Ki Tissa 5770:Why are we stupid?

For all eight years of Shlomo’s Drash, I have avoided one particular part of this weeks portion. This was done intentionally, as writing about the Golden Calf debacle is, in my opinion, overdone. But staring at of all things a cup of tea, there is an issue that I keep thinking about lately. In the biblical text, we have the immense glory and power of the revelation of the Ten Commandments. Forty days later, we have the debacle of the golden calf. This is a people who within a four month period saw their redemption from Egypt, walked across the bottom of the red sea, and the thunder and fire at Sinai. With all that evidence of what God is, how could they do something stupid like the golden calf?

1 And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: ‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.’ 2 And Aaron said unto them: ‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.’ 3 And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. 4 And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: ‘This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.’ 5 And when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said: ‘To-morrow shall be a feast to the LORD.’ 6 And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to make merry. {P}[Exodus 32]

How can they be so stupid? This has been a question though about for ages. The rabbinic lore tells in us various places in Midrash and Talmud that they went further than the text. Hur, who was Betzalel’s grandfather, objected to their plan and told them so. As a result, he is murdered. Aaron’s reason to build the golden calf, according to the rabbis, was for fear of his life at this murderous mob mentality. Why all this craziness? What drives people to such destructive behaviours? There is a set of stories in the Tractate Taanit that might shed some light. It concerns Honi the circle maker, a Jewish wonder worker who has the uncanny ability to make it rain by yelling at God, getting instant results.

He drew a circle and stood within it and exclaimed, Master of the Universe, thy children have turned to me because they believe me to be as a member of thy household; I swear by thy great name that I will not move from here until thou hast mercy upon thy children. Rain then began to drip, and thereupon he exclaimed: it is not for this that I have prayed but for rain [to fill] cisterns, ditches and caves. The rain then began to come down with great force, and thereupon he exclaimed; it is not for this that I have prayed but for rain of benevolence, blessing and bounty. Rain then fell in the normal way until the Israelites in Jerusalem were compelled to go up [for shelter] to the temple mount because of the rain. They came and said to him: in the same way as you have prayed for [the rain] to fall pray [now] for the rain to cease.[Taanit 19a]

One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children. Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he continued to sleep for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him, Are you the man who planted the tree? The man replied: I am his grandson.[Taanit 23a]

Honi has a problem, one shared by most of us. He can only think short term. His way of rainmaking requires throwing a temper tantrum to God and getting instant results. In this story, we find such behavior can be dangerous, giving extremes of an ineffective too little and a damaging too much. Like Goldilocks in the house of the three bears, Only after the extremes do we get just right, though in his case the rain became a minor flood before he stopped it. He does not plan his result and gets thus gets erratic ones. He can only think of the moment, and not of the consequences of a crop destroying hard rain or of an overabundant rain leading to flood. He thinks so much in the immediate, The carob tree which requires generations before it’s fruit can be harvested is inconceivable to him. Honi’s story has a tragic ending. Have accomplished this time travel, he cannot go back, nor does anyone know him in this time, including his family. Not willing to try to take the time to make a new life, he prays for his death and it is granted.

We as humans have this thing I’ll call the limitation of the local. We have limitations in space, time and even relationship. Honi could only think in his circle drawn around him. The world beyond in in both time and space he never payed attention to. We all fall victim to this all the time. One of my favorite examples is the honking driver. Imagine there are ducks crossing the road. I would slow down and stop to let the ducks cross. The driver behind me cannot see the ducks, and starts angrily leaning on his horn, believing I’m stopped for no apparent reason. His experience does not take into account there is a reason I’m stopped. For many drivers, their world ends outside their car. A driver who is using text messaging or talking on their cell phone while driving may fall victim to a similar problem. For such a driver, it is inconceivable that anyone is really outside the car, let alone that could cause an accident. The number of fatal accidents however witness the fallacy of this thought.

Time is just as victim to this as space. Or more to the point, memory and time are. The longer between one event and another, the harder it is to tie the two together. Imagine someone goes to a casino and loses $200 by the time they are done gambling that day. One should learn from the loss that one loses from gambling and should find something more constructive to do, like planting carob trees. Yet, go to any casino and you will find people who have returned time after time to lose more money. They forget about their last loss when they go the next time. Also long term exposure to substances has similar results. A cigarette which would kill you instantly would not sell very well. One which has a high probability of killing you after 30 years of prolonged exposure people easily purchase by the carton. I know that molten chocolate desserts is really bad for me with tons of fat and cholesterol, but I keep eating them still for a similar reason. I like the immediate taste of chocolate too much, and I don’t think too heavily about how that dessert will affect my heart in twenty years.

Recently reading Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s Book, The Black Swan, I appreciated one of his themes: we are all stupid, it’s part of human nature. The only way we can get any more stupid is to believe otherwise and trust an expert. An expert is just someone who denies, sometimes with really elegant mathematics, how stupid they really are. The Israelites waiting for Moses at Sinai were just as human as you and me. The Midrash points out their great sin was not worshipping the calf, but by calling Moses “this man Moses”(Exodus 32:1) Moses in their eyes is objectified, not a person they knew but a stranger. They also completely forget God, as they believe it was this Moses, not God who brought them out of Egypt. Forty days and they forget everything of the few months before. As will become clear in the book of Numbers, their memory of slavery will get foggier and foggier as they travel in the wilderness, making Egypt from the world of slavery into an enormous buffet. This is of course not Egypt but their desires at the time, their immediate needs. What was their immediate need when Moses did not come down from the mountain? They said to each other about the calf “This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.”(32:5) They wanted something or someone to make immediate why they were in the wilderness. The big plan for a people who would span millennia, the longest running religion of any on earth, was not of interest them. Neither was their wish to be the special people of Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, or the promise of a land to be free and prosperous in.They apparently had no need for Torah, and the answers it would give to those questions. They forgot the power and glory that came before that stupid moment at Sinai, when gold was worshipped instead of God. They needed the immediate and concrete form of something. That need was so great they did a lot of awful things to get it.

I do enough stupid things in my day. I’ll totally admit it. I’ll leave the toilet seat up, or forget to turn off the light in the closet. I interrupt in the middle of a conversation, and sometimes not listen too well. More than once I’ve forgotten flowers for a special occasion, and I’ve definitely eaten a lot of things I really, really shouldn’t have. The key to being stupid is the instant fix, or the thing that gets done now the thing within reach, versus the thing we think out the consequences and may be far away. The golden calf was an instant fix. Why was the first rules after the Ten Commandments civil law? God knows we’re stupid too, and we need a few laws from from doing really stupid things, like hurting other people or their property. Not that such things stops people of course, but it slows down or deters most. Oddly enough while ethics and law might help stop the stupidity, I think something else does a better job.

While I never mention the golden calf for Ki Tissa, I almost always mention that thing that does work. It’s mentioned not once, but twice. It’s really a simple word:STOP. In Hebrew it’s Shabbat. I believe that truly stopping and doing a bit of nothing for a day does something to you. For one you actually notice beyond the car door or Honi’s circle the world around you. You get this time which is only about time to be in relationship with others. And thirdly, if there’s anything you want, you may just have to wait to get it. All of this does something that seems to have been impossible for far too many people for thousands of years: actually begin to think. Maybe in the V’shamru, where we read about va’yinafash, God resouling himself by resting, is the key to stopping stupidity. We stop being stupid on Shabbat, if we observe it properly, by bringing some holy soul-rest to ourselves.


Trainer, App developer. Author. Artist. Proprietor of and Host of Slice of App Pie Show

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