by Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
Two Sides of the Golden CalfThis week's parashah, Ki Tisa, includes the narrative of the Golden Calf. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, according to rabbinic tradition the incident of the calf is contiguous with the giving of the Ten Commandments and precedes the giving of the instructions for the building of the Mishkan/Tabernacle. Sinai and the Golden Calf are inextricably linked to one another. Sinai represents the creation of a relationship between the people of Israel and God. The Golden Calf represents, among other things, their refusal to totally let go of their past and also their inability to maintain their commitment to one concept, symbol or ideal if their patience is tested. In short, Sinai implies trust and the Golden Calf implies its rejection.
Aviva Zornberg discusses the fact that the two sides of the coin that is the Golden Calf may seem to be contradictory, yet are in reality complimentary, or perhaps even symbiotic.
One of the reasons given for the building of the Calf is the fact that the people believed that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain and so they said to Aaron "Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt - we do not know what has happened to him (32:1)." In reading this verse it becomes clear that the idolatry began long before the calf, for the people had already associated Moses with the redemption from slavery and not God. It has been said that idolatry is when people worship a part and confuse it with the whole. If God is the whole - the One of the Universe - then any human being, or any object for that matter, can only be a small part of the whole. But Moses, a mere human, becomes almost deified. According to one Midrash, Satan then shows the people that Moses is either dead or suspended somewhere between heaven and earth. In this mass hallucination, as Zornberg calls it, the people come to see "this man" Moses as no longer with them, and so they must create a new "god" to provide them with a physical representation of that which has no physical representation. They must substitute a new part to worship as a proxy for the whole. The people are unable to face God without Moses, just as they were unable to hear God's voice at Sinai, but instead relied on Moses to relay the message to. The people forget God and God's oneness and instead searched for a new god to worship (even though this new god was still, in reality, a representation of the One God).