Ki Tissa 5784 – Recalculating

D'var Torah | Exodus

Today, any driver who sets out on a trip – even when the driver is familiar with the area – engages Waze or Google Maps or some other GPS system. There is comfort in having one’s route confirmed by technology. But there comes a time when the route the system projects is not necessarily the route the driver thinks is most sensible. Rather than stick with the pre-determined route, the driver might independently change course. When that occurs, after a brief silence, the system, in whichever voice it speaks, says: “recalculating.” And sure enough, the alternate route appears. The GPS system is designed to accommodate new information. It “re-calculates” rather than berates the driver for being inattentive, insisting on returning to the original route. Alas, people are not as flexible as computerized navigation systems.

In her latest book, The Hidden Order of Intimacy, Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg argues that the reason some of the people demanded that Aaron fashion them an idol to worship is their impatience. They counted on Moses’ return on the fortieth day from the time he ascended Mount Sinai. But when Moses did not return at the end of the day and six hours beyond (Bemidbar Rabbah 15:21), they importuned Aaron and the result was the Golden Calf.

While Zornberg correctly understands the meaning of the Hebrew word “boshesh” to mean “delay,” supported by the reading of Judges 5:28, her characterization of the Israelites as impatient is imprecise. A better characterization would be inflexible. The narrative assumes that the Israelites had a specific expectation that Moses would return at a predetermined time. When that expectation went unmet (“When the people saw that Moses was long coming down the mountain,” Exodus 32:1), they assumed the worst and opted for an alternative outlet for their religious needs. Rather than re-calculate, they held onto the original schedule. This is not a matter of impatience but of a stubborn resistance to adapt; to alter expectations; to consider alternative explanations.

It is a commonplace to cheer the fact that people are not computers. People have feelings. People have insight and judgment. People are more than calculation machines. All true. However, sometimes people behave like computers and sometimes computers react like people ­– at least the way that people should react.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Rabbi Allen on Twitter