The Israelites have just come through their encounter with God at Sinai – perhaps the most amazing communal encounter of the supernatural ever depicted, and they are grumpy. Thus begins the eternal cycle of revelation and evasion – it turns out that maintaining the behavior so clearly required by God is no easy task.
We think that the Israelites of all people should have no excuse for their behavior. They just saw the plagues, the salvation by way of a miracle at the Sea of Reeds, and then a full revelation of God’s splendor at Sinai proper. While they wait for Moses to return, and Rashi explains that they interpret Moses as delaying six hours, or even a day, depending on one’s reading of the text, the Israelites get Aaron to build them the Golden Calf, a more easily engaged image of the divine, and far less demanding.
In this failure to hold out for Moses’ return, however we explain it, we find the Torah offering us a model we can live with – an understanding of the human side of trying to do the right thing. The right thing often emerges as such a simple thing – just look at the Book of Proverbs, which depicts the wise path and the evil path as relatively easy to distinguish from each other. Here is a quote from Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s beautiful translation:
How different it is with wisdom! She lays no snares and has no need to hide, she sings openly in the street... Prov. 1:20-21
We see the way clearly, and yet we stray. We know the right thing to do, it can be so obvious, singing openly in the street, and still we falter. Why?
The Israelites offer us one model – the task can be overwhelming – the clear and obvious miraculous encounter can be intimidating. Living in awe of the universe, in the face of the reality of the enormity of God, can demotivate us. We yearn for a simpler, easier answer, an image of God that we can dance around, one who makes no demands upon us.
Our Jewish year cycle reminds us of this, as we return, literally and through our behavior, over and over again to the High Holy Days in order to re-establish a focus on good behavior. Even our week cycle can offer us help in this. Every Shabbat we can look at our week both with eyes to when we’ve succeeded in being the person we aim to be, and when we have fallen short.
As Jews we embrace the notion that simple teachings often require lots more effort to pursue. We know what we need to do to save the environment, and we do what we can. We know that we need to exercise, and sometimes we do. We know that we need to reach out to each other and our neighbors to transform the world, and sometimes we manage.
Shabbat gives us the option, and the story of the Golden Calf offers us a model, to say, I did well enough this week – more to work on next week. Let us use Shabbat to refine our approaches in anticipation of making things work better next week. Let us embrace ourselves as imperfect and in process, we aim to become better, and are constantly becoming, just like our concept of God, who offers Moses the name, “I will be what I will be.” When we aim to be like God, to be holy, we aim to be becoming, not to be perfect.