Blog PostsKi Tisa

Patience! Patience!

The sin of the Golden Calf is a sin of a lack of patience.[1] The Jewish People were waiting for Moses to descend from Mt. Sinai and they thought that his descent had been delayed, “And the people saw that Moses was late in descending from the mountain and the people crowded around Aaron and said to him, ‘Rise and make a god for us.’” It certainly wasn’t easy to wait for so long. Immediately after the revelation at Mt. Sinai, Moses ascended the mountain, entered the fog where God was, and left us down below in tense expectation. Another day and another day went by, forty days had already passed, and our patience snapped. How much longer could we wait? Even the sages stated (as Rashi quotes) that before his ascent Moses had told them that he would not return for another forty days. Yet, forty days had already passed and there was no sign of life from Moses. What would be?

Apparently, God wanted to put us to the test of patience. There are many who stood up to the test, but irritability had set in at the edge of the camp, as it says, “And the people saw” and everywhere that it says “the people” (הָעָם) and not “the Children of Israel” (בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל) it is referring to the simple folk, and even to the “mixed multitude” who left Egypt with the Jewish People. Aaron was patient and he tried to bide his time: first he told them to bring their jewelry… then he built an altar… and finally, he proclaimed, “There will be a festival for God tomorrow.” But, it was impossible to restrain the hurrying sinners, “And they rose early in the morning” and the dancing immediately began. By the time Moses arrived it was already too late.

The History of Impulsiveness

This was not the first time that a lack of patience had led to tragedy; neither would it be the last. In fact, historical tragedies as a whole seems to be the result of impulsiveness, and if people would just wait a little longer, everything would look completely different.[2]

The first sin in the history of mankind stemmed from a lack of patience. If Adam and Eve had just waited a few more hours, until sunset on Friday evening, and the beginning of the first Shabbat, they would have been permitted to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. But, it isn’t easy to wait; such a succulent fruit that looks so tempting just asks us to eat it right away; especially when the snake nags us that “nothing will happen.”

Nor did King Saul pass the test of waiting for the prophet Samuel. It was indeed a difficult trial. The Philistines had gathered for war and the Jewish soldiers had fled for their lives except for Saul and a handful of his faithful followers. Saul’s patience snapped and he offered up the sacrifice, then Samuel arrived and told him, “And now, your kingdom shall not be established.”[3] You failed the test.

Even King David was no exception. The sages state, “Bathsheba was predestined for David, but he ate her unripe [i.e., he took her prematurely].”[4] Instead of waiting patiently for her to be ready for him, like a sweet ripe fruit, he snatched and “ate” her like an unripe fruit and the bitter results speak for themselves.

Patience Man!

Patience and restraint are a central issue in rectifying the psyche. This quality has special significance regarding human relationships, especially between husband and wife. A good marriage begins with patience, with each of the members of the marriage being considerate towards the other and suiting themselves to the other’s pace.

A baby cannot postpone its needs, because for an infant, what he cannot perceive here and now doesn’t exist for him. As we grow up, we begin to understand the secret of patience. Someone who psychologically remains a child can only swap supplying an immediate need for a greater need that comes later. But someone who reaches true adulthood can understand that it is emotionally healthier to act with restraint. Don’t be too quick to flare up in anger but be patient. Don’t be too quick to eat; wash your hands, make a blessing and eat slowly. Don’t jump to conclusions, throwing out words and doing things that you might regret later. Don’t be too quick to act before you know what and how you should be doing it. Don’t be impulsive.

Patience results when the soul is in complete control over the body and the mind is in control of the attributes of the heart. Moreover, patience comes from faith. When we believe that there is Someone up there who is in charge of things, we don’t need to press for them to happen and we know that everything comes through at the right time. But, if it is only my ego that fills my environment, then I become impatient and insist that they happen now, because maybe I will not achieve what I want to.

This is where the fall of the sin of the Golden Calf began. In order to receive the Torah, in order for the Divine Presence to dwell within us, we had to forfeit our instinctive desires and to wait and relax until God appeared. But the people wanted “God Now!” They wanted an approachable, tangible and sparkling god who they could see and dance around; an “instant” Golden Calf who began mooing straight out of the fire [in fact, “calf” (עגל) in Aramaic means “speed”]. The Jewish People could be appeased, but the mixed multitude was impudent and impulsive and they couldn’t be restrained.

Moses Had Time

We mentioned the sin of the people who couldn’t wait patiently. But, what really happened to Moses while everyone was waiting for him? What delayed him up there on Mt. Sinai? The sages explain that Moses told the Jewish People that he would be back in forty days, but he didn’t intend to include the day of his ascent, because it wasn’t a complete day. However, this caused a misunderstanding, because the Jewish People did count the day of Moses’ ascent, which is how they miscalculated his return by one day.

