This is Life as a Sacred Text, an expansive, loving, everybody-celebrating, nobody-diminished, justice-centered voyage into one of the world’s most ancient and holy books. We’re working our way through Exodus these days. More about the project here, and to subscribe, go here.
Let's talk about trauma, terror and the Golden Calf for a moment, shall we?
Let’s start by going back a few steps. The Israelites were in Egypt for 400+ years, enslaved for part of that time, at least a couple of generations—we know that the infant Moses was part of Pharaoh's genocidal design, which he started only after his oppression with hard labor didn't succeed in stopping the Israelites’ flourishing to the degree to which he would have liked.
It's a lot.
Then, after 7 weeks of liminality in the desert, they get to Mt. Sinai, and Revelation.
As you remember:
"Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for God had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder..... All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. 'You speak to us,' they said to Moses, 'and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.'” (Exodus 19:18-19, 20:15-16)
This divine revelation is SO MUCH, and the Israelites are OK with Moses going and getting Torah and telling them what's in it, but need a break from all this raw theophany.
This might a useful time to note that Moses had a unique experience vis-à-vis his Israelite siblings.
He was raised in Pharaoh's palace, remember?
By the time he was an adult he knew he was an Israelite, but he didn't grow up with the same experiences of oppression and trauma.
There's a lot to unpack in what it means to have a leader for liberation who isn't carrying the same experiential trauma as everyone else in the community (though he may have in an epigenetic sense)—I’m not making any definitive statements about that, I don’t think I can or should. Just noting that, in this case, Moses’ lived experiences were so different from EVERYONE ELSE'S out there in the desert.
So Moses, the guy who'd told them that getting out of Egypt was possible, who got them out of Egypt, who arranged with God for all the stuff to happen in the desert these last 7 weeks, that guy—he goes all the way up Mt. Sinai and leaves everyone down there at the base, waiting.
And so now the Israelites have been taken out of Egypt, had a profound but terrifying experience, and then their leader bounces, and they're supposed to just... chill.
And it's one week. Another week. Still no Moses.
Adaptive Leadership is a concept developed by a couple of guys from the Harvard School of Government, Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky.
They talk about how people want authority to show up and provide protection, direction and order. And, they argue, real (adaptive, they call it) leadership is about helping people face the inevitable feelings of loss that come with change, to see and accept that now won't—simply can’t—be like how it was then.
They talk about the difference between technical and adaptive challenges. Technical fixes are ones where the solution can be known; you maybe need to call in the right expert, but there’s clarity to be had about what to do.
Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are ones that put us onto entirely new terrain.
Nobody has ever solved this problem before, not in this way, with these factors. Or maybe it’s just new terrain for us, but there’s an existential change in there, something that alters our identity.
Since the solution is unknown, addressing adaptive challenges involves experimentation, iteration, failure, disorientation, and conflict, all of which must often be uncomfortably endured for a long time. It’s not comfortable. It’s really really hard to stay in that place. It takes the right leader to help usher people through this process.
In one talk, for example, Linsky talks about his aging mother needing to stop driving for safety reasons. If he related to her as though this was a technical issue —“Oh, you can just take this bus line instead, I got you a bus pass!”— without acknowledging the very real emotional stuff at stake for her, the loss and identity change that it involved for her—chances are that she’d just wind up getting behind the wheel again at some point.
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So now the guy that the Israelites had been looking to for protection, direction and order... is up on top of Mt. Sinai. And he's been gone. And the Israelites are no longer in the horrific, oppressive, but, at least, familiar space of Egypt. They're in the desert, alone. With no way to make sense of everything that's just happened.
And who's been left in charge? Aaron. Who, unlike Moses, did not grow up in a palace. He is every bit as traumatized as the people he is supposed to be leading; he is also dealing with and processing the same stuff they are.
We're in Exodus 32 now:
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 man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.”
Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”
And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”
When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron announced: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of God!”
Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance. (Exodus 32:1-6)
In other words, the people say, "Let's make a deity who can lead us, who can provide protection, direction and order, because who knows if Moses is even coming back ever."
He is longing for this too. They make the golden calf and say, "This is the god who took us out of Egypt!" they just transfer all their FEELINGS onto this object.
And this calf may be just like the objects they saw worshiped in Egypt. Familiar, known. Not like all that terrifying thunder and lighting and revelation business that was new and scary! And then led to us being left alone! And scared!
This? This we know.
The golden calf was an attempt to create a technical solution to an adaptive problem.
The Israelites could not—emotionally, psychologically, spiritually—handle all the loss and change they had just undergone. They wanted a quick fix, a known answer to this problem. But this was an adaptive challenge—one that put them on entirely new terrain.
And there was a leadership void. There was nobody there to help them bridge this loss, to make sense of how profoundly different today was than yesterday, to hold their fears about what wouldn't be the same. So they rushed in to make today just like yesterday. But it was false.
COVID-19 is, has been, an adaptive challenge. Masking has been, all this time, an adaptive challenge. Getting people to change their habits, and to not rush “back to normal,” in ways that encourage variants and a new round of rising cases, and that harm people who are chronically ill or immunosuppressed (again and again and again!) has been an adaptive challenge.
We have all been part of a global mass trauma.
It has impacted us all, destabilized us all, on individual and communal and larger-scale levels.
We can see all of the hallmarks of trying to impose technical solutions play out over the last few years. We see how this is an unprecedented problem, we see how our country and culture has not faced the loss that comes not only with radical change, but with mass death, mass disability, has not engaged the the discomfort, has pushed again and again into the desire to make things how they were, has refused to understand that some things may never again be.
We can see how our relationship to collective responsibility and relationships—and work, and socializing, and so many things—may be forever altered in some ways. Here, too, there is loss. And in other ways, it is simply change—an opportunity for things to become different, perhaps more whole, more just, than it has yet been.
The profound backlash we are experiencing right now as a society right now: moving backwards on abortion, on trans health access and rights, on teaching accurate history, on even “saying gay,” is not merely about this doubling down after COVID, but there may be a connection. (It’s also obviously about white supremacy, patriarchy, a lot of other things). But I wonder if the force with which we’re experiencing all this isn’t connected.
Sometimes in the leadership vacuum, real leadership emerges to help move people in the correct next direction.
And sometimes in moments of destabilization, in times of trauma and fear, when there is no true adaptive leadership to help people face the loss that comes with change, the people willing to take your gold and call it god show up and claim to have all the answers—no matter how many people they hurt along the way.
We have long needed leadership that is brave and bold and that holds the pain and grief and fear that people have been feeling and helps them to see a vision of what's possible that is new, that is the change that is needed—that is not clinging to a past that will never again be.
The Golden Calf is about a failure in adaptive leadership.
Moses’ failure, and God’s.
A lack of understanding of where the people where, what they needed. What they could and couldn’t handle in this moment.
It is not the Israelites' fault that they were left without the leadership they needed. Aaron was just as panicked and traumatized as they were. He did not have the necessary tools to navigate his own feelings about this moment, let alone help his whole community with theirs. (The difference between Aaron and the people passing harmful legislation now is intent, I’d wager. We can suggest that Aaron did it for the power, a calculated attempt to overthrow Moses and take the reins, but that’s never how I’ve read this story.)
But still, this episode invites us to ask, now:
How can we hold each other in times of unknowns?
What do we need to do to let go of who we have been so that we can become who we still yet can be?
How can we make our decisions about our future from a place of vision, not fear?
How do we fight to keep people safe from the false gods threatening to devour us all?
Even if we don't have all the answers now, even if there are some answers that cannot yet be known, how can we use the ways in which this time invites us to expand our understanding of what's possible?
How can we integrate the best of what we know to be true into how we live?
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