This week’s Parasha, Ki Tisa, brings us the infamous story of the Golden Calf. The dynamics involved in this episode provide a fascinating case study for how people behave under extreme stress.
Moses is on Mt. Sinai, receiving all of Torah, and the Ten Commandments from God.
The people, who have been without their leader, and do not know when he will return, grow impatient. They turn to Aaron, Moses’ brother, and demand that he do something! "Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don't know what has become of him."
The people are stressed. They respond with: impatience, triangulation (inappropriately involving Aaron), and making an unhealthy, dangerous request (idolatry).
Aaron, who is also uncertain about Moses’ return is suddenly put in an impossible situation. In an attempt to buy time and quell the rising frustration of the people, Aaron reluctantly cooperates with them. He asks them for their earrings, which they readily offer. Perhaps he wasn’t expecting their immediate participation, but now Aaron is forced to “do something.” He ends up creating a molten calf from their gold earrings. Before this Golden Calf, the people make offerings, worship, and rejoice with revelry.
Aaron is stressed. He responds with: succumbing to peer pressure, making an impulsive offer, going along with the people’s base inclinations, and leading the people down a dangerous path.
Moses, who is God’s humble servant and working tirelessly on behalf of the people, finally returns and sees what has unfolded. Unable to contain his anger, Moses throws the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments to the ground. They shatter. But that outburst alone does not calm Moses. He grinds the calf to powder, mixes that with water and gives it to the people to drink (punishment). He interrogates Aaron, who blames the people and side steps his role in the situation. Primary offenders are put to death (ultimate punishment).
Moses is stressed. He responds with: unbridled anger.
Aaron is stressed. He responds with: blaming, denying, lying, and avoiding responsibility.
Everyone in this story has reason to be under extreme stress, unbelievable pressure. While that analysis alone does not entirely excuse rash or harmful behavior, it does provide understanding.
Ultimately Parashat Ki Tisa teaches us about tikkun, repair. The community eventually heals and returns from this unthinkable upheaval. Moses literally fixes what he broke, by bringing a second set of tablets, and he downloads all that he learned on the mountain to the people.
We learn from the Talmud, that the broken tablets were never discarded. They were kept in the portable Ark, and carried by the people through the desert. Brokenness remains as part of the story. Mistakes are part of the human experience. Stress is part of the human experience. So too, repair is also part of the human experience.