“A god who shall go before us”
Posted Wed, Feb 16, 2011

A great line making the Internet rounds has an Israeli saying: “Egyptian protesters-please don’t damage the pyramids; we will not rebuild.” Indeed, watching the recent tumultuous events in Egypt unfold, one can’t help but recall our own historic liberation from an earlier “Pharaoh” and the freedom we gained on leaving that country as the first step to people- and nationhood.

Interestingly, we have by coincidence been reading from the book of Shemoth-Exodus as the Tahrir Square uprising unfolded. As the Torah picks up the narrative this week in parsha Ki Thissa we will read the famous story of the building of the golden calf, “…a god who shall go before us” as the people demanded. Many readers of this fateful episode recoil at the actions of the recently-freed slaves and ask, “How could they have done such a thing?” I would suggest a more realistic question is, “How could we have expected anything more from them?”

Let me explain.

The ancient historian Heraclitus observed that, “Change is the only thing that’s permanent.” That may be true, but change can often come at a cost, depending on the capacity of the society to absorb the shifts and pressures that change can bring and the pace of that change.

In our age, technology is the spear-point of change, particularly in how we view the world and our place in it. In 1805, news of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, a naval battle that changed the course of history, took six weeks to arrive in North America. Today, we watch momentous events from around the world in real time. We’ve gone from land-lines to cell phones, from typewriters to laptops, all in an historical blink of time and new apps and features seem to come at us every day. How many of us have lamented that our latest electronic device seems obsolete by the time we get it home from the store?

Please understand, this is not a nostalgic lament for the “good ol’ days” by a Luddite who resists the latest gizmos (although, full disclosure, I do). Rather, it is an acknowledgement that change is happening on an unprecedented scale in our lifetime and the profound impact this is having on our society is not fully understood. We get glimpses of it, like when commentators point out the irony of social media actually producing less meaningful communication and more anomie and structural breakdown. But where we’re headed is uncharted water as we, in our own way, become enslaved to technology,140 characters at a time.

Interesting, then, that last year marked the 40th anniversary of the publication of an extraordinary book called Future Shock, in which Alvin Toffler speculated on the effects of the acceleration of change on human society. Toffler was aware of the phenomenon of “culture shock”, the condition experienced by travelers newly-immersed in a foreign culture in which the familiar institutions and psychological cues which help an individual to function in society are suddenly withdrawn and replaced by new ones that are strange or incomprehensible.

Toffler hypothesized that modern society was beginning to suffer from an analogous psychic condition which resulted from too much change within a culture in too little time. He called this condition “future shock” and defined it as “the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future.”

Toffler argued that the dislocating effects of future shock were doubly powerful because, unlike our overseas traveler, societies being pummeled by the accelerating rate of change over a short period of time have no comforting familiar environment to which they can safely return.

Back in 1970, Toffler speculated that the jarring impact of too-rapid change would profoundly affect the maintenance of faith in whatever had customarily provided structure and a sense of belonging, security and enrichment in society. Under the relentless pressure of accelerated change, in a world suddenly more complex and confusing, our faith in existing belief systems, especially religious ones, would be put to their most extreme test. He was not sanguine about how those systems would cope or whether old solutions would continue to be meaningful and relevant in a changing world.

As Jews, we have survived over the millennia against daunting challenges at least in part because the changes to the world order did not shake the foundational values and precepts of Torah. Over the centuries, Judaism has proven adaptable even as our traditional moral standards have become entrenched throughout much of the world as the Judeo-Christian ethic. Notwithstanding the ongoing concern today about nurturing communal identification and continuity of affiliation, for most of us these moral first principles provide at least some buffer against the future shock of contemporary society and the swiftly changing social patterns and attitudes we are experiencing.

Imagine if you will, however, the trauma of an earlier, more inchoate Jewish society which found itself unwillingly in the throes of Toffler’s worst-case scenario: Culture shock exponentially intensified by simultaneous future shock. Think about such a group with no strong corporate identity suddenly thrust into a terrifyingly hostile environment, stripped bare of all physical and psychological cues and structures and then, in the midst of all of this upheaval virtually compelled to replace their established patterns and mores with a set of new ones which would ultimately revolutionize human history. For the Israelites at Sinai, what have become comforting traditions for many of us were radically innovative concepts which, far from providing shelter from the psychic storm, drastically increased the disorientation crisis triggered by the Exodus.

Today, we rightly regard the Exodus from Egypt as the pivotal turning-point in Jewish history, a miraculous episode in which God liberated an unorganized, enslaved people from the mightiest empire of the age, launching the inexorable march to Jewish nationhood. Indeed, we celebrate the redemption from Egypt every single year and the Passover hagadah urges us to imagine that we, ourselves, we personally liberated.

