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Ki Tisa(Exodus 30:11-34:35)

Jewish Reality Checks

Every time we read Ki Tisa, we are freshly overwhelmed by the sin of the Golden Calf. How could the Jewish people construct and serve an idol a mere forty days after having heard the commandment "You shall not recognize other gods in My presence" from God's own mouth at the foot of Mt. Sinai? Apart from the enormity of the sin involved, the fact that it was intellectually possible for the Jews to believe that such an idol had any power is incomprehensible. How could such great people have made such a silly mistake?

But the question goes even deeper. How could any intelligent human being possibly bow down to a statue? What is idolatry anyway, and why are there so many injunctions in the Torah against it?

 

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IDOLATRY CANNOT BE DISMISSED AS PRIMITIVE IGNORANCE

Now, if it were possible to attribute the entire phenomenon of idol worship to backward primitive cultures it would be one thing. Many people are only too happy to dismiss the so-called 'early Hebrews' as precisely such primitives, and thus discredit the entire experience of Sinai and reject the Torah. After all, who could possibly credit that the Almighty, Omniscient God, would condescend so far that He would consent to establish a solemn covenant with a bunch of primitive savages who had to be constantly admonished not to bow down to statues?

But the Greeks and Romans, who were the first to discuss many of the ideas and concepts that serve as the foundations of our own modern Western culture, and who certainly are never accused of being primitive, also worshipped idols and consulted oracles. How could they?

Of course with the wisdom of hindsight, our modern intelligentsia projects a cynical skepticism on the poets and philosophers of history. The ancient intelligentsia, they say, never believed in all that hogwash. That was a show for the primitive common people. But the heroic secular sages who authored the ideas that have survived the test of time certainly never seriously believed in any form of idolatry. But how do they know? Where is this skepticism recorded?

 

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IDOLATRY IS NEITHER PRIMITIVE NOR STUPID

In fact, it is far more reasonable to credit that civilized human beings were never primitive nor stupid. If they worshipped idols, this form of religion must have a rational basis. What can it be?

Maimonides presents it this way. (Mishna Torah, Laws of Idolatry,1) Idolaters believed that God created the world, but they felt that He ran it bureaucratically. The universe they observed functioned smoothly and without variations. The sun rose and set in a regular pattern, the seasons changed in a predictable sequence, the stars in the heavens had their fixed orbits. The universe behaved like a smoothly functioning machine. A system conducted with hands on control of a single operator never functions with such regularity.

On the other hand, the ancients had no notion of the laws of physics. They could not conceive that planets were maintained in their orbits by the blind force of physical gravity. They therefore assumed, reasonably enough given their information, that the smooth functioning of all the parts of the universe was attributable to various intelligences. The Creator of all handed His creation over to lower intelligences to run. These intelligences were higher than man's own, but obviously less that God's, as they were created by God themselves.

 

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IT IS BOTH PRESUMPTUOUS AND INEFFICIENT TO GO STRAIGHT TO THE TOP

As there were intelligences out there running things who were obviously appointed to dole out the Divine energy that created and maintained the universe, it made sense to turn to them instead of to the Creator. We never go right to the top, to the president or prime minister, when we have a problem. We go to the bureaucrat in charge. If we have a complaint about the way he handles our petition we turn to the minister in charge of him, and only when the minister also fails to satisfy do we turn to the president or prime minister himself.

In order to contact the intelligence in charge of handling their problem, idolaters erect a statue or image of the facet of the universe of which he is in charge as a means of relating exclusively to the particular intelligence desired. If we make the elementary assumption, which all religions do make, that God did not simply abandon His creation after He completed its formation, then it is reasonable to assume that there must be some recourse to Him or at least to His delegates. As it would be presumptuous to turn to Him with every minor concern, it makes sense to turn to His delegates with our problems. Hence idol worship.

 

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HOW WE INTERFACE WITH GOD

But this seems quite reasonable. Why is it wrong, and where is the sin involved?

The answer turns out to hinge on where and how human beings interface with God. The Rabbis often express the thought that this world is comparable to the night whereas the next world is comparable to day. (See Talmud Pesachim 2b) Later commentators refer to our world as the olam hadimyon, meaning imaginary or dreamlike. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, in his work Derech Hashem, sheds some light on these descriptions.

He explains that our view of the world is backwards. In all respects aside from a single, solitary exception, this physical world is actually akin to a document spit out by a copying machine. Reality is spiritual; the elephants and tigers, the forests and lakes and rivers that we observe in this world are merely the physical printouts of spiritual forces. They are akin to images on a screen that only seem to have a life of their own but are actually only projections of photons of light hitting the screen in a prearranged sequence.

 

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ALL PHYSICAL PHENOMENA ARE MERE PROJECTIONS EXCEPT MAN

All physical phenomena with the exception of man are of this nature. It only appears to us that they act and move and reproduce of their own volition. In actuality they have no power to do anything at all. They are merely the outermost expression of the permutations that take place on a spiritual level. The origin of movement is not down here on earth but up there in the spiritual world where all the decisions are taken down to the level of the most minute. As the Midrash says (Bereishis Raba, 10,6) every individual blade of grass has an angel who tells it to grow.

The only exception is man. Because man has free choice, he must have the power to change the world. When he is making choices he is not a mere physical projection of a spiritual force. He actually has the power to alter reality and constitutes the only power source in the entire physical world. However, the effects of his free choice actions also take the spiritual route to reach reality. What man actually brings about by his actions is a rearrangement of the alignment of the spiritual world; when he does this the spiritual world in turn changes what it would otherwise have projected as physical reality and the physical world alters in turn.

 

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THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS SPIRITUAL PHYSICS

Ordinarily, there is little significance in all this. Just as the world behaves in the same fashion whether we realize that matter is composed of atoms or not, it makes little difference if we understand precisely how the physical world changes in spiritual terms. But there is one area in which this information is significant. It clearly explains the mistake of idolatry.

The fact that all physical phenomena are merely projections of spiritual forces means that we interface with God directly and not through the avenue of physical reality. The one supplying the energy and program of the spiritual world is God. It is always with Him directly that we are negotiating and interacting. The reality of the physical world in which we live is projected in terms of the quality of interaction we mange to establish with God.

Instead of the spiritual world being in charge of the physical one, and the universe being conducted bureaucratically, it turns out that there is no power structure at all. Reality resembles the layers of an onion. The real action takes place at the core. The outer leaves of the onion reshape themselves around each other to fit tightly around the core. Reality spreads out from its spiritual core in layers like the waves in a pond until it finally assumes the physical shape on the surface layer with which we are familiar.

 

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THIS IS THE WAY A UNIVERSE BUILT OUT OF DIVINE ENERGY SHOULD LOOK

This isn't as mystical as it first sounds. Let us not forget that we live in a created universe. A created universe is really made out of nothing. It is actually pure Divine energy and nothing more than a projection of God's will. The equilibrium state of all that was created is always zero. If God would not constantly will it into being, it would simply not be. (Maimonides, Mishna Torah, The Foundations of Torah, 1,1-3 paraphrased)

Because everything in the universe is fashioned out of divine energy, there is no other way to account for the differences between its spiritual and physical levels except in terms of their distance from the Source. While everything is fashioned out of the same Divine energy, this energy is expressed as spiritual reality when it is relatively close to the Source but we experience this same energy as physical reality at a greater distance from the Source.

The religion of the idol worshipper rests on faulty spiritual physics. God wants all human beings to live in the right reality. He wants them to succeed at reaching Him. The prohibition against idol worship is one of the Seven Noachide laws as well as being one of the 365 'thou shalt nots' of the Torah. But there is a unique slant to Jewish idol worship that we need to appreciate in order to comprehend the Golden Calf. The following discussion is based on the beginning chapters of Part 2 of the Nefesh Hachaim, the remarkable work authored by Rabbi Chaim of Voloz'hin, the student of the Gaon of Vilna.

 

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JEWISH IDOLATRY

Let us begin by looking at blessings. A very common one familiar to everyone is the blessing recited over bread: "Blessed are You, YHVH our God, King of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth." There is something very curious about the syntax of this blessing which is typical of all blessings. We begin each blessing by addressing God directly in the second person, "Blessed are You," but we end them in the third person, "Who brings forth." This change in syntax is much more striking in the original Hebrew, as second and third person verbs are structured entirely differently. Is God a "You" or is He a "He"? How can you switch in midstream between the two?

One of the greatest of the medieval commentators, the Rashba, explained that this anomaly is a key to understanding how Judaism relates to God. In fact, Judaism has a complex vision of God.

