By: Rabbi Daniel Aronson
Ongoing instructions for the building of the Tabernacle open this week’s parashah before the Torah lays on us a big, unpleasant surprise. In the beginning of the parashah, God directs Moses to take a census of all male adults 20 years of age and older by collecting from each, rich or poor, a half shekel (Ex. 30:11-16). Revenues from this census would be applied to the building of the Tabernacle. Next, God orders the fashioning of a bronze laver, from which the priests would draw water to wash their hands and feet in preparation for entering the Tent of Meeting (Ex. 30:18-21). Moses then receives the secret recipe for making the incense and oil for anointing the Tabernacle and is then reminded about who among the people will be responsible for constructing which parts of the Tabernacle (Ex. 31:1-11). This initial section of the parashah closes with a commandment to work on the Tabernacle for six days and to observe a day of complete rest on the seventh, under penalty of death (Ex. 31:12-17). God then prepares to send Moses back down the mountain with two tablets that God has personally inscribed (Ex. 31:18). All is well and good.
That is until we come to the story of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32:1-35). The story goes like this: While Moses communes with God atop Mt. Sinai for forty days, the Israelites grow anxious and restless. They have become used to having Moses as their intermediary between themselves and God, and now that Moses is gone, perhaps for good, in their minds, they fear their connection to God has been severed. Thus, they press Aaron into creating an object that will symbolize God’s presence, an object common to the worship of the Ancient Near East: a golden calf.
We should bear in mind that the golden calf – or any idol, for that matter — was not considered a god in its own right. Rather, the calf merely symbolized God’s presence and, in this moment, was a panacea for separation anxiety. Therefore, I would argue that Israel should be praised for instituting a mechanism to discern the Divine will in Moses’s absence. (More on this later.)
My own assessment aside, it is clear from the text that neither God nor Moses sees anything praiseworthy in Israel’s actions. Rather, for them the fashioning of the golden calf is a betrayal of the highest order. So much so that God is prepared to destroy the whole lot! Fortunately, Moses convinces God to withhold his wrath.
Having subdued God, Moses then takes matters into his own hands. Upon descending from the mountain and seeing Israel in a state of revelry, Moses immediately smashes the tablets. He then grinds the calf into a powder, mixes the powder into water, and makes the people drink it. After admonishing Aaron for his role in the debacle, Moses then calls the Levites to arms and orders them to “slay brother, neighbor and kin” (Ex. 32:27). By the next morning, three thousand Israelites lay dead, and Moses goes back to God to beg God’s forgiveness of the people.
The rest of the parashah relates the aftermath of the great sin. First, Moses successfully pleads with God not to withdraw God’s presence from Israel (Ex. 33:1-23). Next, Moses receives a replacement pair of tablets and the covenant between God and Israel is renewed (Ex. 34:1-28). Finally, Moses comes down the mountain once again, bearing the new tablets, but this time Moses’s face radiates light from his direct encounter with God atop the mountain. Moses thereafter dons a veil when dealing with the people, and removes it when communicating directly with God.
This week I was asked how Jews find and see God. For Israel of the Exodus, the answer was clear. They found God and experienced God through intermediaries, whether through Moses, the priests, or other ways, such as this ill-fated attempt to institute a regionally acceptable pagan form of worship. We should remember, though, that for our ancestors in the book of Bereshit/Genesis, God was readily available and quite personal. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, related directly with God, whether or not they were seeking God’s presence, and God became manifest for average people, e.g. Hagar and Ishmael, as well.
Fast forwarding to today: how do we find and experience God? Perhaps we can learn from the mistake of the Golden Calf.
Earlier in my summary of the parashah, I wrote: “I would argue that Israel should be praised for instituting a mechanism to discern the Divine will in Moses’s absence.” These words may at first strike you as heretical. After all, it appears that I am condoning Israel’s reversion to idol worship, something strictly prohibited by the second commandment. Let me be clear: I am not condoning idol worship. I am, however, crediting Israel with responding constructively to a crisis in faith.
It would have been preferable for Israel to choose a different response to their crisis, but given where they were and where they had come from, I think their response is quite understandable. Lacking a concrete connection to God, i.e. Moses, they reverted to what was familiar, i.e. the calf. I reject their decision to build the calf, but I praise them for wanting a connection with God, in the first place. In other words, how wonderful it is that they sought and found God, albeit in a proscribed manner.
For us in the 21st century, we go about finding and experiencing God in many different ways, usually in ways that are entirely consonant with the teachings of our tradition. Some of us find and experience God in the compassionate embrace of friends, in the beauty of nature and in the laughter of children. For some, God is most intimately experienced in synagogue worship, through communal prayer, through Torah study or chanting, through silent meditation. For others, God is only found when we take action to repair the ills of the world or to reach out to those in need. Judaism offers many options for how we find and experience God.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, (1787 – 1859) taught that God is where you let God in. Our biblical ancestors had their own ideas about how to let God in. Unlike the folks awaiting Moses’s return at the bottom of Mt. Sinai, we need not rely on an individual or a single object to bring God’s presence to us. God is available at all times to everyone if we just find our own ways to “let God in.”