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Miracles Don't Really Matter

Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35 )

by Rabbi Boruch Leff

How could the Israelites worship the Golden Calf?

We've all said it ourselves or we have at least heard someone else say it: "If only God would appear and show me some miracle, then I would truly believe and serve Him." This is what we sincerely think would be our reaction to a wonder or sign from Heaven.

But would it? History, including the episode of the worshipping of the Golden Calf in this week's Torah portion, has proven otherwise.

We are familiar with the story of the Golden Calf. The Jewish People heard God Himself, without an intermediary, speak and gave them His Torah. God also informed them that Moshe is His trustworthy prophet and that anything Moshe says in His Name should be accepted as God's word. Moshe then ascended to the top of Mount Sinai to receive all the details of the Torah. Moshe told them he would return in 40 days. (See Exodus 24:12-18.) When, according to their mistaken calculation Moshe tarried, (see Rashi, 32:1) they formed an image of a Golden Calf and worshipped it.

(It is highly unlikely that their actions involved actual idol worship. We find later in Jewish history that the idolatrous King Yerovam re-introduced golden calves into Jewish worship. He even used the same phrase in reference to the calves, with which the Jews of the Desert were punished so severely: "These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt." (Compare Exodus 32:4 with 1-Kings 12:28.) Is it possible that Jews would tolerate the arrangement of golden calves, as idols, when they had to have been aware of the terrible punishments that resulted from the original golden calf?

Perhaps one can rationalize use of other idols, but to make the same image that was a cause of terrible destruction for Jews and ask them to worship it? Unless, we understand, that the original golden calf was not actual idol worship. Rather, it was a sin of using an image as an inspiration or focus for prayer and service. Yerovam told them that golden calves as symbols of focus may have been inappropriate at the time of the Desert, but they are not forbidden for all generations since they did not involve actual idol worship. Yerovam is, of course, mistaken. God views the use of any image, even to enhance service of Him, as an offshoot of idol worship and reckons with it accordingly.)

When reading the story of the Golden Calf, a common question is: How could the Jews commit such a terrible transgression just 40 days after receiving the Torah? Shouldn't the impact of hearing God speak have lasted much more than 40 days? How could this have happened?

For some people, the rebellion of the Jews so soon after the Revelation at Sinai serves as an indictment of the truth of the Torah. After all, if God really did appear to the Jews, could they have sinned so quickly? It must be that God did not truly appear to them as is recorded in the Torah. How do we answer this charge?

Think for a moment. Even if you suggest, for argument's sake, that God is not the author of the Bible, but that it is written by a human, you must agree that this author was very perceptive and had a deep sense of the psychology of people. This is true to such an extent, that in the whole history of mankind, no one else was able to write a book that penetrated the hearts of all. There is no book that has been translated into as many languages and has had as deep an effect on humanity as the Bible. So, if we are intelligent enough to realize that there is a problem of disconnect with the Jews sinning 40 days after Sinai, how could it be that the author of the Bible was not smart enough to realize this?

Rather, we must admit that such a phenomenon can happen. The revelation by God at Sinai can occur and people can ignore it a short time after that event.

What is the reason for this? How is it that we human beings are able to disregard a clear inspiration and wondrous appearance by God?

The answer is that we are resilient in both a positive sense and in a negative one. Experiences that affected and moved me today may last a couple of days but will always wear off. I may have heard a motivating speech on controlling anger and I may really think that from now on I will control my anger. But we all know that given a week, that speech's effects will be largely lost.

Have you ever been to a funeral of a young person? Don't we leave the funeral vowing to appreciate life more and aren't we sure that we are going to tell our loved ones how much we love them every day of the rest of our lives? Yet, usually our resolutions do not last more than a day or two. Of course, this tendency applies in a positive sense as well. We are able to bounce back from negative experiences soon after we encounter them. But our emotional elasticity haunts us whenever we are trying to maintain inspiration and growth. We might call this the 'What have we lived through lately' syndrome.

And this syndrome destroys the impact of even miraculous events. It is not true that, "If only God would appear and show me some miracle then I would truly believe and serve Him." Unfortunately, the spiritual stimulus does not usually last. We learn this most succinctly from Eliyahu HaNavi, Elijah the Prophet.

In 1-Kings ch. 18-19 (Haftorah of Ki Tisa), Eliyahu challenged the idolatrous ruler, King Ahab to a "competition" which would take place in front of the entire people. The worshippers and false prophets of the idol, Baal, would offer sacrifices and pray to Baal and Eliyahu would offer sacrifices and pray to God. Whichever one would answer with a fire consuming the sacrifice would be accepted as the true God.

