Ki Tisa(Exodus 30:11-34:35)
The Golden Calf: Yesterday and Today
As Cecille B. DeMille would say: "Let's set the scene." The Jewish people have just stood at Mount Sinai and heard the Ten Commandments. Then their trusty leader Moses tells them that he's going up the mountain for 40 days – to learn more Torah and bring down the stone tablets. The Torah describes what happens next:
"The people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron, and said to him, 'Make us a shrine which will go before us. We have no idea what became of Moses, the man who brought us out of Egypt...' The people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron, who cast them into a molten calf. Some of the people began to say, 'This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.'" (Exodus 32:1-4)
We are bothered by one basic question: If the Jews had just witnessed God's awesome power in the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the revelation at Mount Sinai, how could these same people turn around and worship a Golden Calf?!
The answer is that the Jews never built the calf with the intention it should be worshipped.
Here's what happened: When Moses said, "I'm going up the mountain for 40 days," his intent was 40 full days. The people, however, mistakenly included in their count that first day – thereby expecting Moses to return one day earlier! (For example, let's say that today is Sunday. If I say you've got "one week" to get a certain job done – it is confusing whether you've got until Saturday, or until the following Sunday!)
So when Day 39 rolled around, the Jews began to wonder – "Where's Moses?" This caused great anxiety. For although the people knew it was God Himself Who'd orchestrated all the miracles, it was nevertheless Moses who'd raised his staff for the Red Sea to split. They relied on Moses as captain of the team around whom they rallied to get the job done.
So on Day 39, the malcontents in the camp began circulating rumors that he wasn't coming back at all. In fact, they managed to instill so much fear and anxiety, that the Talmud says the people actually saw a vision of Moses dead! (So strong is the power of suggestion.)
Then the Jews reasoned: If Moses isn't coming back, we must craft ourselves a replacement. And so the Golden Calf was born. Not as an idol; not as a rebellion against God. But as a figurehead. A mere shrine to replace the missing Moses.
And the next thing you know, it's full-blown idolatry.
Lack of Focus
Maimonides explains that idolatry is not a single step, rather it's a process. In the old days, they'd carve a piece of stone and call it the "sun god." They wanted to pay tribute to God as creator of the sun. But before long, they were worshipping the sun itself. They believed that something other than God was the ultimate source of strength and salvation.
People start off focused and clear on the priorities of life. But then we get sidetracked.
Today, it's not uncommon to believe that money, fame, stock options, a fast computer, or good looks is the source of fulfillment and happiness. Treating something of relative importance as though it were of ultimate significance: that's idolatry!
And we see this every day. I spoke to a young man recently, and asked him --based on his recent experiences in Israel and with the Discovery seminar – if he thought the Torah was true.
"Absolutely yes," he said. So I asked him why he's still driving on Shabbos, eating cheeseburgers, and dating a non-Jewish woman. His reply: "I'm waiting until I get a breakthrough in my career. Then I'll get around to those other things."
The Road to Insanity
The Torah tells us that during the incident of the Golden Calf, one man named Chur arose to protest. So how did the crowd respond? Their connection to this "idol" had grown so strong that they mobbed Chur and murdered him.
When Moses came down from the mountain and smashed the Tablets, he issued a pronouncement to all Jews:
"You can now turn back and avoid tragedy," said Moses. "Stop worshipping the Golden Calf and affirm your loyalty to God." Only the Tribe of Levi, comprising about 3% of the Jewish population, accepted Moses' words. The other 97% remained stuck in their failed venture.
How often do we see someone continuing a destructive relationship simply because they're deeply invested and stuck. The physical or emotional gratification may have us hooked. And once we're in, it's hard to stop.
Recently at a young adult discussion group in Los Angeles, my colleague Rabbi Nachum Braverman tried an experiment. He held up a $20 bill and made the following announcement: "We are going to auction off this $20 bill to the highest bidder. The only catch is that whoever finishes as the second-highest bidder, also has to pay their bid, getting nothing in return."
The bidding began in a fun and festive tone. Quickly the bidding passed the $20 mark and was down to two final bidders. The mood in the room turned serious, as everyone realized that someone was about to lose a lot of money! Each bidder had to outbid the other in order to avoid becoming the second-highest bidder who would pay for nothing! The bidding reached a frenzied panic, the two contestants, locked into a no-win situation. The room was breathless. And finally, that $20 bill sold for $76.
It's crazy. It's true what they say: "The fight for life is the fight for sanity."
Stand Up and be Counted
The Chafetz Chaim, the greatest rabbi of the 20th century, once asked a visitor if he were a Kohen, Levi or Yisrael. (Kohens and Levis are from the Tribe of Levi.) The visitor answered that he was a Yisrael – i.e. not from the Tribe of Levi.
So the Chafetz Chaim explained: "In the future, the Holy Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem. Everyone will go there for the first time, crowding the doors to get inside. A guard at the door will ask everyone whether they are a Kohen, Levi, or Yisrael. Only those from the Tribe of Levi will gain entry to perform the Temple service. And the Israelites will be terribly upset: Levites inside; Israelites outside."
The Chafetz Chaim continued, "Do you know why it's like that? Because of what happened thousands of years ago with the Golden Calf. When Moses issued those famous words, 'Stop the idolatry and go with God,' only the tribe of Levi responded. Therefore in the future, only those from the tribe of Levi will perform the Temple service. And all the others will be on the outside because their ancestors didn't respond."
The Chafetz Chaim continued, "This teaches a profound lesson. Many times in life, you hear a little voice in your head saying, 'Stop the idolatry.' Something will challenge you to stand up and be counted. In which camp are you? Do you have the clarity and conviction to stay on the right track? Because how you respond will have implications not only for you, but for generations after you. Everyone has his moment. When you hear that voice, stand up and be counted!"
The lesson of the Golden Calf is to think about what it is we're doing. What starts innocently may turn out tragic. Have we lost sight of our true priorities? Are we being swept away by the mob?
Idolatry is alive and well in the 21st century. Let's hope we can eradicate the disease.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons