The trials of golden calf syndrome

My experience with rabbinic smicha testing is certainly one to which any rabbi can relate.
Months of intense study followed by weeks of intense preparation culminated in a fateful, exhilarating day when an elderly Jewish sage, sitting at arm’s length, posed query after detailed query in the minutiae of Jewish law to a then-young yeshiva student shaking nervously in his chair.
I remember the anticipation I felt waiting to hear my results, and the wave of euphoria and feelings of accomplishment that washed over me upon hearing that I had passed the examination with distinction. And then, almost as quickly as that blissful day came to a close, a new emotion crept in to fill euphoria’s place. It was the “comedown” that often follows the “high.”
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, past executive vice president of the Orthodox Union and a practicing psychotherapist, describes this phenomenon beautifully in his recently published collection of essays, The Person in the Parasha (see essay on Ki Tisa).
“It is as if, now that the goal with which one had been long preoccupied has been reached, life has become meaningless. There is nothing further to do, no ongoing purpose. A pervasive sense of emptiness ensues.”
And as to our response to this new emotional reality, R’ Weinreb adds, “The struggle to fill that emptiness is fraught with danger. In my own case, the emptiness thankfully passed in relatively short order, with no harm done and no unusual ‘acting out’ on my part. But others in similar predicaments frequently attempt to fill that emptiness in ways that result in great, and sometimes tragic, difficulties.”
It is the keen understanding of this psychological mechanism that Rabbi Weinreb utilizes to explain the seemingly incomprehensible sin that is the golden calf.
After all, how does a people who had just received the Torah and heard the voice of the Almighty at Sinai amid thunder, lightning and fire reduce themselves to the worship of a golden heifer mere weeks later? Can it be that a nation steeped in the rarefied air of authentic holiness and standing on the summit of spirituality can so quickly descend into the depths of idolatry?
Rabbi Weinreb argues that as inconceivable as it may sound, this follows the patterns of normal human phenomena:
“People are capable of attaining greatness, but they are not capable of sustaining greatness. They can achieve ‘highs’ of all kinds, but they cannot maintain those ‘highs.’ There is an inevitable ‘comedown.’”
So, what is the solution to this natural human dilemma? Is there a way to ward off the “comedown” that follows the “high”?
R’ Weinreb seems to take comfort in the knowledge that these changes are normal, noting that “almost all human experiences are transitory and are followed by feelings of hollowness.” He encourages us to “humbly accept our descent, our frustrating failures and limitations, and persist in climbing the mountain.”
I must admit, though, that as much as I found Rabbi Weinreb’s approach to the sin of the golden calf revelatory and insightful, I couldn’t help but feel let down by this “surrender” to fate. Might there be a way to escape this maddening cycle of inevitable “lows” that supplant our ambitious “highs”? Is acceptance of the natural roller-coaster-like nature of life the best we can hope for?
Beyond that, how are we to make sense of those extraordinary individuals who seem impervious to the “lows” that plague most of us? Examine the many great rabbis and sages who, having already accomplished many lifetimes’ worth of scholarly understanding and accomplishment, persisted without pause, toiling in the study hall all of the days of their lives.
Consider the Kobe Bryants of the athletic world who win championship after championship and remain as hungry and motivated as they were at the beginning of their careers.
And what of the giants of the business world who remain insatiable in their hunger for “new” and “improved,” never gratified by their past accomplishments or tired of the race?
If we are to trust our eyes it would seem that these exceptional figures had discovered some magical elixir, some immunization against the “lows” that plague common man. What, then, do they have that we do not, and how can we too share in their life-altering secret?
I believe the answer to this question lies in the unique way these individuals perceive goals. Instead of considering each realized goal as an endpoint in its own right, a “high” attached to an inevitable “low,” they valued each accomplishment as a large step toward a more significant goal, one of virtual perfection that they would likely never realize. Each accomplishment was worthy of celebration, but with so much left to be done, the feelings of emptiness or aimlessness were kept permanently at bay.
We need to approach our achievements less like winning the battle and more like taking the yellow jersey in a stage of the Tour De France. We are certainly justified in celebrating the day’s victory, but unless we keep our eye on the prize ahead of us and muster the strength to ride with a similar sense of urgency the very next day, we cannot hope to take home the ultimate crown.
With an approach like this our “highs” remain “high,” but our emotional pendulum holds steady.
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