values through consistent and determined self-training. Even the most compelling ideas simply can not take root overnight and grow without nourishment.
Take “truth”, for example. That’s a value most people feel strongly about. Do those same men and women lie sometimes? They sure do! How about all those “universal love” people? Would they give up their hard-earned parking spot to the other guy who just spent half and hour trying to find a place to park his car in the morning just like they did? Don’t bother answering. We’ve all been to New York.
When the golden calf event took place, we still believed in G-d. We remembered the redemption from Egypt. We also, in a moment of great weakness, bowed down to a calf made of gold. Hypocrisy? Absolutely. The logic of the yetzer hara, the drive towards destructive behavior in man, often supersedes the logic of any of his other faculties. The good news is that we can overcome it.
The bad news is that we will not be able to take a stand until we wake up and smell the coffee. Face it, people: Unless we are well aware that the yetzer hara is there, he will rule the roost. Step one in overcoming the yetzer hara is realizing that to be human is not to err, but to be challenged to err all the time.
In order to keep ourselves from falling, we must stay vigilant and never sit on our laurels. We must realize that challenge -- and failure -- could take place at any time. Even after an event as smashing as Sinai. After all, that’s what it means to be human.