What causes burnout? Recent studies suggest that burnout is not necessarily related to the number of hours that people work. We can toil for lengthy periods of time without much rest if we feel that our efforts are making a significant difference in the world. But even a little labor can quickly bring on burnout if it seems to produce no significant results.
This truth is powerfully illustrated in our weekly Torah portion, Ki Tisa, which describes the events around the building of the golden calf. Moses spends forty days on Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah from God, then heads down the mountain with great strength and energy, ready to bring the Word to his beloved Israelite people. But when he sees what they have done in his absence, constructing and then worshiping an idol of gold, he becomes both enraged and despondent. As the text tells the story: “As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the [people] dancing, he grew furious. He hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.”
This account raises one difficulty: even though he is understandably angry, how can Moses purposefully destroy the tablets that are God’s own handiwork? The midrash in Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer offers an ingenious answer to this problem. It says that at the very moment when Moses beheld the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, the letters flew off the stones and they became too heavy for him to bear. In other words, Moses did not throw the tablets—he dropped them out of exhaustion. This gets him off the hook for demolishing God’s words—for God’s words are no longer on the tablets when they shatter. It also suggests that Moses was a victim of burnout. As Rabbi Harold Kushner interprets the scene: “When Moses felt he was bringing God’s word to a people eager to receive it, he was capable of doing something difficult and demanding. When he had reason to suspect that his efforts were in vain, the same task became too hard for him.”
As our portion ends, Moses and God and the people of Israel are all reconciled. The sacred labor of building the mishkan, the portable sanctuary, continues and takes up the rest of the book of Exodus. God and Moses learn that their labors are not in vain—but that progress is incremental, and often filled with setbacks. The Israelites are given a second chance—and this time, fare better. Each side learns to see its work as meaningful, and that sense of purpose will sustain them for forty years in the desert.
As we now move from Purim to Pesach, to the season of our liberation, may we find meaning in our labors and with that meaning, renewed strength to build a better future.