Rational people love to make sure that we have good, secure and predictable lives. We want to have good pensions, to eliminate surprises, and especially downside risks.
The problem with our instinct to seek and secure security is that it is all, ultimately, an illusion. Death comes to us all: we cannot avoid it. More than this, the purpose of life is not merely to live, but to make our lives meaningful, to improve ourselves, our loved ones, and the world around us. So we must grow, or we have wasted the only opportunity we have to really live.
Our language is full of similar truisms: “Needs, must”; “Necessity is the mother of invention”; “No pain, no gain.”
These are all fine in a vacuum, but they miss a key element: it is through relationships that we grow. The best teachers are not institutions, but people. The best marriages involve two different people who never stop investing in each other. And the best religions are those that require us to think about G-d wants from us, how we can grow and change to be better partners with the Creator in this all-important journey.
Relationships, however, are hard. They require soul searching, being subjected to criticisms that cut deep, being willing to consider and even embrace profoundly challenging changes. Relationships are so intimidating that many people give up on even trying to have deep relationships with other people, choosing their cats or dogs or even their cars or interior décor instead.
And here’s the rub: people who are secure and safe do not grow. The illusion of self-sufficiency (and security) is a major impediment to personal growth. We only reach out to others when we are not self-sufficient, when we are scared enough by the alternative that we have no choice but to hold hands and walk off that cliff. Without insecurity, we do not take the risks needed to initiate, sustain and grow relationships.
Our desire for permanence in a constantly-shifting world is understandable, but it is anathema for personal development. Ultimately, the world is not improved through huge buildings, or great institutions or enormous bureaucracies. Those things can all be useful implements for sustaining a way of life, but they are often impediments for personal or public growth. Static civilizations are dying civilizations, though that decline and death can happen so slowly that we miss it unless we look for large historical arcs – the decline of Greek intellectual civilization, or the extended quagmire of the Roman Empire. In the more modern world, we can see how government bureaucracies today, from public schools to the EPA, go from dynamic and proactive collections of earnest well-meaning people to hide-bound institutions that only exist for the purpose of perpetuating themselves.
In the Torah, the Jewish people complain that Moses, “that man,” went up on the mountain, and they cannot handle the insecurity of not knowing what happened, or how to secure their future. They crave a permanent physical manifestation, something beautiful and great, something that, unlike leaders, is not capable of wandering off and disappearing from their lives. They want a leader who cannot die.
And so they make the golden calf and worship it. And they are so very happy with the creation that they celebrate the calf. It is comforting that they now have a manifestation of a G-d. Golden calves, like nature, are much easier to understand than a G-d who has no physical manifestation. In the Calf, the people have found their permanence.
What they did not know is that Moses, at the same time, was receiving precisely what the people said they wanted – the permanent tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed by G-d Himself. It was the ultimate symbol of an unchanging compact, a divine and eternal gift that would change the relationship between G-d and man for all time.
What happens? When Moses sees the Jewish desire for security, for predictable permanence, he destroys the tablets. He eliminates the very idea of a static relationship, of a symbol that can pass from generation to generation venerated by each in turn. Moses makes it clear that the only way for Jews to exist in this world is if we stop trying to create a false sense of security, but instead embrace lives of insecurity, of uncertainty. Lives in which we are incentivized to grow and improve and make something of ourselves.
The Torah is full of similar commandments and reminders: we are forbidden from the “safe” way to make money, by charging interest. Loving others, and especially strangers, are commandments to force us to stay outside of our comfort zone. The commandment to live in Israel is itself to force us to “look up” for our sustenance, as Israel lacks the dependable “clockwork” agriculture of Egypt. So personal and national growth are baked into the cake and irrevocably tied to perpetuating insecurity.
Jewish history is full of Jews forgetting this basic lesson and reverting to form. To take but the most prominent example: The tabernacle became the temple, and then Jews started building it bigger and bigger – even though the core components and features were the same ones that could be carried by hand and traveled through the wilderness. Did the Temple really need to be grand, or was it just a concession to misplaced human priorities? I suggest that making the Temple enormous and impressive was actually similar to the sin of the Golden Calf, and for the same reasons.
On the other hand, the Torah itself, as well as the corpus of Jewish Law, the Talmud and the commentaries over the millennia, are testaments to insecurity. Judaism is not a “paint by numbers” religion; it requires investment and involvement by each generation, parsing and arguing at every step of the way.
If we are insecure enough so that we are forced to invest deeply in relationships with other people and with G-d, then we are able to grow and make something of our lives.