Parshas Ki Tisa: From Highest Highs to Lowest Lows

This week’s parsha, Parshas Ki Tisa, opens with further instructions and details regarding the building of the Mishkan.  We learn of the machatzis ha’shekel (which is also read before Purim, for Parshas Shekalim), the spices for the anointing oil, the eleven spice mixture of the ketores (daily incense offering), and the construction of the kiyor, the copper laver from which the kohanim washed their hands and feet before their daily service.

In the beginning of Chapter 32, the Torah turns to a very different – and tragic – topic: that of the Eigel ha’Zahav, the sin of the Golden Calf.  A mere forty days after Matan Torah and the Revelation at Sinai, when the entire nation heard and saw the Voice of Hashem (keviyachol), after a brief miscalculation as to Moshe’s anticipated arrival, and their subsequent panic with his lateness/absence, a golden calf is constructed.  In a shocking turn of events, the people worship around the golden calf, offering sacrifices and dancing around it, declaring ‘these are your gods, O Israel, who took you out of the land of Egypt!’ (Shemos 32:4).

When Moshe returns from atop the mountain, the scope of the disaster is realized, by him, Aharon his brother, as well as the nation.

This is a sin that is most difficult to comprehend and fathom.  How could a nation that forty days earlier saw the greatest Revelation ever witnessed by mankind, fall so low and commit such a spiritual travesty?

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb writes, “It was over forty years ago, but I remember the feelings very well… It was just after I had completed all of my course requirements and dissertation defense in the process of obtaining my doctorate in psychology.  This was the culmination of several years of study and much hard work.  The ordeal was now over and celebration was in order.  Along with my wife, young children, several other students, and friends, I did, indeed, celebrate.  But then, it was suddenly over.  I found myself moody and depressed.  A sense of emptiness surrounded me, and these feelings lingered for quite some time.  I tried to rid myself of my moodiness in various ways, and it was a difficult time for those around me as well.  Luckily, my negative feelings were soon gone, as mysteriously as they had come.

“Sometime later I learned this phenomenon was very common.  When people achieve great accomplishments, having put great effort and toil into them, they experience a sense of exhilaration and excitement, a ‘high.’  But often very soon after, there is a ‘comedown’, a real low, that follows the high.  It is as if, now that the goal with which one has been long preoccupied has been reached, life has become meaningless.  There is nothing further to do, no ongoing purpose.  A sense of emptiness ensues.  The struggle to fill this sense of emptiness is fraught with danger… and attempting to fill this emptiness may result in great, and sometimes tragic, difficulties.

“This psychological phenomenon helps to explain the incident of the Golden Calf.  Just a few weeks ago, the nation experienced the most momentous occasion in human history.  Hashem revealed Himself at Har Sinai, they heard the voice of G-d, and were spiritually elevated by His revelation.  They were, almost literally, on a ‘high.’

“And yet, after 40 days and 40 night with Moshe atop the mount, the people come down from their high.  His disappearance mystifies them and they panic in their sense of emptiness… A few weeks ago they were on the highest level possible, and now they were dancing before an idol?  While it is inexplicable, it is also a common human phenomenon.  People are capable of attaining greatness, but they are not as capable of sustaining greatness (italics added).  They can achieve ‘highs’ of all kinds, but they cannot necessarily maintain those ‘highs.’  There is an inevitable ‘comedown.’

“… This is an important lesson for our spiritual lives.  Often we experience moments of intense spirituality.  But those moments are often brief and fleeting.  When they are over, we feel empty, and may despair of ever returning to those precious experiences.  We must take hope in the knowledge that almost all intense human experiences are transitory, and are followed by feelings of hollowness… Ups and downs, peaks and valleys, are to be expected, in all aspects of our lives…

“This is the lesson of the Golden Calf.  The people ascended a great spiritual high at the mountain of Sinai.  They then descended into an orgy of idolatry.  But with G-d’s bountiful mercy,   (and repentance and fervent prayers,) they received the Divine assurance that G-d would forever remain in their midst” (The Person in the Parasha, Maggid, OU Press, p.239-242).

This insight and lesson is relevant for all of us in our daily lives.  There are certainly times in life when we experience moments of great ‘revelation,’ intensity, excitement and ‘highs.’  Be it a special experience in Eretz Yisrael, a simcha shared with family and friends, a trip exploring the wonders of Hashem’s world, or an impactful event, something out of the ordinary.  These blessed times in life elevate, inspire and invigorate us.

However, we must be realistic in our approach to life and avodas Hashem.   While the moments of inspiration are impactful, most of life is spent through the daily routine of the ‘everyday.’  Compared to the exalted times, these are the ‘lows.’  If we remember that G-d can be found in all times and all places – and both the inspiring times and everyday times are moments in which we can and must serve Him – then we can appreciate the ‘highs’ and be prepared not to fall with the ‘lows.’

With this realistic approach, we will place Hashem before us always and with consistency (cf. Ps.16:8), and rejoice both in the great moments, and in the blessings of everyday.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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