Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Calf v. Mishkan


Mark Morgan via Flickr, CC License 2.0

It was Shabbat, and I had just washed my dishes. Then I started writing this. Soon I’d head out for a date, which I hoped would be fun. “At least I’ll have the dishes washed,” I thought. The date, I couldn’t control; the dishes, I could. So I chose the dishes and the relative solidity of words that I could create and destroy.

I’d say that in washing the dishes, I chose the golden calf. Let me explain. Lately the rabbis at my synagogue have been talking about the distinction between the golden calf, which is solid, literally and figuratively, and the mishkan, the portable house of worship that holds empty space for an invisible god. Many things in life seem to sort themselves into these categories: golden calf or mishkan. 

For anyone who needs a refresher on the golden calf incident: After G-d delivered the 10 Commandments to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, Moses went up on the mountain to get further instructions from G-d (and the first set of stone tablets). He was up there 40 days and 40 nights. Meanwhile, the people down below got tired of waiting for Moses, wondering what had happened to him. In their impatience, they melted down jewelry they had brought from Egypt to fashion a golden calf, an idol, which they proceeded to worship. When Moses got back and saw the golden calf, he was so angry at the Israelites that he smashed the tablets that G-d had just given him and destroyed the calf. But in time, he got new tablets and taught the Israelites to build something different: not a golden calf but a mishkan.

I think Shabbat is the mishkan in temporal form. Not empty space but empty time. Keeping Shabbat requires faith in the importance of something that isn't happening, faith in the value of not working. Thinking not “at least I did the dishes” but “at least I didn’t”! 

In going on a date Shabbat afternoon, I chose the mishkan, figuratively speaking. The future is in the mishkan. Hope is in the mishkan. The unknown is in the mishkan. 

Pessimism, on the other hand, is the golden calf. The past is the golden calf. Sabotage is the golden calf. Destruction is the golden calf. These are all things we can be certain about. But it's certainty at the expense of hope.

I include the past in my list of golden calf-like things, but not without hesitation. The past isn't all bad any more than the future will be all good. But the past is solid. Remembering the past and feeling expected emotions, even the negative ones, can be easier than imagining and hoping for an unknown future.

Since I don’t necessarily have a problem with remembering the past, maybe golden calves aren't all bad, either. The issue is not the object, be it a golden calf or a photo album, but how people use it or what it displaces. For the Israelites, the golden calf displaced faith in an invisible god. In more metaphorical cases, golden calf-like behavior and thought can displace hope and a willingness to take a chance on something new. 

Here's another golden calf-like thing I'm slow to condemn: I have a beloved stuffed animal. It's a purple bunny, but with a switch of color and species, it could be a golden calf. A stuffed animal is solid not against the teeth, like gold, but solid as in dependable. You can carry it around and squeeze it as hard you want without hurting it. You don't have to wonder if and when it will come back because it never goes anywhere (and woe to the parents of a child who has misplaced a favorite toy). If I worshipped and put all my hope in my purple bunny, that could cause me some problems, could prevent me from living my (adult!) life. But I don’t do that. My bunny is a delight. Further, I think there's some value in thinking about the golden calf in the framework of child development.

My therapist calls stuffed animals “transitional objects.” Such objects help the child transition from having a parent around all the time, and getting comfort from them, to being able to comfort herself. The American Psychological Association definition of transitional object describes the destination point of this transition in a wonderful way: as the development of an internal representation of the parent that comforts the child. The goal isn't to resign yourself to solitude; it's to feel the comfort of someone who loves you even when they aren't physically there.

Maybe the golden calf was a transitional object for the Israelites. Moses was gone, and they weren't sure that he was coming back. They definitely weren't sure that this newly introduced god could be counted on in absentia. So they made a golden calf to soothe themselves. 

Eventually, though, Moses did come back. And eventually, the Jewish people did learn to find comfort in the empty space of the mishkan. And, perhaps, within ourselves. If the golden calf helped us learn to do that, more power to it.
I recently listened to a podcast about Gazans who are eating animal food to survive. It reminded me of a comment my parents occasionally made that they "aren't eating cat food yet,” meaning that they have enough money to support themselves—and to help me, too. As a journalist looking for stories, I thought: aha. A feature about people eating animal food. When and where has this happened in the past? What distinguishes human and animal food, anyway? Dogs can’t eat chocolate; are there other human foods animals can’t eat? Animal foods people can’t eat? The history of pet food? 

I might be able to get my hands on some of this information. But what I really want is not the history of starvation but for the Gazans, for all people, to have human food. As for how to ensure that, what to write about that? The fighting has to end. But how? What happens next? What’s fair to everyone? There I draw a blank. And my point here is that sometimes, a blank is appropriate. There's hope in that blank space.

I’m not writing a pet food story, whose dismal outlines I can make out. I’m holding out for something unknown and better.

No comments: