The morning of erev Rosh Hashanah of my second year of rabbinical school, I realized around 11 o’clock that I had no challot. Hoping that I would manage to make it down the mountain into Los Angles in time to buy some before the bakeries closed for the holiday, I decided to go the shorter way, down the canyon roads into LA. It’s actually a much prettier drive, so I was enjoying the ride as I followed the road past a curve, with the mountain going up beside me to my right, and dropping off into the San Fernando Valley past the other lane to my left.
The first moment when my car skidded, I thought I was just going too fast on Mulholland Drive, which is very curvy, although I’m not prone to that, especially not on mountain roads. But then when I started fishtailing on a perfectly dry road, I realized something was wrong with my car. Still, I wasn’t particularly worried until I saw the car oncoming the other way, and realized that I would have to get control of the car very quickly if I was to avoid hitting the other car.
The problem was that my steering wheel had stopped responding. I could turn it, but nothing happened. I felt only a few seconds of relief when I realized the other car had stopped in time to avoid me. Then I realized that I had somehow turned the car enough that it was going to go head first down the mountain. I had only enough time to think, I’m going to die, I hope it doesn’t hurt, as my car went over the side. I watched as I went over the side. I dropped only a hundred yards or so when I hit a tree head on, and this turned the car enough to the side that when it flipped over, it went over around the side, and not head over tail, and so that after a few rolls, it eventually came to a stop halfway down the mountain, caught on some scrub.
I found, to my amazement, that I was still alive, and conscious, and that the car had stopped. The windshield wipers had somehow come on. As I tuned them off, I was glad that I had been wearing my seatbelt. And then I thought, I’d better get out of the car, what if the weight of the car pulls it off the bush and it keeps falling the rest of the way. So I tried to open the door. It wouldn’t open - it turns out that rolling the car had bent the frame so that the front doors had been pushed behind the frame and stuck shut. So I thought for a minute and rolled down the window. I was very glad they were manual windows. I got the window open, and wiggled out, hoping that the car wouldn’t choose that moment to fall further. It didn’t.
Then I realized that I still had to get back up to the road. I looked up the side of the mountain, and thought. Well. I guess I‘d better get started, it’s along walk home. As I pulled myself up tree by scrub to the road, I saw that the woman I had narrowly avoided hitting was sitting by the side of the road with a cell phone. I walked over and asked her if I could use her phone. Yaaaah!!! She yelled. I almost collapsed on the spot. What!!???
She said, I saw your car go over and I thought you were dead. I was calling an ambulance. Apparently she didn’t expect to see me, and I had startled her.
The ambulance never did show up, but a fire truck came with a paramedic, who took my blood pressure and gave me a cursory once over to make sure I didn’t need to be hospitalized. Since I couldn’t reach anyone on erev Rosh Hashanah (by this time it was a good bit later) the firemen gallantly offered to take me home, even though technically they weren’t supposed to, since I was on their way. If I’d been say, five, I would have been more pleased about the ride in the fire truck, but as it was, I was grateful enough.
When I got back to the campus of the seminary (which was where I was living at the time) I went and pretty much collapsed on one of my neighbors. When, later on, people heard about my little escapade there was a lot of “Wow, did you feel like the hand of God was with you?” and I have to admit, I answered rather snappishly that if God had had anything to do with it, at least God could have had the courtesy to prevent my wheel bearing from snapping, rather than sending me careening down a mountain.
But nevertheless, one of the things that I began doing after that day was to start saying the blessing every morning, “asher yatzar et ha’adam b’chochma” traditionally the blessing one says after going to the bathroom, that thanks God for creating our bodies exactly as they are, for if one hole was open where it ought not to be, or one hole closed where it should be open, we wouldn’t be able to survive even a moment.
Now you would think, that an experience like that would make an indelible mark on a person. Maybe change them forever. And that brings me to today’s Torah portion.
It is as astonishing to many of the rabbis as it is to us that so soon after the incredible miracles, and the grandeur of the Sinai revelation, Israel would create a golden calf. The language of many commentators reflects the absolute astonishment that we feel when we read this section of the Torah.
Our portion this week tells us: (Shmot 32:1):
“Arise and make for us elohim that they will go before us, since this man Moshe who brought us out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
But the Torah makes pretty clear that such a thing is imaginable. The great commentator Nehama Leibowitz points out that “If you look in the first book of Kings (chapter 18) where the story of Elijah’s duel with the false prophets on Mt. Carmel is described, we find a parallel to the story of the Golden calf…The Israelites who had seen fire descending from heaven in answer to the prophet’s prayer and who had fervently proclaimed; “The Lord He is God” (the declaration made by the Jewish people at the most solemn moment of the year at the termination of Yom Kippur), those same individuals repudiated [God’s] message [the next day], persecuted the true prophets, broke down their altars and reverted to their previous idolatry. Elijah, the hero of Mt Carmel was forced to flee for his life to Mt. Sinai and hide in the desert.”
Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed refers to the ‘inevitability of gradualness’ which must distinguish any lasting transformation in human character. He says that the reason that the children of Israel had to wander forty years in the desert is for this very reason: He says, “It is not in the nature of humans, reared in slavery, in bricks and straw and the like, to wash their hands of their dirt and suddenly rise up and fight with the giants of Canaan. God in His wisdom contrived that the wander in the wilderness until they had become schooled in courage, since it is well known that physical hardships toughen and the converse produce faintheartedness. A new generation was born which had not been accustomed to slavery and degradation.”
