When I was a boy, I was on Moses’ team, which stands to reason. Clearly, our teacher and the rabbi were on his side, too, and my classmates and I were not only distressed but also puzzled that the Jews should set up a golden calf and worship it, just at the time when Moses was up on the mountain getting the commandments from God. What irony! Or at the very least, what impatience!
But every year, the passage comes round again, and the weather changes and the view clarifies. I now understand that it was not a good thing, maybe, but it wasn’t so wicked or stupid as I so arrogantly supposed when I was 11 or 12. In the first place, it wasn’t just a random statue, and it wasn’t, probably, even a calf. Call it a young bullock, at the first flowering of its strength. And then think of the caves of Lascaux with those paintings, particularly the one of the bull. That strength and sexiness are what the Spanish worship, still, in the bull ring. Not that the rabbi was ever to make the case for it that way, but it has a certain appeal. I didn’t yet know when I was that age about Jason and the golden fleece. (Ares, the ram, still has his place among the zodiacal signs — and that is a kind of worship, no?) Le Veau d’Or is a restaurant, or used to be, and it sounds a little more exotic that way. We take for granted things that are at least as weird, all the time.
The Jews didn’t know this yet, and it is a complicated question even as to whether God knew it yet, but none of them was going to make it to the Promised Land. There will be 40 years of wandering to wipe out the generation of the ex-slaves, who God didn’t think were up to the job of making a new country, a new people and a new religion. So it seems maybe a little less one-sided. They did, indeed, give up on God, but he gives up on them, too. And in that light, I wonder what was the appeal for them of sticking with the program? They were going to die out there, every one of them, and they had to believe enough to suppose that this trek would be worth it for the sake of their children. (Well, okay, they’re Jews, who do things like that — but it’s still asking a lot.)
There is a story in the oral tradition about how Moses was supposed to be up on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights, but the Jews got the count wrong because they didn’t start from sunset, and so when he was a day late (or when they thought he was) they gave up and built the golden calf, but I think that’s too melodramatic and too obvious. It is a way of dramatizing their impatience, but we can take impatience as a given. “Forty days and 40 nights” is an expression that is not supposed to be literal but means “a very long time.” Like the “40 years,” for that matter. But impatience is clearly what caused their despair.
But literal or figurative, 40 years is an impossible concept for an 11-year-old. There are many inconveniences to being old, but among the small compensations there is the gift of understanding — at least of the idea of time. You get the perspective of what a lifetime can mean — of waiting, for instance, and then either disappointment or the sometimes greater chagrin that comes with getting what you were waiting for and discovering that it wasn’t what you thought. You look back at what you know of your parents’ and grandparents’ lives and can see some patterns that you couldn’t possibly have guessed when you were a kid. And this kind of growth can gloss a text — even, or especially, a biblical text.
So, if we think of our grandparents or great-grandparents who came here to a “promised land” where the streets were supposed to be paved with gold, and where it took for most of us the sacrifice of a generation for the children to reap benefits of being American, then we can perhaps summon up a little rachmonis for those backsliders in the desert. Suffering is not good for the character. Endless postponement of what we hope for can be corrosive to the soul. Our grandparents and great-grandparents were toughened by the experience, but they were also, in some cases, deformed by it.
Why do I try to make a case for the worshippers of the golden calf? Out of mere perversity? (Although that is not always a bad thing, and it can allow us sometimes to see the other side of the question.) But because, after inflicting a terrible punishment — 3,000 killed and then a plague — God forgave them. And if he could, we should.
David R. Slavitt’s latest collection of poetry is “William Henry Harrison and Other Poems” (Louisiana State University Press, 2006). His translation of “The Theban Plays of Sophocles” will appear next month from Yale University Press.