Paraphrasing Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “You can take the people out of Egypt, but you can’t take Egypt out of the people.” This is a fine and pithy summation of one rationale explaining why a people, right on the heels of having experienced the most miraculous of events, being freed from bondage in Egypt, could have then imbued a statue of their own creation with god-like properties (the infamous golden calf). Even more fascinating, they literally claimed that this was the god that had taken them out of Egypt, an obvious impossibility insofar as the graven image did not even exist when the prior event happened. So, what’s going on here?
In a certain sense to find a possible explanation, I think we have to begin with the story of Cain and Abel. Many anthropologists who study such things today believe that this story is an allegory explaining what was going on among different societies of the Ancient Near East. Cain is generally identified as the evil brother, and Abel the innocent victim. Why in the Torah, a document that is supposed to indicate how to live a moral life, would we be presented with such an example, since good is here vanquished by evil? These same anthropologists suggest that Abel represents pastorally-based societies while Cain is the emerging agriculturalist. We know that agricultural societies amassed huge amounts of wealth and power and ultimately wiped out the pastoralists. The agriculturalists were no doubt more successful in part for economic reasons, but I think there may have been an even more powerful explanation – they came to believe in the idea that they were god-like, something a pastoralist who relied on nature’s bounty would never have assumed. Agriculturalists, after all, were able to grow their own food and take a fundamental aspect of their survival off the table (no pun intended). I don’t think we can underestimate the power of this idea that we were able to control our own destiny.
When you start thinking you are god-like, and our liturgy tells us, of course, that we as a species were created b’tzelem elohim (in the image of God), you may start to think in different categories, like for instance, the world and all its inhabitants were created for me. All those other species are here for my use.
Getting back to the story in Ki Tisa, the Israelites are wandering in the desert after having just experienced the miraculous, but as soon as their leader disappears (Moses went up on Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments), they lose all sense of confidence in their situation, despite the fact that they have manna (a guaranteed food supply), and like those agriculturalists, don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. They demand the creation of something outside themselves that will reassure them that everything is and will continue to be OK. They are in a spiritual crisis.
So the thinking goes, it was necessary to have that generation of wanderers die off before the Israelites could go into the promised land because those people were not psychologically and emotionally prepared for freedom, having grown up in a culture of slavery. Somehow, by virtue of the Israelites having ultimately arrived in the land of milk and honey, there is a presumption that the future generation was not encumbered by that same slavery mentality. I don’t think that’s quite how it went though. Let’s not forget that each year we retell the story of the Exodus at Passover, and it seems we do this less to commemorate a liberation than to acknowledge that we were once slaves in Egypt, and that we still struggle today with our own enslavement and more generally with the psychology of enslavement.
Each of us struggles with the form that enslavement takes for us personally, and we have so many historical examples right up to the present day of one group of humans literally enslaving another, but at some level I think we are all subject to a meta-idea that enslaves each and every one of us, and that is the notion stemming from those emerging Cain-like agriculturalists that somehow we truly can control our own destiny, much like a god could do. Unfortunately, that just is not how it is, much as we would really like to believe otherwise. Our outcome is not and will never be determined by an object of our own creation; we are not God and we cannot fashion one. Our task is to rid ourselves of this false idea, which is in fact the worst of all idols, and the repair of the world won't be possible until we undertake this fundamental repair of ourselves.