By Rabbi Johnny Kersh
The 17th of Tammuz is a day on the Jewish calendar, marred by several national calamities, of which we make no secret. Among them: the worshipping of The Golden Calf, the smashing of the first of the sets of the Ten Commandments, the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, when it’s once ‘impenetrable’ walls were reduced to rubble, and the public burning of a Torah scroll by the Roman General Apostomus. Small wonder, the day has been declared a National fast-day and marks the beginning of a three week period of mourning known as ‘Bein Hametzarim’ or ‘Between the Straits’. The term is derived from the root word ‘tzar’ meaning narrow; ‘tzarah’ means captivity (one who is constrained). Animated through its laws of mourning, this sombre period, creates an environment of introspection, affording the opportunity to reflect upon the historical tragedies that took place during this time. Unlike the regular laws governing mourners, the laws of this period increase in severity until they reach their apex, the fast of Tisha b’Av.
I will focus on the first and most significant of these tragedies, the infamous episode of the ‘Golden Calf’. I do this, not so as to make light of the other calamities synonymous with the day, but rather, because the root spiritual energy of these explosive events, originally combusted with the ‘Golden Calf’. Its’ aftershocks have sadly, only added insult to injury throughout our history.
Upon ascending Mount Sinai to receive the tablets, Moses tells the Nation he will return after 40 days. However, a miscalculation on their part, meant that when he failed to appear the Nation lost all hope he was ever coming back. To them, it was inconceivable that this ‘Man of God’ as the Torah itself testifies, would not keep to his word. Now who would give them direction? Who would champion their cause? Ultimately, who would be their Divine intermediary…….? Confusion and darkness quickly gave way to panic and turmoil. A molten calf of gold was to become Moses’ replacement.
Descending Mount Sinai with The Tablets, Moses became infuriated upon seeing so many of the Jewish People performing rites of idolatry before the calf. He smashed both tablets. Yet, it wasn’t just the statue per se that angered Moses, it was what it represented, as we shall see.
In truth, this National disaster can be traced back a short time before. The Torah describes the revelation at Mount Sinai as a wedding. It was the consummation of a relationship in which Moses’ role as ‘matchmaker’ between Hashem and the Jewish People had reached its epic finale. But when, after hearing directly from God, the first 2 of the 10 commandments, the Nation became so terrified from the intensity of that experience, of being so up close and personal with the Almighty, they simply couldn’t take it anymore. Suddenly, things ground to a halt. They appointed Moses as their intermediary and now he would be charged with the task of receiving and relaying the remaining 8 commandments to the people.
In retrospect, the choice to appoint Moses as messenger was, albeit on a rarified level, the National decision to divest and distance themselves from this exclusive relationship with their Creator. The psychological consequences of such a decision, meant that now, the collective mindset of the Nation had primed itself to become host to the delusional notion that a relationship with God required an intermediary for its’ survival. Indeed the Torah alludes to this misconception in its description of the Golden Calf. The words ‘egel masecha’, simply understood means a ‘molten calf’. However, ‘masescha’ or ‘molten’ carries another meaning: that of a mask or cover. Through the Golden Calf and retrospectively, with the appointment of Moses as intermediary, rather than face Him directly, the Nation had submitted itself into adopting an identity or cover through which their relationship with God would continue. In doing so, they had shrunk the vast expanse for spiritual growth to the narrow straits of limitation.
Understanding the depths of this, and upon seeing the pride with which the people acted toward the statue, Moses realized the gravity of the situation. Smashing the Tablets, an act with which God concurred, was essentially a mirror in which the People could see their own self delusion. The delusion that the marriage could be reduced to merely the ring! As a symbol of His love for us, God gave us the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, when Moses smashed them, he was effectively showing us that however, whole or broken, in the absence of the desire for a genuine relationship even the most sacred of artifacts will be rendered meaningless. Their worth is only as much as the relationship they represent. The theme repeats itself with the other tragedies associated with the 17th of Tammuz. Both the destruction of the ‘impenetrable’ walls of Jerusalem, where the Holy Temple stood and the public burning of a Torah Scroll bemoan a relationship once vibrant and passionate, now stagnant and sterile. Once again, the mask of symbolism had become a dead end upon which we prided ourselves, rather than the means by which our relationship with the Almighty could intensify and flourish.
When, as it does, complacency entices us, stating its case, that “texting is just as good”, (but you know a phone call would be more meaningful). When it promotes, under the hashtag: ‘#Choice of Millennials’, that real facetime is redundant; social media is now the modern platform where our close relationships are cultivated, (but you know a thousand ‘pokes’ can never replace a hug!). And, when it advocates, that rather than engage in the challenge of meaningful debate, we take cover in the ‘safe space’ of political correctness, lest we ‘trigger’ or commit a ‘micro-aggression’ against the victim, we would do well to remind ourselves that these challenging moments in life are indeed, moments as our ancestors experienced them….’between the straits’. Like them, we too find ourselves standing at a spiritual crossroads, summoned to the challenge of breaking free from the warm safety of our comfort zones, where token words and symbols afford us protection from exposure of our true selves, and instead, to venture out towards the vistas where genuine and meaningful relationships are forged.
The 17th of Tammuz is a time when we are able to seriously contemplate that crossroads. Traveling the roads of spiritual growth requires effort and courage, the need to take uncomfortable risks that will surely expose our vulnerability. The alternative: a deceptively safe and well lit path that meanders towards complacency and ultimately, self deception. Which one will you choose?
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