This is important, because we often focus on the grand historical primacy of the Exodus and forget the fact that, at heart, it was a profound human saga. So it is in that context, and assuming we are talking about events that actually did occur, that I suggest we consider what actually happened to these people, the cumulative shocks to their collective system that hit them, as the story goes, in the space of a few weeks.
We can look back now and say that God freed the slaves to follow his word and strive for a higher purpose in pursuit of justice and righteousness. We can make the case that Shavuot has no fixed date other than seven weeks from the beginning of Passover because the giving of Torah imbues freedom with law and morality and thus completes the celebration of the Exodus.

But the Jews fleeing Egypt did so without clearly understanding the nature of their sudden release or their savior and the obligations attached to both. In his conversation with God, Moses argued that he needed to provide a name for his God to the Israelite slaves steeped in pagan culture and the worship of idols—identifiable things with names complete in time and space. He understood intuitively the paradox of the coming revolution: How can you appeal to the mind of a people when they are not ready?

The Midrash tells us that on their arrival in Egypt, Moses and Aaron were welcomed by the elders of the Israelite community, who declared themselves ready to follow them to the end. They set out for the Royal Palace but gradually, the closer they came, the elders changed their minds. With each step the group shrank so that on entering Pharaoh’s residence the two brothers stood alone. If the community elders had lost their courage and had such little faith in this unknown, unseen God what could one expect from the average member?

Essentially unconvinced, the slaves soon undergo a frenzied departure followed by the trauma of the near-disaster of Pharaoh’s chase. Wrenched from all that was familiar into a complete void, the Israelites actually clamour to return to the safety of their servitude. One can surmise that they were hungry and thirsty, but I would guess above all that they were fearful. I would imagine that they were afraid of freedom, afraid of the sudden absence of their well-regulated lives, afraid of not understanding their place in the hierarchy of daily existence.

And, really, who could blame them? They had nothing but an unknown prophet for a leader; provisional tents for dwelling and no set task other than to march into the desert wilderness toward an unknown goal.

To this culture shock is then added the future shock. Reeling from the trauma of the Exodus the children of Israel are presented with the kicker: a new and unprecedented set of ethical guidelines and standards of moral behaviour that ran counter to everything they had known in their lives. A working, inter-dependent covenant with a single, unseen, unnamed god who intervenes in human history? Laws prohibiting murder and adultery in a world steeped in violence and promiscuity? Religion a way of life, not merely worship? Far too much too absorb, in far too little time.

So with their one authority figure gone for an extended period of time-dead or not returning for all they knew-small wonder the people satisfied their most profound collective need under the pressure of multiple psychic shocks by violating perhaps the most difficult commandment for them to obey. They may have earlier pledged in unison that, “All the words that the Lord hath spoken we will do” but when the chips were down that proved impossible under the circumstances they had faced. They needed a god they could see, touch and name. Perhaps God knew something when he ultimately suspended the mountain over their heads to get their buy-in!

Forty years down the road, both the culture shock and the future shock had worn off. With the ex-slave cohort largely gone, the next generation of Israelites had been forged in the crucible of the wilderness into a unified social group, a cohesive community poised to enter Canaan and test their strength and the power of their God in battle. By that time, they were more than ready.

BY: Eric Vernon, Director of Government Relations and International Affairs, Canadian Jewish Congress (evernon@cjc.ca)

One of Canada's leading experts on antisemitism and human rights, Bernie M. Farber is the National Chief Executive Officer of Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC).

Mr. Farber has spent more than 20 years with CJC, battling hatred and racism and strengthening relationships with police services, government and other ethnic and faith communities across the country.

The recipient of countless awards, Mr. Farber is an associate member of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, and was recently selected by the Ontario government to serve as a member of the Hate Crimes Community Working Group. He also serves with the city of Vaughan Mayor's Task Force on Community Safety and Security and the York Regional Police Community Crime Prevention Advisory Council.

Mr. Farber is a published author and has contributed numerous articles on the Jewish political scene, human rights issues, the Holocaust, hate crime and white supremacy to newspapers and periodicals including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star, and many others.


Eric Vernon was born in Toronto in 1953. He was educated at the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo and Ohio State University, in history and political science.

For over twenty years, Mr. Vernon has been the principal lobbyist in Ottawa of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the lead advocacy organization for Canada's Jewish communities and UJA Federations.

In 1987, he established the Ottawa Advocacy Office of Canadian Jewish Congress and is currently the Director of Government Relations for CJC. In these capacities he has written numerous briefs, op-eds, position papers and correspondence on national legislation, public policy, and international issues affecting Canada and its Jewish community, including antisemitism, Israel and Holocaust commemoration.

Mr. Vernon has performed a wide range of advocacy duties with federal Members of Parliament and Senators, senior public servants, government agencies, members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of other non-governmental organizations. In conjunction with these duties he has staffed several Congress committees, represented CJC at inter-faith tables, organized conferences and been involved in legislative and social policy development for CJC on a variety of domestic and international issues.