How do people deal with a continually escalating experience? What happens to their expectations? How do they achieve satisfaction if they are always expecting more? Is there a way to temper expectations so that they are not on a continually upward trajectory?
The Israelites have much of this problem in this week’s Parasha, Ki Tisa. There has been a continuous build up from the beginning of the Book of Exodus: the arrival of Moses, the confrontations with Pharaoh, the ten plagues, the triumphant exit from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea and finally the revelation at Mount Sinai. And now, that momentum comes crashing to a halt. Moses, the one who has always been at the centre of the plot, the one who has been driving the action forward, is gone. He has been at the top of the mountain for 40 days and the Israelites, quite understandably, are left wondering, “What’s next?” Their answer to that is the great sin of the Golden Calf.
Rambam, a famous medieval philosopher and commentator, posits that the Israelites were not attempting to replace God with an idol, but Moses. Moses, their great leader has been gone for 40 days and nights. The people “didn’t know what happened to you [Moses] or whether you [Moses] would return or not’…” (to Exodus 32:1) In their need for further excitement or to continue the upward trend of expectations, the people took action to fulfil that craving. While misdirected, it is certainly understandable.
The Israelites finally have that engagement after being ignored for so long, languishing as they did in slavery. Finally, God, embodied in their eyes as Moses, has come to pay attention to them, to care for them, to lead them out of Egypt. And all of a sudden, Moses is gone for 40 days. Even though a month before, the entire Israelite camp is entering into a direct and intimate relationship with God; the sudden cessation of the direct presence is jarring. It is a complete withdrawal that they are not yet prepared to deal with. The Israelites perhaps faltered because they mistook the miracles and wonders as gimmicks, not realizing that it was God being in direct and intimate relationship with the people. When the presence was altered, they faltered and turned to a gimmick instead of something of substance.
Today, we are bombarded with gimmicks that claim to offer substance. Things are vying for our attention, distracting us from the elements of true substance. As a society, we are continually seeking the next thrill, the next rush, the next excitement. We need to have substance in our lives, not gimmicks. We have actively chosen to be a part of this community of Emanuel because of the substance of the community, what it is we stand for and what we represent: a deep, meaningful and hopefully intimate exploration and experience of our faith and tradition.
I pray this week that we learn to understand our needs and to find ways to satisfy them, building our lives in a productive and fulfilling way.