Rabbi O’s Weekly: Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35) Lessons from the Golden Calf and Bob Newhart

The sin of the Golden Calf is one of the great enigmas of the Torah. The age old question—how could the same people who witnessed the Ten Plagues, the Splitting of the Sea, and national revelation at Sinai recklessly ignore G-d and pray to an idol—has many answers and there is one theme common to all of them. The people, no matter how spiritually elevated they were and no matter what they witnessed were still human beings with the ability to make wrong choices. No amount of education or life experience can immunize a person against making the bad choices because that would remove his or her free will—ability to choose.
Bechira—free will—is part of the bulwark of Jewish ideology; without it, we aren’t responsible for our actions because, as comedian Flip Wilson was famous for saying, “the devil made me do it.” If some force outside of me has forced me to react the way I did, then I am not responsible. Every human has two internal voices vying to get his or her attention. “Should I stay in bed or should I get up?” “Should I study for this test or should I party?” “Should I take this phone call from a person who has been trying to reach me or should I ignore it, even though I know we need to speak.” These are the conversations we have throughout the day and throughout life. Who, specifically, is the one listening to these internal arguments? Our inner conscience (i.e. soul) listens and ultimately choices which voice to listen to.
A classic 20th Jewish work on the psychology of character development, Michtav Me’Eliyahu addresses this point in depth. The author explains that some people mistakenly tell themselves “I have a weak will,” and that’s why I can’t stand up to …(whatever the challenge may be). For example, a smoker who wakes up at night with severe chest pains, might make up his mind to quit “no matter what it takes.!” The next morning, he begins to feel a strong craving for a cigarette and at first resists temptation but it grows stronger every minute until eventually he tells himself, “I’ll just smoke one cigarette; one cigarette never hurt anyone.” Shortly thereafter, he feels the another urge and tells himself “one more can’t do that much harm.” He eventually finds himself chain smoking the rest of the day, and that night he experiences the same pains again.
What leads this man to the delusional thinking that one cigarette can’t hurt and ignore the reality that when he smokes one, it will lead to another? One might think that the will to smoke has taken over his reasoning process but this cannot be, because if we juxtapose the will to smoke with the will not to have pain, surely the will to smoke is weaker. Why, then, does he deceive himself? (He could simply smoke in the full knowledge that it is going to hurt later.)
There must be something else, other than the two competing wills, that determines his choice. This “something else” is the person himself. He is the only one capable of drawing his mind away from reality. He deliberately chooses to deny the true argument. It’s not his will, it’s him. A man might attempt to seduce an unhappily married woman and she might want (i.e. it’s her will—desire) to accept, but she chooses not to. A compulsive eater has the will (i.e. desire) to eat another portion or snack on chocolate or crisps between meals but chooses not to. In both cases, as well as all the other challenges we have throughout the day, it’s not willpower, it is choice.
Choice—free will—depends solely on the person; there are no outside causes. Anyone who has conquered his or her yetzer hara—negative internal inclination—knows this. There are a number of outside causes pulling me away from going to the gym but when I make the choice that I am going, when I overcome my yetzer hara, no (normal, everyday busy life) outside cause will prevent me from going. After the workout I am overwhelmed with a sense of joy for the choice I made. We all have wonderful movements like this, when we feel with total clarity that we have overcome delusion and opted for the truth. If some outside force was responsible for our choices, then we would not feel this sense of happiness (when we choose correctly) or the sense of sadness, shame or depression when we choose wrongly.
The same people who witnessed miracles in Egypt and in the wilderness, were able to have a period of delusion. They panicked when Moses didn’t return when (they thought) he said he would and momentarily slipped into delusional thinking. It is hard to live a life without delusion; one in which we confront ourselves and the world we encounter in a true and authentic way. If one can’t control his food intake, there’s a problem. If a married couple rarely lives intimately, it’s a problem. If a person needs a five or six drinks every night after work to relax—even though he or she makes it to work the next day—it’s a problem.
Whenever and wherever we encounter life and feel helpless in how we are handling it, we are the ones who need help. We need to learn the tools of how to accept life on life’s terms. We, not life, need to change and that change begins with choices. What choices will you make today; what will you put into motion? As Bob Newhart once remarked, “I make a motion that we all tell the truth.”
Good Shabbos