Judaism: Golden Calf Syndrome
Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
The instruction to keep Shabbat appears in the Torah immediately before the story of the golden Calf. On the face of it the two subjects are unrelated, Shabbat is a celebration of G-d and worship of the Golden Calf was an act of apostasy. Yet their juxtaposition must be instructive because everything in the Torah has a purpose. When two concepts follow each other, there must be a reason.
Allow me to suggest that the observance of Shabbat inoculates us against the Golden Calf mindset and neglect of Shabbat can lead to Golden Calf type results.
The Rat Race
“Six days you shall perform your work and the seventh day is Shabbat unto G-d.” For six days we work and toil; our primary goal to earn bread. We provide for family, cover expenses and protect our sources of income. These are of course only a means to an end, the end being the stable platform of a home base where we can thrive and from which we can pursue our true, value oriented, goals.
Yet, the effort of providing for and securing our family can become consuming. It is a huge responsibility and requires significant investments of time, energy and resources. If we aren’t careful we can slip into a mindset that transforms the means into an end. Making more money, securing a higher promotion and padding the investment and savings accounts can become an obsession. The need for such things can be so pervasive that it crowds out all other thoughts. This is the Golden Calf syndrome, where we worship money rather than its purpose.
Shabbat is a day of rest from such entanglements. We sit back and reflect on our purpose in life. We remind ourselves of our goals, our values and our priorities. We spend quality time with family and remember that such time and the memories they generate are more important than the extra profit generated by late nights at work.
I look around the house and consider the purpose of everything in it. Why do I own the I-pad? Is it to be more efficient at work so I could get home earlier? Is it to help me stay in touch with the children? Or is it to give me a quick escape from reality when the pressures mount and I want to bow out?
How do I use my computer or smart phone? Does it connect me or remove me? Do they make me a better person and family man? How about the large screen Television? Do I use it to tune into my family or to tune out? How about my car? Did I purchase the car that was most comfortable for the children or the car that gives me higher status in the community?
Chasing prestige, status, money and comfort make for a hectic, stressed and ultimately unhappy life. It is the life of the Golden Cow. Shabbat is the antidote. It brings us back to where we want to be and where we know we ought to be. When Shabbat departs and we chant Havdalah, it is with a sense of melancholy. It was nice to step away from the rat race. It was nice to be fully present with the family and not need to reserve half our brain for work related concerns.
A new week is encroaching, but because we are coming from Shabbat we carry a different mindset. If we can get an afternoon off, we will spend it with the spouse rather than the golf course. If we can take a day off, we will take the kids out rather than catch up on the TV shows we missed. If we make a lucrative deal we will purchase something that will enhance the family rather than pad the investment account.
We can find justifications for any choice we make, but the bottom line isn’t whether we can convince others that we made the right choice. The question is, can we convince ourselves? Several decades from now, when the kids are grown and life is lived mostly in retrospect, will we be satisfied with the choices we made? The time to formulate that answer is now. Notwithstanding our best reasons for focusing on status, career, professional and social interests, investing in family will make for a happier life.
When we think back on life, we will derive the most enjoyment from our memories with our children. We will derive the most benefit from our relationship with our spouses. We will have gained the most from family and intimate friends. In the end these are our most important relationships. Everything else is just gravy.
A child once asked his father how much he makes in an hour and the father replied, sixty dollars. The kid came back with a crumpled ten dollar bill and asked if he could buy ten minutes of his father’s time…
It doesn’t escape me that I have painted an extreme picture. Most of us are nowhere near either pole. We are somewhere in the middle. We aren’t the most attentive family people, but neither are we completely neglectful. We often use the smart phone to escape, but we use it just as often to stay in touch. We buy the car that our children enjoy, but we also choose a model that makes us look good professionally.
We aren’t completely monstrous nor are we completely pious. We are somewhere in between.
This is true. And normal. And my message is that if good is good, better can be even better. If we are somewhere in the middle, this essay ought to remind us that nothing in life is static. We won’t remain in the center for long unless we make an effort to crawl forward.
If we don’t strive to climb towards the family pole, we will inevitably slide backward toward the other pole. Life is a balancing act and it is best to err on the side of caution. Spend more time with your family. Play more often with your children. Spend more money on gifts. Give more than you take.
Next week, at your Shabbat table, ask your children to tell you about their week. Listen to their stories and take in their smiles. Revel in their bright eyes and cheerful demeanors. Teach them about the Parsha and ask them to tell you what they learned during the week. Let them have your full attention and watch them thrive. Don’t walk away from the table as soon as the meal is over. Don’t disappear into your own little world. We do enough of that during the week.
Spend the evening with them. Talk to them. Play with them and put them to bed. Remind yourself that you work all week to provide for them. They are your goal, your privilege and your sacred obligation. They are also your future. If your future is worthy of attention, direct it to them.
 Exodus 31: 13- 17.