By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
It is hard to sustain a spiritual high. Those of us who are committed to religious observance know that long periods of successful adherence to our standards are sometimes rudely interrupted by sudden, seemingly inexplicable lapses. Long-enduring spiritual experiences yield to momentary temptations and vanish in a flash.
Experts in the psychology of religion, some of them within our own Jewish tradition, understood this. They have warned us that the experience of closeness to God waxes and wanes, comes and goes. It is a process of advance and retreat, of approach and withdrawal.
The Sages of Talmud refer to this phenomenon with a telling metaphor: “From a high roof to a deep pit, me’igra rama le’bira amikta.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, we have a dramatic example of this puzzling phenomenon. For the past many weeks, we have read of a people making political and spiritual progress. They are freed from slavery. They witness wonders and miracles. They experience the revelation of the Almighty and the giving of the Law. They donate generously to the construction of the Tabernacle. They enjoy the manna, the “bread of heaven.”
And then, one day, their leader Moses returns a little late from his rendezvous with the Lord Himself, and the bubble bursts. Gone is the exhilaration of freedom, and gone are their cries of commitment to a new way of life. Yesterday: “We will do and we will heed” (Exodus 24:7). Today: “Let us make for ourselves a Golden Calf” (Exodus 32:1).
This sudden backsliding confounds me. And I am by no means the first to be amazed by this rapid deterioration of commitment; by this utter transformation of a people from a faithful, grateful, self-disciplined folk into a wild crowd, dancing and singing in orgiastic enthusiasm around an idol.
Every year, I attempt anew to resolve this puzzle. This year, I find myself contemplating a new answer based upon a very unusual source.
Some years ago, the Wall Street Journal carried an essay by one Amy Chua entitled Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. The author describes her own experience as a Chinese mother and the strict expectations she has of her adolescent daughters. The column evoked strong reactions all over the world. Many believed that her approach was the correct one and represented a much-needed corrective antidote for the permissiveness of American parents. Others found her approach to be nothing short of cruel and even sadistic.
While I personally found some of her prescriptions worthy of consideration, I believe that most of them are excessive. But in her article, she makes an astute remark that I find useful, despite, or perhaps because of, its simplicity.
“Chinese parents understand that nothing is fun until you are good at it. And you can only be good at it if you work at it.”
We all would like our activities to be fun and our lives to be enjoyable. But the roads to fun and the paths to joy are effortful ones. Hard work and persistence are necessary in all fields of endeavor, and religion and spirituality are no different. They too require diligence and toil.
No wonder, then, that we are capable of many months of perfect religious behavior, of adherence to the highest moral standards, and of spiritual edification. But it’s hard work, as promises of “easy fun” often surround us and seduce us.
There is also a profound lesson here for those who look for an explanation of the Golden Calf episode in this week’s Torah portion. The way of life that the Jewish people were just beginning to learn is a wonderful and rewarding one. But the wonder and the rewards – the fun – come only when we are “good at it,” when we work hard to perfect our lives.
We all are well advised to be on guard against the promise of “easy fun.” The Golden Calf took no work at all. The verse in Exodus 32:34 suggests that the Jews had to only cast their gold into the fire and the Golden Calf effortlessly emerged. The Golden Calf imposed neither moral restrictions nor ethical standards. Just dancing and singing. Fun?
Amy Chua teaches us that that’s not fun. Having real fun in life requires that “you be good at it.” Good at life. And that takes work.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the Executive Vice President, Emeritus of the Orthodox Union.