"These are your gods, O Israel"
The debacle of the golden calf resonates throughout history. It is universally understood as having been a tragic error, a rejection of G-d's living presence in this world. We often shake our heads in wonder at how a people who had just witnessed the miraculous splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and had just received Torah directly from G-d at Mount Sinai, could have made such a blunder. It is simply unfathomable. Was it ignorance? Hubris? Or were they simply a primitive and uncivilized people, incapable of grasping what G-d sought to share with them?
All these answers miss the mark, and embracing any one of them as the explanation reflects more on ourselves than on the generation of the desert. The error committed by the Israelites was no different than any error committed by any one of us: it was human. That is, it was rooted in their human condition.
The stage is set for the golden calf episode when the people begin to despair of Moses' returning from his forty days sequestered on Mount Sinai with G-d, receiving the Law. Miscalculating the time of his expected return, they suddenly feel vulnerable: if we can't be certain that something expected to happen will, in fact, happen at this or such particular time and place, then what can we be certain of? Then who and where are we in time and place? The answer provided by the mixed multitude, "These are your gods, O Israel," (Exodus 32:4) is actually more profound than commonly understood. They were, in effect, saying: "Israel, you don't need G-d to run your lives. You have been created with the intellectual capacity to form your own morality, articulate your own laws, draw your own conclusions. Leave G-d up there with Moses. We'll make the rules for life down here."
The need to possess certainty in our hand, or in our intellectual grasp, is a human desire as old as Adam, the first man, who resisted G-d's single command and took possession of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. This is why G-d so readily forgave the people in the desert. The very weakness which caused them to err is rooted in the very being of His creation! But more than forgive, G-d has provided for the people the means with which to extricate themselves from the trap into which they have fallen, and to redirect their very human desires for certainty in this world toward G-dly purpose. The Biblical incident of the golden calf is sandwiched between descriptions of the construction of the Tabernacle, and the keeping of the Sabbath. The Sabbath, a holy time above time! By keeping the Shabbat we are attaching ourselves to the immutable truth of G-d's time! The Tabernacle, even in its own portability, and later the Holy Temple, show us that space is sacred and certain when that space is imbued with G-d's presence!
Don't settle for a golden calf to show you the way in life. The creations of our own hands and minds cannot be our guides! We cannot freeze G-d's will in time or space any more than we can keep a photograph of Him in our wallets to show our friends on the check out line, and say, "These are your gods, O Israel." (ibid)
A great secret is revealed in the juxtaposition of the description of the copper laver, which is mentioned for the very first time, just before the golden calf. The priests are commanded to wash their hand and feet at the laver each morning before they proceed to fulfill their tasks in the Temple service. Our sages teach that along with the impurity that they are washing away they are also washing away yesterday's notions of who G-d is, of who we are, and of what He expects from each of us. Only by accepting the fluidity of life and our own ability to change and grow, can we come to understand the greatest single certainty that G-d holds for us: His immediate forgiveness, when, having erred, we mend our ways, and, with all our hearts, return to Him.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK, as Rabbi Chaim RIchman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss the Torah reading of Ki Tisa, the golden calf, Moses' approach to G-d on the people's behalf, and the connection between the red heifer, the vehicle for acquiring purity, par excellence, and the very messy state of affairs surrounding the golden calf.
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