Of course, this explanation begs the question of what slavery was –was not slavery hard labor, as described in the Torah? And if it was hard labor, shouldn’t it have produced the courage that Maimonides claims for physical toughness?
Rather, I want to suggest that it’s not physical toughness and courage that are the problem. In fact, courage is the least of it. The problem is one of miracles. Judaism has never been religion big on miracles, and partly this is the reason why: sudden crisis doesn’t really change people.
There are lots of stories about the deathbed conversion and the sudden change of heart ascribed to miracles in other religions, but Judaism doesn’t really get very interested in miracles. Or at least not in the kind of thing that we usually think of as miracles.
If you look at the blessing that we say in the morning just before we read the Shma, you may notice something a little strange. This blessing, which praises God as adon haniflaot – lord of wonders- doesn’t follow this description with say, the “God who tore the sea apart,” or “the god who caused the burning bush,” but rather, it says, “Lord of wonders, who day after day renews creation.” Judaism doesn’t deny that there are miracles, it does however, want to remind us that miracles are not those things which upend the order of creation: miracles are usually much more prosaic. They happen every day, every moment. The are the miracles of new life, of the earth revolving on its axis, the fact that we’re exactly the right distance from the sun to support life, neither too close and hot to the sun, nor too far and distant.
I want to have a bit of sympathy for the Israelites. As Maimonides reminds us, they had been slaves in Egypt and were unaccustomed to freedom. And the problem with that isn’t that they weren’t brave enough. Rather the problem is a problem of habit. Way back at the beginning of the book of Shmot, Maimonides explains the phrase of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart that “When the Torah recounts the first five plagues, it does not say that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart - only that it was hardened, meaning that he did it himself.” Each repetition of Pharaoh's persistent obstinacy made it less likely that he would eventually listen to the word of God. That is, we are creatures of habit. The first time we do something unethical, our conscience bothers us, but each time we repeat it, our conscience grows quieter and fainter, until it ceases to speak. The reverse is true as well. It’s difficult to do the right thing the first time. But each time we repeat it, it becomes easier and easier, until it becomes habit. The Israelites were like pharaoh in that way, as we all are: they were accustomed to behaving a certain way, and a few miracles aren’t enough to change that habit.
That brings me back to the story I began with. I think I mentioned that as a result of the car accident, I was moved to begin saying the asher yatzar blessing every morning. And I did, very regularly, at least for a few months. And then I missed a day. I was late that morning getting up, maybe, and had to hurry to minyan, and catch up to where everyone was. And then maybe another morning, and another. And after a while, I wasn’t really any more regular about it, than I had been beforehand. I mean, it’s a great blessing, and I still said it at the other usual times, but I wasn’t so meditative about it in the morning. It stopped being a moment for me that I stopped to think about how fortunate I was in surviving what could have been a really terrible accident instead of just a totaled car. I didn’t feel lucky to have survived every morning. I stopped having the persistent feeling that I was really dead, and just didn’t realize it yet. The fading of awe is in many ways a blessing. Who wants to have all the worst moments of their lives always fresh in their minds even if it also means that the best moments are, too?
And the rabbis recognized this about human nature. “Miracles, however awe-inspiring cannot change human nature. The can only temporarily shake the human soul out of its every day concepts, but they cannot effect a lasting transformation.” (Nehama Leibowitz). The rabbis realized that we are all embedded in our daily habits, and that those habits create us. That’s why Judaism emphasizes behavior and not so much belief. As Jews, we are obligated to accept the yoke of heaven and the yoke of mitzvot: the rabbis understand that to be what the sh’ma is: (We first accept God’s sovereignty by saying the paragraph that begins Shema yisrael adonai elohainu adonai echad, and then we follow it with the paragraph which begins with v’haya im sh’moa, which the rabbis understand as our accepting the yoke, the obligation of mitzvot). We repeat this every day to remind ourselves of our obligations. Even just getting so far as saying the shma twice a day is a dedication to task that we don’t all make. But it’s the beginning of molding our behavior, it’s a first step. The next step is actually adding mitzvot. We often feel that we ought to feel something when we do mitzvot. We ought to get some kind of feel good reward, or at least draw a salary. But that’s not how it works. You have to develop the habits first. They have to become part of you. It’s when you have added enough pieces that the system as a whole begins to take root in you that there’s a spiritual payoff. Sometimes. As my rav Elliott Dorff says, even professional players don’t hit a home run every time.
The Israelites are only human. Raised in slavery, they are slaves no longer to pharaoh, but they remain enslaved to themselves. They haven’t yet shaken off the habits of their desires, the chains of their minds. To paraphrase George Clinton of Funkadelic, “Free your mind and your tush will follow.” Today, I don’t recite asher yatzar because of the feeling I have at surviving the accident pushes me to do it. It took an assertion of my will to begin again saying this blessing every morning: instead, I say the blessing to remind me that I should feel grateful, whether I do or not. And often in invoking the words that at one point were so full of feelings, I can arouse those feelings again, and experience the awe of the commonplace. Not that God put out Her hand and swept me up in a miracle counter to nature, but the miracle of human safety devices, a one-piece frame, and thanks that olam noheg k’minhago – the world goes according to natural law – the everyday miracles of habit, like putting on a seatbelt.