Rabbi Weinreb’s Torah Column, Parshat Ki Tisa

From a High Roof

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.”

Parents often witness this strange process in their children and are perplexed by it. A child commits himself to good behavior, cleans his room and does his other chores for months on end without complaint. Then, out of the blue, he fails to come home by curfew one evening, and a panic-stricken call to the police ensues.

As a former psychotherapist, I can attest to the experience of all my fellow practitioners, especially those who deal with adolescents, of long periods during which the patient or client maintains a long streak of weeks of healthy adjustment, which are followed by moments of profound crisis.

I remember well a teenager I saw early in my training, when I was thankfully still under the supervision of a senior professional. The young man, from an affluent family, was arrested after many incidents of shoplifting. I worked with him and his family, and he seemed to have developed insight into his actions and great self-control. Months passed by, and then, one rainy night, I was summoned to the police station because he had shoplifted again. “From a high roof to a deep pit.”

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 fine 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)

In all of my years of Torah study, of carefully reading the weekly parsha, it is this sudden backsliding that confounds me more than any other narrative. And of course, 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 to find an answer for myself and for those who looked to me to help them understand the Bible. This year, I find myself contemplating a new answer based upon a very unusual source.

A few weeks ago, on January 8, 2011, the Wall Street Journal carried an essay by one Amy Chua. The essay was 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.

This 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 to be memorable and 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 an insight here that can help parents, teachers, and psychotherapist deal with the unpredictable shifts in the behaviors of those they work with.

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 in to 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.