Moses was super-patient. When he needed it, he took all the time in the world. Just as he knew how to patiently look after his sheep, and only at the age of eighty years old did he go back to Egypt to redeem the Jewish People, so he was capable of being on Mt. Sinai day after day (and even food can wait patiently until Moses descends from the mountain). The Torah is “longer than a measurable land,”[5] and until everything is clear to the finest detail, there is nothing to hurry for. He couldn’t bring back an unfinished product, he had to reach final perfection and only then could he descend. If he needed to be on Mt. Sinai for forty days, then they had to be forty complete days, from beginning to end.

Moses’ patience is related to his humility, as Rashi interprets the phrase, “And the man Moses was very humble― [i.e.,] lowly and patient.”[6] Moses had the positive quality of bashfulness, “The impudent faced go to Hell and the bashful-faced to Paradise.”[7] He wasn’t under any pressure to get anywhere, and even when God sent for him to redeem the Jewish People, he refused again and again, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”[8]

Don’t Tarry

Yet, there is a limit even to patience. Someone who waits too long will hesitate to act on reality when the right time comes. We can always prepare ourselves better, waiting till the absolutely perfect moment arrives. But, this tendency towards perfectionism is liable to sabotage any positive act, because any abstract idea that is effected in practice becomes limited as soon as it is realized.

Even Moses needed to know when it is good to wait and when we need to take immediate action. In fact, when God first spoke to Moses he made this mistake and refused too many times, until God was angry with him. In our case too, we can hear from the verses a very gentle note of criticism, “Moses was late” for his meeting with the Jewish People; he wanted to be absolutely sure that everything was ready and perhaps was even a little bit bashful[9] of descending with the Torah. Bashfulness, or shyness, can be a positive quality but if it oversteps the limits of good taste it might turn “stale.”[10]

Interestingly, the only other time in the Torah when the root “late” (בֹּשֵׁשׁ) appears is with reference to Adam and Eve before they sinned, “And they were not bashful” (וְלֹא יִתְבּשָׁשׁוּ).[11] This alludes to the fact that Moses attempted to rectify Adam’s sin of not knowing how to wait, but he went to the other extreme and was too bashful. Careful restraint also requires quick action at the right moment, as in the expression coined by the Ba’al Shem Tov, “deliberate agility” (זְרִיזוּת בִּמְתִינוּת). The correct balance between waiting and acting results from integrating Moses’ approach with the approach of the people. Had there been good communication between Moses and the Jewish People, there would have been a balance between Moses’ tendency to wait and the people’s demand that he descend to them at long last. Correct communication between them would have prevented the misunderstanding, and it would have been clear to all how the days should be counted. Good communication would have “transmitted” to Moses, even as he was still up there on Mt. Sinai, the spiritual status of the people below, and he would have known that the time had come for him to descend, before it would be too late.[12]

Positive Impudence

We must use the quality of impudence positively, using it as a catalyzer that promotes restraint while cautioning not to procrastinate too much and get up and get things done. According to the sages there is some criticism on Moses for accepting the impudent mixed multitude as a part of the Jewish People. But, so say the Kabbalists, Moses returns and is reincarnated throughout the generations to rectify their souls. The rectification of the mixed multitude is to use that very same quality of impudence to make an impression on reality without being too bashful, to establish the kingdom of Israel upon earth, and not to suffice with a heavenly Torah and letters that fly through the air.

There is a prohibition against impatiently “pressing for the end [i.e., the final redemption]” (לִדְחוֹק אֶת הַקֵץ) when it stems from a lack of faith, yet we are now at the end of the redemption and it is forbidden to “distance the end” (לְהַרְחִיק אֶת הַקֵץ).[13] The same sage who said, “The impudent faced go to Hell” also said, “Be as bold as a tiger.” We do need a touch of bold impudence so that our positive bashfulness will stop hiding behind the walls of the synagogue and will go out to lead reality and rectify the world.

From Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class, Adar 11 5772

[1] See also, The Mystery of Marriage ch. 9.

[2] See Shemot Rabah 32:1.

[3] I Samuel 13:14.

[4] Sanhedrin 107a.

[5] Job 11:9.

[6] Numbers 12:3.

[7] Avot 5:20.

[8] Exodus 3:11.

[9] The words for “bashful” (בּוּשָׁה) and “late” (בּוֹשֵׁשׁ) share the same two-lettered “gate” in Hebrew (בש).

[10] “To become stale” (לְהַבְאִישׁ) also shares the same two-lettered “gate” as “bashful” (בּוּשָׁה) and “late” (בּוֹשֵׁשׁ).

[11] Genesis 2:25.

[12] See the article, “Who is to Blame for the Sin of the Golden Calf?” in our book in Hebrew, “The Inner Dimension” (הממד הפנימי).

[13] Ketubot 111a; there it states one version that God made the Jewish People swear that they would not “distance the end” and a second version that states, “that they shall not press for the end.”

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