- Rabbi Mordecai Finley
The Metaphysical Teaching and the Sin of the Calf
Thoughts on Torah Portion Devarim 2017
The metaphysical meaning of Torah always fascinates me. This metaphysical meaning, found in Rabbinic thought, holds that there is wisdom in the mind of God that seeks its way into the human realm. This upper wisdom cannot be expressed fully in human language – words like love, justice, truth, beauty – the garments of the Holy - can never be fully defined. A skeptic will never be convinced that these words name something real that we experience, unless they have some quality of understanding that exists in their trans-rational mind. The “Torah in the Ark” – the Five Books of Moses – is a place holder, a vessel into which the Upper Wisdom flows. One does not confuse the vessel with the essence.
What does all this mean in our day to day lives? Here is an example. Think of a promise, a contract. I have seen people make promises because it suited them, and break them when the promise no longer suited them. A promise, by some, is seen as mildly obligatory until one feels differently.
In rabbinic thought, a promise is pretty close to a vow. The human language is understood to be a quality that makes us God-like – “God spoke, and the world came into being.” Words create new realities. When one promises, it is as if one has created a new moral fabric in the universe.
Promises, like any contract, exist within a larger moral context. For example, if Reuben promises to come to Simon’s party, but then before the party Simon is abusively insulting to Ruben, one might say the promise is off. The promise existed in the moral framework on mutual respect, regard and affection. Once that moral framework is destroyed, it is doubtful whether the promise still holds.
I see this issue come up frequently when I counsel couples and families. Parents might promise a teenager that they will take them to a theme park, but then a work emergency arises (yes, I have been there). The teenager fumes, “You broke your promise!” I counsel the teenager that when people make informal promises, they don’t include all the contingencies. I enter into a somewhat philosophic discussion of promises. Once the teenager understands the larger context, they calm down. A promise has not been broken – the fulfillment of the promise has merely been delayed into order not to cause harm. If the parent simply said, “I don’t feel like it” because they got a better offer, then that would be breaking a promise.
I hope I can make this clear: We all live in webs of philosophic and metaphysical realities that govern our lives. The words that we live by refer to a moral fabric of the universe. That fabric can hold our lives together, or we can tear that fabric apart.
With all this being said, I want to say a few words about the philosophic and metaphysical dimensions of the Sin of the Calf. We are in an intense period of spiritual reflection in our calendar. We are working our way through two great rejections of God – at Mt. Sinai when we rejected the Teaching that Moses was bringing down the mountain, and the rejection of God when we refused to enter the Land of Canaan.
The Teaching that Moses was bringing down from on high represents that wisdom in the mind of God, including the realm of justice, which includes all areas related to the moral dimensions of living with each other. I see, every week, people rejecting that teaching, preferring the Molten Calf of having their own way over living according to the Teaching.
Example: A few years ago a family in terrible crisis, parents and adult children, agreed “everyone off their phones between 6 and 7 PM” which was when they typically had dinner. This promise was the first tiny step in repairing a family riven by criticizing, complaining, condemning, insulting, accusing, blaming, and escalating conflict. The very next day the dad arrived home from work a bit early. When dinner-time came, he was on this phone. Mom objected, and he said, “I was already off my phone for an hour when I came home from work.” She wanted to explode, but instead called me, as I had asked her to do. He claimed the promise was to be off the phone for one hour, and that the 6-7 time frame was not the issue. She, on the other hand, had relied on his promise and expected an hour at the dinner table free of phones. I told her that she was right. He broke his promise. Folks, this was a very big deal.
But not according to dad. He thought she was being ridiculous (and told her so), and demanded to speak with me, to appeal by decision, one might say. The facts he gave were identical to her recitation. I gave him a little instruction in “Promises 101”.
A. Your family is in a delicate and critical period of rebuilding trust and civility. B. You can’t alter a promise unilaterally. If you want to change the time frame, you have to ask others first. C. You can alter the promise if some emergency comes up, but you need to let everyone know and tell them about the emergency.
He responded that I don’t know what I am talking about, that I am illogical and also ridiculous. I took a breath and tried to explain what it meant for his wife on the first day of the repair to stay off the phone between 6 and 7 unless some great harm would occur. He hung up on me.
My nature at that point would have been to engage the anger practice, but I did not have to. Instead, I was incredibly sad. I thought of the Molten Calf – the frenzy to reject the teaching because we might have to change our lives.
The Teaching is seeking us out, and every day people around us, and at times we ourselves, are rejecting the teachings of Love, Justice, Truth and Beauty, sometimes in a frenzy of anger and insulting others, sometimes just nonchalantly.
If we knew the truth of the teaching and the truth of ourselves, we would accept the yoke of the Teaching and be on the path to achieving our full humanity.