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Feb 14 2014

What My Daughter’s Favorite Stuffed Animal Has to Do with the Golden Calf

By at 9:41 am

Torah Momentary: Was the Golden Calf the Israelite's version of a lovey?

This post is part of our Torah MOMentary series, where we interpret the weekly Torah portion through the perspective of a mother. This Shabbat we read Parashat Ki Tissa. To read a summary of the portion and learn more, click here.

As parents (and humans), we spend a lot of time waiting. Waiting to grow up. Waiting to meet the right partner. Waiting to move in together, get married, or partner up in a long term way. We wait to get pregnant. Then we wait for our baby to be born. Once our baby is born, we wait for him or her to grow up. We don’t want to rush it, but in some ways, we do. We’re waiting for him to smile, laugh, eat solid foods, sit up, sleep through the night, point, clap, wean herself, talk, walk, run, use the potty, listen to reason, win a Nobel, have kids of her own. But like Tom Petty knows, the waiting is the hardest part. And yet, we have to do it.

Our kids have a hard time waiting, too. Mine are not yet 3, and they cannot wait for anything. Sometimes, it’s a matter of waiting just a few seconds, as long as it takes for me to finish chewing before I answer their question about icicles, or the letter “M” and how it really does look a lot like a “W.” Sometimes, they cannot wait the two minutes it takes for me to find a missing puzzle piece that is lodged beneath the couch, or the 10 minutes it takes for chicken nuggets to cook in the toaster. They certainly can’t wait five days until our weekend trip or the two months it’ll take before their birthday arrives. For them, waiting is beyond hard. It’s impossible. It often reduces them to tears. (Me too.)

Apparently, the Israelites didn’t like waiting, either. In her commentary on this week’s Torah portion Ki Tissa, Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses writes, “Waiting is difficult. When a child waits…for a parent to come home, the time can feel excruciatingly long.” Cohler-Esses points out that when the Jews waited for Moses to come back down from his tete-a-tete with God on Mount Sinai, they grew impatient, just like a child might. Their leader—their parent, in a sense—had disappeared. “They are anxious that Moses will never return to them, frightened that they will have no leader to lead them to the Promised Land,” Cohler-Esses explains. “They are so scared that they build themselves an idol—a Golden Calf to accompany them through the desert.”

My kids have yet to channel their frustrations into building an idol, so this is where my neat little parallels between parenthood and the Torah cease. I don’t know how to understand the move to melt their jewelry into a cow statue. Why didn’t they just throw a tantrum to get Moses’s attention, instead?

In an attempt to gather more information (and my thoughts) about how this week’s Torah portion relates to the holy work of raising kids, I visited G-Dcast, a website for an awesome media production company that creates (mostly free) apps and videos about Jewish stuff. I watched the G-Dcast video on Ki Tissa, hoping to be inspired about the whole Golden Calf thing. And here’s what I learned: Sarah Gershman, who narrates the video (and is the author of the very popular PJ library book, The Bedtime Sh’ma) likens the Golden Calf to a transitional object. Just like your kid might need a blankie, a lovey, a stuffed animal, a ratty old washcloth, whatever, to take with her to school, to Grandma’s, or anywhere where she doesn’t have unfettered access to you and your warm hugs, so, too, did the Israelites need something to comfort them when they couldn’t see Moses, their leader, and their parent, so to speak. He was gone for 40 long days and nights! The Golden Calf made them feel more secure.

One of my daughters is completely attached to her big brown bear. This bear is so well-loved that his belly is completely flat, with a round indentation where her head rests each night (Big Brown Bear is her pillow, much to his chagrin, I’m sure). My kid will often mutter to herself, apropos of nothing, “Big brown bear is the best.” This bear is on the large side, but no matter. He’s been to Florida and Washington DC and New Jersey and the Poconos and a variety of places that we’ve been. I love that my kid loves that bear. I encourage her relationship with that bear. I have no qualms with the bear. The bear helps.

God and Moses interpret the Israelites’ actions differently. The Golden Calf does not help. The building of the idol was seen as an act of defiance, disrespect, and disloyalty. After the episode, Moses gets super angry and smashes the tablets, disappears back up the mountain, and God punishes the Israelites with a plague.

So where do we go from here? How should we understand the significance of the Golden Calf episode, at least as it relates to our jobs as moms and dads? At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, what does this mean for us, today, in our houses, snowbound with kids, bored, frustrated, and ready for winter to end?

At the end of the Ki Tissa video, Gershman states, “It is the act of seeing something with your own eyes that causes such a deep emotional reaction.” She goes on to explain that because the Israelites couldn’t see Moses, they needed to build the calf, something they could cling to. When God sees the Israelites dancing around the calf, he becomes angry. When Moses sees the people worshiping the calf, he smashes the tablets.

Sometimes, when I need to get my kids’ attention, I’ll insist that they look at me. They’re toddlers, so their attention spans are wired to flit with the pace of a hummingbird’s wings. But when I force them to see me–asking them a question, answering theirs, repeating an instruction, offering comfort or discipline–they are more likely to hear me, to see me back, to respond. I’d like to think that the more they see me, feel my presence, know that I’m there listening and available to them, the less they’ll need big brown bear and his flat fluffy tummy. Eventually, I pray, a solid keel will form inside each of them, a keel to keep them steady in a storm, safe with the knowledge that they are unconditionally loved.

To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.

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