“Vayar ha’am ki voshesh moshe laredet min hahar…..” –
“The people saw that Moses was long in coming down from the mountain…” (Exodus: 32:1)
What is the most excruciating waiting period that you have ever encountered? For me it was the summer when I could barely walk, and didn’t know why my body was so weak. Waiting for the neurological testing and for the results was nerve wrecking. I remember living day to day with a heavy uncertainty.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses has not come down the mountain after 40 days. The people feel restless. Imagine the uncertainty, the fear, the anxiety, the doubt. Each day, no sight of Moses. How long could the people continue like that before they imagined the worst? How long before they starting sharing their anxieties with each other, one building on the other? “Maybe he’s fallen? Maybe he was eaten? Maybe he ran away and is never coming back?” After 40 days, with no new information, no sign of a future, they were restless enough that Aaron felt he should do something.
Years ago, a Bar Mitzvah student with this Torah portion illustrated a scene from this portion with tears running down the cheeks of the Israelite’s eyes as they threw their jewelry into the pot. I was surprised by this depiction and asked him to tell me more about it. He explained that the people were sad that they had to do this. They missed Moses and all that he had promised; they wished that he would return.
This is a very different interpretation than what we usually hear. The Torah and the Rabbis talk about the people’s sin and lack of faith. The people are judged through God’s eyes of lacking faith and turning against him. But, if you think of your story of waiting, the anxiety that waiting provoked, the desire to reach for something, anything, any piece of information to hold onto, do you empathize differently with the Israelites? Do you feel their pain? Their confusion? Their fear of being stranded in the desert?
I find myself wondering this week about how often we feel that void of uncertainty, fear and anxiety and respond by grasping for something concrete. How individually and collectively, we create false idols from our material possessions. We misplace hope in leaders, and pursue an easier and misguided path because we want to veer away from the uncertain and let our anxiety and fear determine our actions.
If we let our “hearts move” us, as was told to us in Terumah, we are open to the many shades of human experience. Perhaps, building a golden calf is what we do when we are anxious and can’t keep that heart space open; we hold onto things, create things, reach for things that seem tangible, move-able, and controllable.
It’s hard to feel moved by life’s pains and resist clenching and protecting ourselves. To instead stay open to allowing hope, light, faith, goodness to seep in. But, my the scary moments in my life experience have led me to believe that maybe the trick in life is to stay expansive during the bad times, so as to keep us from pursuing false gods that can only serve as distractions.
Maybe the pain, stress, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and vulnerability are a part of the human journey and we need to hold them in our heart if we also want to invite compassion, kindness, tenderness, joy, hope, and love.