"It is a voice shouting 'me' that I hear."
We interrupt our scheduled broadcast for a special news flash... We all get a sinking feeling when hear these words, for special news flashes seldom bode well. Yet these very words describe the sudden turn of events chronicled in this week's Torah reading of Ki Tisa. The young nation of Israel is receiving detailed instructions concerning the various elements of the vessels to be used in the Divine service of the Tabernacle - the Mishkan. The details of the priestly garments are described and even the components that make up the incense which will be burned upon the embers of the golden incense altar. The master craftsman and project overseer, Betzalel, is mentioned by name, as is his assistant, Ohaliav. A final reminder is made by G-d, that the holy work of completing the Tabernacle, the final piece of creation, left unfinished by G-d, as it were, from the beginning of time, for man to complete, does not supersede the holy shabbat. Like that act of creation itself, the act of creating the Tabernacle gives way to the rest of shabbat.
And then our broadcast of a holy nation at peace with itself, and in complete devotion to its G-d, is suddenly interrupted. All has gone awry. The children of Israel, impatient with Moshe, despair of his returning. The erev rav - the mixed-multitude - seeing the situation, lays a snare for the Israelites. Seeking to deceive them, they incite them to demand a replacement for Moshe. Aharon, startled by the agitation, and threatened by a gathering crowd, calls for all the men to bring to him the gold earrings of their womenfolk. The women refuse to be swept along by the madness, and the men bring to Aharon the gold from their own ears. Aharon casts the gold into the furnace, and from it emerges a golden calf. Aharon declares that the morrow will be "a festival to the L-rd," (ibid 32:5) and the following day is one of abandon.
This is where our news flash ends, and this is where Moshe descends from the mountain. Forty days have seen the sharp and sudden decline of the children of Israel. The humble, devoted nation, as expressed in the effort of building the Tabernacle, has given way to a pushy, belligerent people led by a mob. The great contrast between the nation of the Tabernacle and the nation of the golden calf provides the explanation.
The national project of building the Mishkan was one that demanded everything, both of the individual, and of the nation at large. A person's time and wealth were required. His intellect, his skills, his sense of aesthetic - all were taxed to the utmost. His ability to make calculations, to plan ahead, to work with others, all were necessities. The individual had to lose himself in the building of the Mishkan, and the nation had to bond together in the making of the Tabernacle. Selflessness and dedication informed the nation of Israel.
The disaster that was the golden calf was, like most disasters, man-made in its entirety. It was man's most base qualities which inflamed his passion. No effort was expended in the making of the golden calf. With the exception of the gold that was brought to Aharon, no material sacrifice was required. There was no intellectual effort made, the golden calf defied the intellect. Skills? As Aharon later described to Moshe, he simply cast the gold to the fire and out emerged, on its own, the golden calf. To plan, to calculate, to work in harmony with others? The golden calf was instant gratification, the I, me, mine of a narcissistic society of runaway individualism and egoism. Not a nation united around its unified effort to build a house for G-d, but a nation in which every man is god, and the golden calf his creation.
How closely the nation of the golden calf describes the phenomenon of modern society. When man's ego and impatience become his guide, when he becomes addicted to the quick and the easily accessible, when the lowest of intentions grab hold, and smallness of spirit holds court, nations begin to falter.
Two millennia since the destruction of the second Holy Temple, we have uncovered many of the lost secrets of the sacred vessels first shaped and crafted in the desert. We have rediscovered the science of the generation of Betzalel and Ohaliav who first turned G-d's word into a living reality. We have regained our eye for the sacred aesthetic and we have felt, for the first time in thousands of years, the exuberant sense of harmony and purpose in preparing for the Holy Temple.
The nation of the golden calf will eventually be pulverized and scattered, like the golden calf itself. Do we choose to be a nation of the golden calf, holding counsel with those who wish us ill? The entire ethos of the golden calf is one of no effort, no investment, and in return there is nothing gained, only lost. This is precisely what Moshe saw when he returned from the mountaintop, and, correcting Yehoshua, said, "It is neither a voice shouting victory, nor a voice shouting defeat; it is the voice shouting 'me' that I hear." Moshe immediately identified the vanity of unchecked self-gratification within the pandemonium.
Or do we choose to be the nation of the Tabernacle, the nation of the Holy Temple, taking counsel with G-d, seeking His honor in the world, striving to serve Him? This is the nation that will thrive and grow strong in the land, building G-d's Holy Temple and bringing His light to the world. The nation of the Tabernacle, the nation of the Holy Temple.
Tune in to this week's live broadcast of TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven receive callers from Israel and abroad. Ki Tisa and the debacle of the golden calf are discussed, as well as the plans for the upcoming International Temple Mount Awareness Day on March 16th. The complacency of the golden calf mentality must give way to the active involvement of all in the demand for freedom of worship on the Mount and the preparation for the building of the Holy Temple.