The Golden Calf, as seen in the 1956 film "The Ten Commandments."
The Golden Calf, as seen in the 1956 film "The Ten Commandments."

Does your story of yourself help or hinder you?

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Ki Tisa

Exodus 30:11–34:35

Everyone has a story that defines who they are.

The question is: Is your story empowering you to maximize what God has given you? Or is your story causing you to fall short?

Steve Jobs was born out of wedlock and adopted as a baby. His peaceful early years were shattered one day when a neighborhood kid asked why his birth parents had gotten rid of him. Steve sat down on the grass, crying his eyes out at the thought he had been discarded. The truth hit him like a load of bricks.

His adoptive parents — sensitive, kind people who loved him — saw he was crying, saw his distress and told him that was emphatically not true. He wasn’t thrown away, they told him. Rather, they chose him.

That changed his life.

His story became, I’m chosen. I was the only one they picked. That is a much better story.

Which story was in fact true?

Whichever one you choose. Whichever one you decide is true is the one you will live. Our narrative will dictate where we go and how we get there.

In one sense, nothing changed when Steve’s parents told him their story of his adoption — the facts of his origins were no different. His birth mother had still decided to give him up for adoption, and his biological father maybe had never known he existed. Yet the story his adoptive parents gave him changed everything. It allowed him to reframe where he came from and fuel where he was going.

It totally transformed the way he understood himself. Instead of an unwanted outcast, he now was able to see he was special by virtue of his parents’ choice.

What was Moses’ story?

His “biography” reports that he was adopted as a baby by Pharaoh’s daughter. He grew up in the royal palace, dressed like an Egyptian, walked like an Egyptian and spoke like an Egyptian. His very name, “Moses,” was given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter. By upbringing, he was an Egyptian. But by birth he was a Jew.

So is Moses the Egyptian or is Moses the Jew?

It was his choice, and his story became, “I am a Jew, and I will rescue my people who are suffering.” That way of understanding his story changed Moses’ life. And it changed ours, too.

As it is with an individual, so it is with a nation. Every people has its story. What is the Jewish story?

Some 3,300 years ago on a hot day in the Sinai Desert, our ancestors built the Golden Calf. In response, God said to them, “After all I’ve done for you, you do this? You are a stiff-necked people. I will abandon you.”

But Moses intervened, as this week’s Torah section reports, and said, “Forgive us, because we are a stiff-necked people, and God forgave the people.”

The difficulty in Moses’ argument is self-evident: The very trait that Moses cites as a reason for God to forgive the Jewish people was the one driving God away from them in the first place! That doesn’t even begin to sound logical or sensible. If anything, you’d think he’d want to downplay this negative quality.

How are we to understand this?

Moses was asking for God to look upon the Jewish people with favor because what was then our greatest vice would one day become our most heroic virtue. He was asking God to forgive us, because we will change our story: In the chapters to come, that stubbornness will be not a tragic failing but a noble and defiant loyalty.

Moses was right.

We are a stiff-necked people, and it is because of that stubbornness that, despite all the odds, we have managed to survive. For 3,000 years, other nations have continually called upon us to disaffiliate from Judaism, but we have always refused. We have resisted their pressure and persecution.

We are a people awesome in our obstinacy. And that was the essence of Moses’ argument. It was a bet on us that has paid off.

That’s the story of the Jewish people: a transformation of a flaw into a strength. Redeployment as repentance and redemption

Each of us confronts a similar choice about what story we will tell ourselves. We all can change our stories at any time. We can all, in that way, transform our weaknesses into our greatest strengths.

May we write beautiful stories.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.