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Torah Reflections

Ki Tissa: Imagining Catastrophes

With this week’s Torah reading, Ki Tissa, we return to narrative drama. Moses was alone on Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah, but the Children of Israel were having a different experience. Forty days had passed with no word from their liberator, leader and conduit to God. It’s no surprise that they were anxious:

When the people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and said to him: “Come make us a god who will go before us, because that man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt–we don’t know what has become of him.” (Exodus 32:1)

In the absence of Moses, they sought comfort in old, familiar religious forms. Aaron acquiesced and joined them in creating a tangible representation of the Divine in the form of a golden calf.  Jewish tradition judges the Children of Israel harshly for this apostasy, but I am more inclined to sympathize with them. Because I, too, am a worrier.

Ki Tissa’s Imagined Catastrophe

Moses had been gone a long time. He’d never said when he would return, but still. Forty days is a long time, and had I been there I would have had the same questions. I know this because I start worrying whenever someone is late. This is such a common experience for me that I’ve discovered four predictable stages of worry.

First comes curiosity. I wonder what might have caused the delay. Then comes annoyance. My jaw tightens, and I may start drumming my fingers on the table as my level of irritation increases. Then comes anger: I start planning the indignant speech I will give when she finally arrives–unless of course she stands me up. As time passes with no word, I enter the fear stage. My belly clenches and my mind races: should I call the police or the hospital? What if he’s lying on the side of a road somewhere…” I’m projecting a future in which I’ve lost my loved one, and I’m terrified by my own imaginings.

Just like the Israelites. This verse of Ki Tissa reads, “We don’t know what has become of him.” But it really means, “We don’t know what will become of us.” They are projecting a future in which they are leaderless and alone. And that scares the heck out of them.

The funny thing about catastrophizing is that it offers the illusion of control. Maybe by thinking about the worst-case scenario, we can prepare ourselves. Or maybe we are indulging in a form of magical thinking in which our worrying has a protective power. Or perhaps we’ve discovered that thinking takes us away from the direct, physical and unpleasant experience of fear.

There are better strategies. The Israelites might have fantasized instead of catastrophizing. Perhaps Moses was receiving the secrets of the universe that would insure the prosperous future that had been promised to them (which, according to the Bible, he was). Maybe my friend is delayed because he just heard that he was going to be a grandfather, or that she had inherited a couple of million of unexpected dollars.

An even better practice is to ask, “What is happening right now?” The truth of the moment for the Israelites was that Moses had not yet returned. Though understandable, their fears were based on an expectation that he would have returned earlier and an imagined future without him. In my case, the truth of the moment is that the person I’m expected has not arrived, and I’m afraid of a future without them.

As Ki Tissa shows, I come from an ancient lineage of worriers, so I come by these mental habits naturally. But I’ve discovered that it is possible to change my mind. Sure, my thoughts still tend to go in a catastrophic direction, but I no longer take my thoughts quite so seriously. That makes it much easier to return my attention to my actual experience, to touch into the awareness that fills and surrounds me, and to taste the peace that is always there.

May you be blessed…

May you be blessed with the wisdom to see the difference between what is and what might be. May the stories you create bring you peace instead of suffering. And may you see the stories that you create as the idols that they are.

Ameyn, keyn yehi ratzon. Amen, may it be so.

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