A Child of the Commandments; A Child of the Golden Calf
When one comes to a rabbi seeking to convert to Judaism, our tradition teaches that the rabbi should work to dissuade the person from this course. He or she should warn the would-be convert, “Don’t you know that the Jews are a small, despised and downtrodden race?”
There’s a notion throughout rabbinic literature that the reason for the lowly state of the Jews traces back to this week’s Torah portion. As Rabbi Louis Ginzberg puts it,
God had resolved to give life everlasting to the nation that would accept the Torah, hence Israel upon accepting the Torah gained supremacy over the Angel of Death. But they lost this power when they worshipped the Golden Calf. As a punishment for this, their sin, they were doomed to study the Torah in suffering and bondage, in exile and unrest, amid cares of life and burdens, until, in the Messianic time and in the future world, God will compensate them for all their sufferings. But until that time, there is no sorrow that falls to Israel’s lot that is not in part a punishment for their worship of the Golden Calf.
Given this interpretation, its no wonder we warn off would-be converts from actually going through with their plans. The real wonder is that we don’t give such a warning to our B’nai Mitzvah before they engage in all the study and hard work that goes into preparing for their big day.
Why don’t we? Well some of us actually do. We do it by opting out - opting out of our religion and opting our children out of a religious education. And if we are frank about it, there are still others who provide for their children a minimal Jewish education, more out of a sense of parental responsibility rather than from a commitment to inculcate a faith and an identity.
But there are others who believe that in instructing their children about the Jewish faith, they are giving them something of incalculable worth. And if the lowly state of the Jewish people can be traced back to the Golden Calf, that incalculable value of Jewish identity can be traced to it as well.
It is fascinating how many of the Torah’s most powerful and memorable stories are centered around sin: the selling of Joseph into slavery, the strange fire offered by Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, Moses striking the rock, the mass apostasy of Ba’al Peor. But none of those sins echoes as loudly in our memory as that of the Golden Calf. Why is that?
I think it is because that one sin captures the essence of those behaviors we most despise in ourselves and which we know we need most to control if we are to be our best selves. Those despised behaviors are, I believe, fear in the face of the unknown; shortsightedness as to our true condition; ingratitude for our many blessings; and the desire to be free of obligations to God and to each other. When we demanded, made and worshipped the Golden Calf, we indulged all our worst impulses. If we continue to be punished for that sin, the punishment stems from the powerful pull of those very impulses that caused it in the first place.
The reason we discourage would-be converts from converting actually has nothing to do with the lowly state of the Jews. Rather, it comes from knowing that in picking Judaism, that person is picking a far steeper path to redemption then the one they are currently on. They are picking the path that forces them to confront the sin of the Golden Calf as their own sin and to spend their lives working to overcome those impulses that gave rise to it.
For the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, whether he or she is 13 or 103, the challenge is the same. The Bat Mitzvah accepts upon herself the knowledge that she is bound to God, to her family and to her community; that she will forever be different than her friends in her beliefs and her practices; that a knowledge of her past and a gratitude for her present will always be expected of her; and that she must face the future with faith and courage. She must, in short, learn how to live without the comfort of Golden Calves.
He or she must, in essence, קבל עול מלכות שמים - accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. And indeed it is a yoke - fixing you to a long list of commanded behaviors and expected responsibilities. And the one reward it offers is the sense that you have, throughout your life, strove to attach yourself to something bigger than yourself; that you have sought to attach yourself to God. Of course, the distance between you and God will remain infinite so achieving this reward comes not in actually being attached to God, but in the striving to do so. This may seem like seem like a very ethereal goal, especially given all the work it takes to achieve it. But for some of us, it is the only way to live our lives. And that is what makes us Jews.