This proposal was accepted and a fire came down to consume only Eliyahu's sacrifice and not the men of the Baal. All of the people saw this and proclaimed, "Hashem, He is the God! Hashem, He is the God!" (1-Kings 18:39). (This is the phrase with which we end the Yom Kippur prayer service.) Eliyahu then destroys the false prophets of the Baal. In addition, Eliyahu brings forth a miraculous rainstorm that ended a prolonged drought.

King Ahab reports back to his wife, the equally evil Queen Jezebel, thoroughly dejected. It seemed that Eliyahu has defeated them and their idolatrous practices. The Jewish People would give up the service of the Baal and only serve God. This threatened Ahab and Jezebel's entire hold on their kingdom! Then a most curious thing occurs. Seemingly incongruous, Jezebel sends a messenger to Eliyahu saying, "Tomorrow, I am going to kill you." Eliyahu receives the message, reacts by running into the desert and is ready to give up. He requests that God take his soul. He wants to die.

What is going on here? Did Eliyahu actually think that Jezebel would have an epiphany? Jezebel was the epitome of evil. Surely, Eliyahu could not have ever hoped to change her idolatrous ways. In addition, Eliyahu has been running away from her his entire life and never gave up his mission of removing idolatry from the Jewish People. Now, he is ready to give up? Didn't he just perform a wondrous miracle which transformed the entire Jewish nation?

And how do we explain Jezebel's actions? Doesn't she realize that the chips are stacked against her now that Eliyahu has successfully and miraculously defeated the worship of the Baal? And if indeed she does not care about public opinion but simply wants to murder Eliyahu for the nuisance that he is to her, why doesn't she kill him today? Why does she say that she will only kill him tomorrow?

It is clear that Jezebel was not sending Eliyahu a message that she wants to kill him. This is not what she meant. Rather, she was saying the following: "Eliyahu, you think you have defeated me? You performed a grand miracle for all to see. Today I can't touch you. But TOMORROW I'll kill you and nobody will say a word. For just one day your miracle will work. That's how effective your miracle is."

Eliyahu had thought that the Jews' reaction to his monumental miracle would be grandiose change. He assessed the Jewish national soul and felt that finally they would repent as a result of his very public miracle. But then Eliyahu hears Jezebel's message and realizes that her assessment is more accurate than his. This new miracle would not be viewed differently than the standard reaction to miracles. The power and inspiration of miracles does not permanently last and it won't now either. Yes, Jezebel is right. Eliyahu is then ready to give up for he feels that there is nothing more that he can do to help transform the Jewish people.

We think that if the world saw miracles it would be a different world. But it would not. It would be the exact same world. Miracles do not change people. We remain with our ability to rebel and sin a short while after the miracle's effect wears off.

Judaism is not based upon the performance of miracles. Maimonides writes (Mishna Torah, Yesodei Torah, Chapter 8) that Moshe did not perform miracles in order to prove the truth of his prophecy. He (as a messenger of God) took water out a stone because the Jews were thirsty. He brought manna from heaven because they were hungry, etc. We believe in the Torah's truth only because God appeared Himself at Mount Sinai and told us that it is true.

We are aware that inspirations fade. We all know that the emotions we felt on September 11, 2001 have faded. Yet we still desire to gain something permanent when we are inspired to change. We don't want to waste the inspiration. So what can we do?

Here's a key. When we are motivated to change, we must think of some small, slight area in which we can grow. If we take on something too overwhelming and drastic, then it is all the more likely to fail. We should take, for example, the area of prayer, and accept upon ourselves to recite an additional short section that we never said before. Or we can choose the area of Torah study and learn for an extra few moments per day. We can decide to perform an extra act of kindness daily, or just smile at one person every day. There are thousand of small things we can do to change subtly. Of course, the long-term goal is to increase amounts and levels of change but we must start slowly if we are to change at all. (See "Go Slow", and "Act, Don't Just React".)

So when the next inspiring event occurs in our lives, we now know what to do. Never expect the inspiration to last.

Make just a small change. Over a lifetime, these tens and tens of changes will produce the transformation we are all looking for.


Sponsored by Avrumi and Racheli Rosenberg of Cincinnati
L'Iluy Nishmas Refael ben Aryeh Dov

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