04 March 2010

Judaism for Adults

"Man was created to gratify his Creator not his passions. Whoever behaves thus, gratifies his passions and displeases his Creator. This is therefore tantamount to worshipping idols since it will ultimately lead to it." (Iyun Yaacov, commentary on Ein Yaacov.)

Many of us have been in this place--overcome with anger, however momentarily, and experienced a sense of "loss of control." This loss of control threatens our equanimity; clouds our judgment; and can even lead us to acts of emotional or physical destruction. We experience at work; in traffic; at home with our families. And when the dark clouds or brief tremors dissipate, there is remorse. And the calming feeling that follows is one of regret, since we know, intuitively, that our actions were wrong.

In Nahmanides "Letter to His Son"--an ethical will left to the next generation--he makes the claim that "anger" must be eradicated in order to lead a life of true piety and righteousness. Once anger is conquered and only then can a person live a life of true love and humility with their God. As one who struggles mightily with this emotion, and seems to be in a long line of Bachmans & Siegels who do so, I can tell you, the work is never done. And I can also attest to the idolatry of the experience. It does feel like a large clay god at times inhabits my being and clouds my judgment. How I struggle to find the focus of Abraham and smash that idol.

But the smashing itself is an angry gesture.

Is there no escape?

In this week's Torah portion, Moses stands atop Mount Sinai, making the concluding remarks on the Revelation of Torah, and as he prepares to descend, word arrives that the Children of Israel are worshiping a Golden Calf. God's anger "breaks forth" and he's filled with rage. Moses placates God with self-interest--God, he says, if you destroy this people with your rage, everyone will question your wisdom, saying, "Oh, the God of Israel brought his people out of Egypt only to destroy them in the desert!"

God finds this an intelligent and reasonable argument, so He repents of His anger. But then Moses "descends," witnesses the idolatry, and is filled with rage himself. Has God's rage transferred onto himself? Is he filled with a profound despair at how seemingly hopeless this people is? Will he ever be able to lead them to where they need to go if they are so deeply committed to false worship? His entire plan is called into question and unable to contain his own rage, he smashes the Tablets of the Covenant against the foot of Mount Sinai.

The Sages suggest that what really got Moses' goat was that in addition to having cast in gold a calf idol, the people danced around it as well. A real finger in the eye of nascent monotheistic devotion. The Alshikh writes, "The essence of Divine worship is to perform it with joy and a glad heart. By the same token, for those who transgress His will, hope remains for the one who sins and grieves over it, to repent and make amends. But he who revels in his iniquity, is, God forbid, a hopeless case. The Almighty did not tell Moses that they were in addition enjoying themselves. He was therefore not all that angry but saw the calf and the dancing--that they were actually enjoying it too--then his anger burned."

Moses' anger. The broken tablets are but a precursor to the rock that he will strike, bringing forth water but not invoking God's name in blessing, giving into his anger without invoking the Divine. This minor idolatrous glitch, if you will, prevents him from obtaining passage to the Land of Israel. His anger blocks his redemption.

This is a very difficult lesson.

But it is message and lesson we must learn if we insist upon, in the words of Levinas, a "Judaism for adults."

Over and over again, from birth to death, we are striving for improvement and refinement. The work never ends but hopefully the reward is an arrival into the promised land of eternal redemption.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

I thought God said, after the flood, that he would never destroy everything again. If Moses had not calmed him down, do we think he would have destroyed all those people at the foot of Mt Sinai? And if so, what does that say about the promise he made never to do that again?