“This is a critical juncture in the history of Jewish identity,” the rabbi says in his talk after the day’s Torah portion. “The foundation of Judaism, monotheism, is tested.” I’m at a reformed synagogue in Santa Monica housed in a plain, square building. In high school, I used to drive past it regularly on my way to my friend Becky’s house. Inside, the atmosphere is laid back. Only a handful of people have come to formally celebrate Sabbath.
The exact Torah section we read begins at Exodus 32.
The crowd Moses has led to freedom is freaking out. Moses promised to return from his mountain-top meeting with God in 40 days, but now those days have come and gone. The rabbi explains that more than likely Moses wasn’t really late, that it was probably a misunderstanding—the people had started counting the days at sunrise while Moses was counting them according to sunsets, something like that. Either way, collectively, the people enter the throes of a classic panic attack, their anxiety like a runaway train. If they couldn’t trust Moses, then maybe the God who helped them escape wasn’t reliable.
To stop from spiraling out of control, they revert back to what they know: worshipping something they can see and touch—an “idol.” The invisible one-God idea is too scary. They melt down all their jewelry and shape it into a calf, giving them something on which to focus their energy. Soothed by the certainty and solidity of the object, their anxiety subsides. Of course, at that exact moment, Moses returns.
Moses is furious. It’s not so much the idol itself that makes him angry as what it represents.
Before monotheism, people were accountable only to those who shared their gods; it was considered a crime to steal from members of one’s own tribe, while stealing from other tribes afforded you a hero’s welcome. One God introduced the concept of a unified humanity, making everyone connected—the entire world as a single tribe of people derived from the same source. To create an object to worship is to break apart the one-God idea. It might seem a small fissure, but it challenges the very essence of monotheism. It shatters the possibility of a unified humanity and, perhaps to make this exact point, Moses throws down the stone tablets with the commandments from God and they break into pieces.
The rabbi slows down. In his talk about the Torah section, he wants to make an important point about the human condition. He says that when we are faced with ambiguity, we tend to default to anger, depression, or fear. The one-God idea comes strapped with a degree of ambiguity—there can be no proof, nothing concrete to touch—as illustrated a few sections further along in Exodus when Moses’ request to see God’s face is denied. So the very thing we hope will alleviate our anxiety inevitably leaves some intact. “This pain,” the rabbi says, “is written into the human condition.” If you learn to tolerate it, you can trade certainty for faith. If you learn to trust it, you can swap being a part of something small for being a part of something infinitely vast. Here is the key: to bypass quick fixes for the slow trudge toward a deeper, more powerful solution. The rabbi puts a finger in the air and offers a sly smile that suggests he’s sharing the simplest and most profound of secrets. “The pain,” he says, “is the opening for the divine.”