"Whoever is for the L-rd, let him come to me!"
The incident of the golden calf is fraught with difficulty. It seems, upon reading the events which led up to the debacle, to be so self evidently a transgression of commandments received at Sinai, so painfully clear an abandonment of the covenant with G-d, and so crude an expression of base irrational idolatry, that we run the risk of missing its true message: A cautionary tale, to be sure, but what lesson could it bear for us? We are far too sophisticated to fall prey to such primitive impulses.
Far too sophisticated? We shall see: Our sages point out that it was the mixed multitude - the erev rav - that approached the children of Israel and Aharon the high priest and demanded that a golden calf be created to lead them through the desert. Now many peoples had risen up and attached themselves to the children of Israel as they left the bondage of Egypt. Among them were individuals who saw the miracles G-d was working, and inspired by the might of the One G-d, clamored to become a part of His people. They stood side by side with the Israelites at Sinai, heard G-d's words, and voiced their allegiance. They, like Yitro, (Jethro), left their idolatry and joined the nation of Israel.
Yet there were others who presence among the Israelites was part of a well orchestrated, cunningly sophisticated plan hatched by the Egyptian "wise men and magicians, and necromancers" (Exodus 7:11) who surrounded Pharaoh. They had planted their evil emissaries among the people of Israel in the hour of their departure from Egypt. These ruthless enemies of Israel waited patiently, biding their time for the right moment to strike. The concluding hours of Moses' absence from the people, as he received G-d's word on Mount Sinai, proved the perfect opportunity. Encircling Aharon they made the following plea: "We are not part of the congregation of Israel. We don't accept your G-d, and you don't accept us. Therefore, we demand the following: Either you allow us to commingle with you as equals, or create for us our own god to lead us through the desert. We shall rally around our own god, become our own nation, follow our own ways, but remain always attached to the people of Israel, to be a constant thorn in your side, a stumbling block along the way, a source of endless grief and your eternal nemesis."
Aharon, playing for time, trying to placate the frenzied multitude, and at the same time, forestall their plans until Moses would return, called upon them to "Remove the golden earrings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me." (ibid 31:2) But without hesitation the multitude tore the gold from their own ears and placed it before Aharon. The die was cast. The deed was done.
Today we too face the same stark "choice" that Aharon faced. "Friends" and enemies alike have encircled the nation of Israel, and, appealing to the same noble qualities of loving kindness and concern for the other that characterized Aharon, make the same demand: "Create for this mixed multitude, this erev rav that has insinuated itself within your borders, that hates your G-d, and despises your people, create for them their own god - their own entity - their own state, from where they will forever prove your bitter, implacable foe. Do this, or else allow them to infiltrate the congregation of Israel, dissolving forever your covenant with the Almighty."
Far from being too sophisticated to fall prey to this great deception, it is our very sophistication and largeness of spirit which has proven our downfall today, just as it did then. Being confronted with this choice of the erev rav, what then, must we choose?
Torah provides the answer: in the aftermath of the golden calf, G-d reaffirms His covenant with His people. Torah restates a small number of fundamental commandments, enumerating the three pilgrimage festivals, and asserting the following: "When I drive out nations from before you and I widen your border, no one will covet your land when you go up, to appear before the Lord, your G-d, three times each year." (ibid 34:24)
The Holy Temple is hardly incidental to the story of the golden calf. Nor is it incidental to the crossroads at which Israel finds itself today. The Holy Temple can't wait until all the other "outstanding issues" are solved: The Holy Temple is the right response to the challenge posed by the mixed multitude. By creating an environment in which our relationship with G-d can flourish unimpeded and in which all who attach themselves to the G-d of Israel can share in this holy endeavor, we effectively thwart the twin threat of the mixed multitude and their international backers: We choose neither to pervert our covenant with G-d by bowing to the demand to create a golden calf, a separate entity within the land of Israel for our enemies, nor to abandon His love by allowing our sworn enemies to overwhelm us from within. We choose renewed commitment to G-d, and rally around the fulfillment of His promise. In the words of Moses, "Whoever is for the L-rd, let him come to me!" (ibid 32:26)
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss the twin Torah portions of Va’yakhel and Pekudei, Aharon, the golden calf and how good people are manipulated by bad people. The incident of the golden calf occurred, it is true, over three thousand years ago. But its repercussions still resonate today.