Before I moved back to Philadelphia, I lived for three years in a town in the lower Hudson Valley that is often the butt of jokes. At one point I remarked to some people in my congregation, “Growing up, I always thought that Poughkeepsie was the middle of nowhere between New York City and Albany,” to which someone dryly replied, “Oh honey, Albany isn’t somewhere.”
This is to say that while there are many lovely little towns in the Hudson Valley, when one is traveling from one place to another, it can feel like the middle of nowhere. One time, a friend and I decided to drive to an event in a hip, artsy town about an hour away, where neither of us had ever been. It was getting dark as we drove, and the surroundings became more rural and less populated. I don’t remember which of us was behind the wheel, but about 40 minutes into our drive, my friend turned to me and said, “I just don’t believe there’s going to be a town at the end of this drive.” But sure enough, the hip, artsy town and the event were right where the GPS had promised they would be.
Doubting my sense of direction was an even bigger challenge in the days before GPS. Sometimes, thinking I was lost, I’d turn around and head home, only to learn later that my destination had been just out of my line of sight. Sometimes, I’d call my dad from the car, just because I needed reassurance that I was headed in the right direction.
This is a recurring theme not only in my learning to drive, but also in the story of the Exodus. We go from being subject to the harsh but mostly predictable whims of the Pharaoh and his taskmasters, to being a free people in the wilderness, trying to live in covenant with a God we cannot see or touch. Suddenly we rely on this invisible, intangible force for food, water, and most of all, our sense of direction.
At this point in our journey, we have come to know God through miraculous interventions in history and nature: plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, sweet manna, and a sonorous voice at Mount Sinai. Even so, having faith in God and in our future is a heavy lift for us. We often have trouble believing that there’s going to be a Promised Land at the end of this wilderness.
Much of the time, our uncertainty leads us to nostalgic kvetching: we remember the simplicity of our lives in Egypt and express a longing to return to the life we knew. We worry about where our next meal is coming from, whether we might die in the wilderness, or whether we will ultimately succeed in conquering the Promised Land.
But in this week’s parasha, Ki Tissa, we take it one step further than worry. When we can no longer deal with the ambiguity of Moses’ absence, we beg for something concrete to cling to:
“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him’” (Exodus 32:1).
While it is possible that Moses’ return was actually delayed, midrash suggests that he was right on time. But the people were confused about whether he was returning on the fortieth day or after it, in the morning or the afternoon, or even what time it was given that the day was overcast (Rashi on Exodus 32:1). In my own midrash on the story, the people are so agitated when left to their own devices that they lose count of the days altogether, and no longer know for sure, or agree with one another, about how long Moses has been gone.
But no matter the source of their confusion, their response is clear: We need a god we can see and touch and bow down to, in order to move forward. And Aaron, left in charge of what is fast becoming an unruly mob, quickly complies. He collects gold from the Israelites, casts it in a mold, shapes it into a molten calf, and builds an altar in front of it. The people exclaim, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” … and Aaron announced: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of יהוה!” In this festival they bring offerings of food and drink, do plenty of eating, drinking, and dancing before Moses discovers their transgression and smashes the first set of tablets (Exodus 32:2-6).
We may not understand what possessed them to celebrate a festival to a golden calf, just days after hearing directly from God that idol-worship is forbidden. But we can probably understand the people’s desire for something solid, and Aaron’s rush to provide it for them.
We all have experienced moments where we didn’t exactly know where we were headed, or how to get there, or how long it might take. Reverend Susan Beaumont encapsulates this feeling in her book How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going.
“The natural human response is to … to strive backward to the old familiar identity, or forward to the unknown identity. The ambiguity and disorientation are at times so heightened that the very work required to move forward becomes impossible to engage…. During liminal seasons, our destination is not yet clear. The leader must keep the people moving forward, but the endpoint is fuzzy. Liminal seasons require us to build the bridge as we walk on it” (Beaumont 3, 7-8).
Sitting in uncertainty often feels so uncomfortable that we try to do one of three things: go back to where we were before, rush through the discomfort to where we think we should be, or look to our leaders to ease our discomfort, which makes us “remarkably susceptible to false leaders and prophets” as the Israelites were (Beaumont 17).
We might not consider ourselves vulnerable to the lure of idol worship today. But we only have to look to our polarized political scene, the flourishing of fundamentalist groups, and the prevalence of modern-day cults of personality to see that the impulse is still there.
The poet Ross Gay writes that “grief is the metabolization of change” (Inciting Joy 218-219). Idolatry, polarization, fundamentalism—these are all responses to our inability, or our aversion, to metabolizing change.
What do these liminal moments require of us? They require us to have faith. But they also require us to understand what faith is, and what it is not. Writer Ann Lamott suggests that “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty” (Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith).
We often make the mistake of seeking certainty when the situation calls us to have faith. In seeking certainty, we might choose the path of least resistance: turning around and heading backwards, rushing recklessly towards the nearest destination, and clinging to false promises and false prophets. We would do anything to not have to try something new, to not have to deal with the discomfort of not knowing where we are going.
But Lamott writes that, “Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Faith also means reaching deeply within, for the sense one was born with, the sense, for example, to go for a walk” (Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith). Or, I might add, the sense to keep moving forward, even when our destination still beyond our line of sight, trusting that we are going in the right direction.