The sin of the Golden Calf is one of the most infamous events in Jewish history. This sin, following immediately on the heels of Matan Torah, was so impactful that we find ourselves continuously atoning for it: on the High Holidays, we do all we can to “divert” God’s attention from any possible reference to Cheit HaEigel, despite the fact that it took place thousands of years ago. Despite our nations’ many strengths, we have certainly encountered our fair share of challenges in our history; our collective slate is far from clean. And yet, this sin stands out as one of the most grievous in Jewish history, particularly due the absolutely shocking nature of its chronological context.
Though our Parsha does not immediately follow that of Yisro, where we read about the receiving of the Ten Commandments, the commentaries note that the correct historical order is that the events of the Sin of the Golden Calf in our Parsha did, in fact, occur directly following Moshe’s ascent to Har Sinai following Matan Torah. In this context, we can understand the tremendous shock, the appalling nature of this sin of national idolatry, on the heels of the one and only direct Divine revelation in history. How is it possible that thousands of people, having just heard God’s voice, having just seen sounds – how do we as a nation stoop so low as to tear off our gold jewelry and melt it down into an idol just forty days after such a life changing event? Was Klal Yisrael not actually that changed by Matan Torah? How is this even possible?
Rashi (32:1) explains the Jews’ mindset at the time. Following the revelation at Sinai, Moshe turns to ascend the mountain to receive the rest of the Torah from Hashem, telling the people that he will return in forty days. The Pasuk notes that the people saw that Moshe was “Boshesh,” delayed, and Rashi explains that they simply miscalculated. Though Moshe intended to return forty days later, the nation counted the day of his ascent in the count of forty, meaning that he appeared to be delayed one day. Rashi notes that the Satan came down and created confusion on that day, and made the world appear dark and gloomy, so the nation despaired and assumed that Moshe must be dead. Despite our sympathies for this unfortunate situation, it is still difficult to understand how Klal Yisrael could have made such a terrible mistake, which resulted in the deaths of three thousand men and generations-long atonement. Why couldn’t they wait it out just one more night?
Psychologically, we are wired to resist change. We experience discomfort when the status quo is altered, even if we do this intentionally in an attempt to grow or improve our lives. In our personal lives, we get used to bad habits, promising ourselves we will change them, and it typically takes a strong wake-up call to motivate us to do so. Perhaps we have a bad habit of texting while driving, until one day we get a ticket, or, G-d forbid, cause an accident. We are momentarily shaken, inspired, motivated to change. The same is true for positive, uplifting experiences - we go to seminary, or on a life-changing trip to Poland, we meet an incredible Gadol or world figure, we experience the incredible miracle of childbirth or finding our life partner. We tell ourselves – I will never doubt God’s Mastery of the world or love for me ever again. We say, wow, I am changed for the better, I am going to be different now, a better me. And yet, fast-forward a few weeks, and we find ourselves back in the same patterns and behaviors as we had been in previously.
When we experience an uplifting, life-altering event, when we are shaken from a stupor in our lives, we are gripped both with inspiration and with fear. In the same breath that such an experience can motivate us to change, fear and doubt and resistance creep in. We wonder if we can actually handle this new lifestyle or approach to a certain behavior or person. We doubt that we can, and as soon as that uncertainty and discomfort with the new sets in, we are gripped with the strong desire to revert back to our old ways, even if they were destructive or ineffective. The urge to resist change and stay with what is comfortable and familiar is both intrinsically human and inherently an obstacle to lasting growth. We are afraid of rocking the boat, unsure that we can actually guide it safely across the waves.
Resistance to change and doubt in our ability to maintain change often leads to self-sabotage. We doubt our ability to sustain change, and we predict that we will fail; unwittingly, perhaps unconsciously, we become antsy and worried and create situations that will eventually make it impossible to really keep up the growth we are initially so inspired toward.
When Klal Yisrael experienced all the miracles of leaving Egypt and the incredible, life-changing revelation of Hashem at Har Sinai, the desire for closeness to God and adherence to his Mitzvos was so strong, it was like a physical presence in their lives. Yet, part of their ability to draw close to G-d was facilitated by a strong and caring leader, Moshe Rabbeinu. Without him, without an intermediary, Klal Yisrael feared that this close relationship and all that Torah Judaism entails would not be sustainable.
Psychologists and Torah giants (Chassidic and Mussar scholars alike) agree that it takes forty days to change a habit. In forty days, a habit becomes Kavuah, set, routine, regular; it becomes more a part of who we are. Our job was to maintain our inspiration and desire for closeness to God for forty days in the absence of an intermediary. Yet, this is difficult because it causes such utter discomfort. Once Klal Yisrael began to question if Moshe was really coming back, the doubt crept back in – can we really handle this? Certainly, we cannot handle it without Moshe! The anxiety was strong – stronger than our initial inspiration – and we could not hold out the full forty days to establish and concretize that initial inspiration that led us to leave behind our idol worship once and for all. Seized with the fear and discomfort of the new status quo, Klal Yisrael sought to reinstate an intermediary, and set upon this course so swiftly that their actions led to an unimaginable outcome.
This week, consider an area in your own life where you are resistant to change. Recognize your doubt, your hesitation, the discomfort or worry about how things will be if you actually go ahead and do that thing just a bit differently. The more mindful we are of our self-doubt, the more proactive we can be about any impending self-sabotage.
Overcoming self-sabotage is about increasing your trust in yourself, and your tolerance of distress. When you seek to change, you will immediately be overcome with doubt and fear, particularly if you are beginning to succeed at accomplishing that change. When this happens, you will want to revert back to the status quo, to the safety and familiarity of the habits you are so trying to break. Wait just one more day, and then another, and another – until you achieve your goals, and create a new status quo.