Patience When It Seems No One Is In Charge

What do we do when it seems like no one is in charge? Like no one is looking out for us, like too much time has gone by, and no one is coming to save us?

That, for me, is the central question of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, which includes the story of the Golden Calf. God reveals Godself to the Israelites in thunder, lightning, smoke, and shofar, and then Moses goes up Mount Sinai to get the Torah from God. Down below, the Israelites are waiting. They wait 40 days. Moses told them he would return. But he still hasn’t. They were told something miraculous was happening, something that would change existence as they knew it. And here they still wait, 40 days later.

The Torah text doesn’t explain much about this impatience. Even though we’ve been hearing God’s personal instructions to Moses for several Torah portions when it comes to the Israelites’ momentous choice to build an idol, the Torah portrays it in one quick verse: “When the people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1).

I have compassion for their confusion and fear – someone was supposed to be here to tell us what to do! We’re not sure what we’re supposed to do next! I feel it myself when I’m overwhelmed by forces outside my control. One of my favorite midrashim says the reason the Israelites are so quick to turn when Moses doesn’t come back is because Satan confuses them. After the sixth hour, when they expected Moses to return, Satan makes an image of Moses lying dead appear in the air. The Israelites see this, and that’s when they point at Moses dead and tell Aaron to make the Golden Calf. It seems absolutely clear to them that all hope is lost; help is not coming.

To be honest, I feel this way sometimes as I read the news, both about the Israel-Hamas war itself and about what’s happening here in North America. In those first weeks of the war, I read every article and signed up for daily updates from Israeli news sources. Knowing all the details felt like a way to have control. What is happening? I have to know! Over these weeks and months, I’ve had to stop reading the news so comprehensively. It overwhelmed me with the feeling of “we’re not sure what we’re supposed to do next.” Inundating myself with every opinion and every news story made me feel the urge to just do something to be in control, build something, make something that will point the way forward, create an idol to make myself feel better. But that is rash and doesn’t end well. Sometimes the end of the story takes more time than we think we can bear. I don’t have a solution, but this year I empathize with the Israelites at the foot of the mountain.

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