Much has been said how pain and loss often
serve as wake up calls, making us aware of deeper truths.
How about joy and success – what do they tell us about
the human condition? When you are riding high and celebrating
success, do you feel arrogant and self-important? Posturing
as if you deserve all your blessings and taking them for
granted? Or do they make you humble and gracious?
One of the ultimate barometers
of life’s destiny is measured gauged by the way we behave in times of plenty.
But the challenge is great: The complacency and false sense of confidence
bred by success can be our worst enemy.
* * *
One of the saddest and most dramatic episodes in history is recounted in
this week’s Torah portion: The building of the Golden
While Moses was communing
with G-d on Mt. Sinai, the people below became restless and demanded “make
us a god to lead us.” They brought their gold and it was molded into the cast
of a golden calf – an idol – which they in turn began to worship.
A tragic moment indeed.
At the most momentous event in history, when the greatest mandate of civilization
was given to the human race, under the very shadow of Sinai, a nation of priests
were indulging themselves, eating, drinking, prostrating themselves and taking
pleasure before a… god made of gold.
Volumes have been written
about this travesty. How was it possible that a highly evolved nation – a
“knowledgeable generation” who personally witnessed and experienced the greatest
revelations ever to take place, a people who had but 39 days earlier heard
the Divine commandment “thou shalt not have other gods” – should so blatantly
This paradox of extremes
contains a profound personal and psychological message, as relevant today
as it was then.
The Talmud offers us a
truism (Sukkah 52a): The greater the person the greater his Yetzer Hara (evil
inclination). The more powerful the experience, the more powerful the challenge.
The same is true collectively: When a great nation experienced the unprecedented
Sinai revelation, the forces of resistance arose in direct proportion to the
magnitude of the moment.
The stakes were high:
Sinai transformed existence. Until that point in time matter and spirit were
two distinct entities, with an impenetrable schism dividing them. At Sinai
heaven wedded earth for, and it enabled us to fuse matter and energy forever
Indeed, the Talmud explains
that Sinai “ceased the [spiritual] toxicity” which entered human consciousness
after the eating of the Tree of Knowledge (Shabbos 146a). Before Adam and
Eve ate from the tree, their beings and psyches seamlessly flowed from their
spirits. No dichotomy existed between who they were and what they did. Like
an innocent child, they were not self-conscious, because their self was not
divorced from their souls. When they ate from the Tree
of Knowledge of good and evil, consciousness and self-consciousness was
born. And with it entered the serpent’s “venom” – human reality became polluted
with toxic self interest, which would devolve into the narcissistic source
of all injustice and corruption. At Sinai, however, the spiritual smog lifted
as the air was cleared.
But with every powerful
experience comes an equally powerful resistance. Instead of humbly appreciating
the moment, the people became self-satisfied and overconfident and proceeded
to worship the Golden Calf, which allowed the toxicity to return (Zohar I
52b), replaying the first sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge.
Each of us in our lives
will be faced with similar challenges:
Sinai characterizes the
special moments in our lives. The Golden Calf epitomizes self-worship – and
the worship of man-made objects – instead of the awe and humility in face
of the Divine. If Sinai represents our purity and innocence, the golden idol
is the moment when we lose our innocence.
At times we will experience
a “Sinai” moment of truth. Simultaneously, we must be wary that the dark forces
within our psyches will come beckoning. Sometimes they will manifest in a
voice of cynicism or skepticism, sometimes in a voice of arrogance or self-indulgence,
at other times in a voice of cockiness and smugness.
All great moments bring
great challenges. When we experience an epiphany, a moment of inspiration,
a magical moment, always know that with it will come an equally powerful potent
counter voice that will challenge you. Often when we are blessed with a special
blessing, we take for granted our gift and let our guard down.
And that moment will be
your ultimate moment of truth; it will demonstrate the type of person you
truly are. The noblest moments in a person’s life can be seen either in times
of great loss or in times of great joy.
When the Alter Rebbe,
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, was miraculously released from Czarist prison,
after his enemies had turned him in, you would think that he had every right
to feel proud and self-righteous. Yet, not only did he not gloat – which obviously
was to be expected – he went on to write his classic letter, citing Jacob:
“I have been humbled by all the goodness you have done for me.” After Jacob
returned to meet his brother Esau, with all the great blessings that he had
experienced with building a beautiful family despite all the challenges of
living in a hostile environment, Jacob declared his humility: “I have been
humbled by all the goodness you have done for me.”
This is the majesty of
great people. It is never about them personally. Even when their Divine cause
emerges victorious, they experience profound humility.
Witness a person at his
high point – at the epitome of joy – and you will see what he or she is made
of. Does your success bring arrogance or humility?
Each of us will have Sinai
revelations in our lives, a pollution-free beautiful moment. It may be falling
in love, the birth of a child, a child’s wedding, a major breakthrough. At
that moment you will have respite from the toxins of self-interest. But it
will not be easy. For every positive voice there will be an equal cool voice
tempering any enthusiasm. At that point the voice of the Golden Calf will
come calling, knocking at your door. Every sin, every transgression, every
human mistake has an element of the Golden Calf within it (Rashi this week’s
And then you will have
a choice: Will your grand experience cause you to worship yourself or will
it humble you?
Will you use your power
to abort the toxins of self-worship and self-interest that feed the fragmentation
of our lives and of the universe? Or will you introduce the power of unity
What you do at that moment
will define your life.
3320 years ago at Sinai
the people did not pass the test. Will we today?