This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa, meaning, “When you count.” At this point in the weekly Torah narrative in the Book of Exodus, the Israelites have been traveling in the Sinai wilderness, and are now encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses, meanwhile, is somewhere on the mountain, receiving instructions from God.
“When you count” refers to the opening of the portion, when God says to Moses, “When you count” the Children of Israel – that is, when you take a census – you should instruct every male over the age of 20 to donate a half-shekel to the sanctuary.
This was a neat method to figure out how many males over the age of 20 there were. And it was also a very clever strategy for fundraising!
In addition, God imbued a man named Bezalel with the spirit of creativity, and chose him to design the sanctuary and all its accoutrements. (You may be interested to know that today there is a national art school in Jerusalem called the Bezalel Academy of Art & Design.)
As the Torah portion continues, we find that the Israelites were worried that Moses had disappeared. Even though he told them he would be gone for 40 days and 40 nights, by the 40th day they had become restless. They begged Aaron to make an idol that would protect them in case Moses was really not coming back.
Aaron tried to deflect their request by telling them he could only fulfill their wishes if they and their wives were willing to give up all their jewelry, so he could melt it and then fashion it into a golden idol. He figured that when they heard this, they might have second thoughts, and perhaps wait for Moses’ return. But, surprisingly, they were so anxious that they immediately gave Aaron all their jewelry, and he was forced to follow through on his words, lest pandemonium erupt.
So now, here comes Moses, carrying the Ten Commandments, which are carved on huge stone plaques. When he gets to the bottom of the mountain, he sees the people dancing and singing and moving and groovin’ around some object. He gets closer and sees that they are dancing before a golden calf, Egyptian style. And in his hands are tablets that contain words from the Lord, such as “Thou shall have no other gods before me,” and “Thou shall not make any graven images.”
Moses may have said to himself, “Well, this isn’t working out too well.” The Torah records how, in utter disgust and frustration, he smashed the stone tablets on the ground.
Later on, as the story continues, Moses and God eventually forgive the Israelites, and Moses rewrites the commandments on new tablets. By the way, Moses learns a very valuable lesson about making backups! At any rate, in time, life returns to some semblance of normalcy, and the Israelites continue on their journey towards the Holy Land.
Now, some interpreters believe the sin of the Israelites was less about creating and worshipping an idol and more about extreme impatience. Had they waited just one more day, they would have welcomed Moses back into their midst and the entire golden calf episode could have been avoided. But nooo, they were impatient, and became hotheaded and unreasonable. And this aspect of their personality, perhaps more than anything else, reflected their true colors as a people. And that they needed to learn the lesson of patience, a lesson that seemed to take 40 years of wandering in the desert.
It seems that whenever there was any kind of challenge – not enough food, not enough water, attacks by other tribes – rather than being patient and waiting for God to provide for them, the Israelites’ first reaction was impatience.
They would mutter, we at least had food and water in Egypt, why did Moses take us out? Why were we brought into the desert so we can perish? They would protest, saying let’s head back to Egypt, to a life we knew before. And so on and so on.
Patience is a prominent theme in Judaism. The Talmud extols patience as a critical personality trait. The story of the prophet Micah, as an example, is that he suffers many challenging conditions and yet endures, saying, “I will wait for the Lord who will save me.”
It has been stated that patience in God will aid believers in finding the strength to be delivered from the evils inherent in their lives.
The Book of Proverbs proclaims, “The patient man shows much good sense, but the quick-tempered man displays folly at its height” (14:29). Also, “An ill-tempered man stirs up strife, but the patient man allays discord” (15:18). And, “A patient man is better than a warrior, and he who rules his temper is stronger than he who takes a city” (16:32).
The Book of Ecclesiastes offers us the following: “Patience is better than pride. Do not be too quickly discontented in spirit, for discontent lodges in the heart of the fool” (7:8-9).
And finally, from “Ethics of the Sages”: “There is no person that does not have his hour; and no thing that does not have its place” (4:3).
Many of us today are overwhelmed with so many challenges – at home, in the community, with our government and world. We hope and pray that all of us do our best to endure difficult circumstances; to persevere in the face of delays and provocations; to exhibit restraint when under strain. In short, we hope and pray to learn how to become more patient.
ETHAN ADLER is the rabbi of Congregation Beth David in Narragansett.