 

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OUR VISION OF GOD IS COMPLEX

There is first of all God as He is to Himself, not in terms of the creator of the world. To explain what this means let us explain the proposition that we recite daily in the Shema prayer: God is One, but no one else is One. When we say that God is One, we do not simply mean that there is only one God instead of two or three gods. We are stating God's singularity.

Each of us is also one in the sense of uniqueness. However, while there is only one of us in the universe, we cannot exist alone. We exist within space and within time, we need food to eat and air to breath. Thus, whoever knows that human beings exist automatically has to assume that other things exist as well. We cannot exist as singularities. God can, as He is One. Thus God exists out of the context of the universe quite apart from His creation.

On this level we know nothing about God. We have no name for Him, we address no supplication to Him, and we have no vocabulary or image that can describe Him in any way. The Zohar refers to this level of the Divinity as the Ein Sof, or the Endless, the Infinite. We do know that all the energy of existence on any level must emanate from this level of the Divinity but we have no direct interaction or communication with God at this level. At this level God is a He.

 

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GOD AS A YOU

The level of Divinity with whom we interface is YHVH, the Source of all Being, God in His aspect of the creator. In this aspect, we know a lot about God. God gave us names by which we can call Him, He described the character traits that He assumes in his dealings with us, and He gave us commandments. He demonstrated to us through the mighty events of the Exodus and specifically informed us in His Torah that He is interested in hearing from us and interacting with us and that He runs the world as a King would rule over His domain.

It is on this level that we address God as You in the second person. If not for the revelations about Himself that God provided us about this aspect of Himself, there would be no point in addressing Him at all. It is only through the revelations of the Torah that we know that God takes any interest in us whatever, and therefore it is only after we have the Torah that it is worthwhile addressing Him.

To return to our original blessing over bread, when we recite a blessing we are expressing the following prayer to God; As You have demonstrated your interest in us, Your creatures, and have informed us in Your Torah that the more involvement You have with us the more pleased You would be, we accept this bread as coming directly from Your hand, and recognize its provision as a sign of Your involvement with us. We plead with You that You should draw more energy from the Ein Sof, so that You as the Creator, the Source of all being, can provide us with an increased amount of Your bounty and thus strengthen Your connection and involvement with us as the King of the universe.

 

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WE ALL MET GOD AT MT. SINAI

This Divine Presence to Whom we address all our blessings and prayers, is the One Who revealed Himself to us at Mt. Sinai and described Himself to us in the first person and addressed us in the second. "I am YHVH your God, who has taken you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slavery." This Presence is all that we can glimpse of the Ein Sof. It is all that the Ein Sof chose to reveal to us about Himself. When we address God on this level we are as close as we can possibly get to the Ein Sof and yet we still must speak about Him in the third person only.

Moses was able to communicate with God at this highest level. We were all at this highest possible human-Divine interface en masse at Mt. Sinai, but only Moses remained at this level permanently. As long as Moses was with us, we were connected to God at this highest interface level. When we thought Moses had left us we lost this level of connection. But there are lower levels.

 

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GOD ASSUMES VARIOUS ATTRIBUTES

For example, at times God, the Source of all being, assumes the mantle of God the Mighty. God as the Mighty has a different name, let us say Elohim. When I refer to God as Elohim what I am actually saying is that God is offering me a narrow glimpse of His real self through the character trait of might. God the Mighty is an aspect of God. God the Mighty is not the source from which all energy derives, he is not the Ein Sof. But Elohim is also surely God.

The desert generation had many members who could interface with the Divine Presence at lower levels, when God is glimpsed through the window of a single attribute. In the absence of Moses they connected themselves to Elohim. Granted that this is a lower connection, but it is still a connection to God. We are still at a human-Divine interface point.

 

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THE GOLDEN CALF

But God regards it as idolatry. Elohim is not God. It is a character God assumes when He interacts with creation through the window of might. It is a glimpse at God through a particular window. All connection with God must be expressed in the dual language of second and third person. Every link must lead back to the Ein Sof. Elohim is God. But to address a request to Elohim without referring back to the Ein Sof is slicing away a single aspect of God and interfacing with it as the source of being. The window that is opened to our perception so that we can catch a tiny glimpse of the Ein Sof is taken to be God Himself. This is idolatry with a Jewish twist. This is the Golden Calf.

When a Jew addresses God, he is standing face to face with the Divine Presence that revealed Himself at Mt. Sinai, and his plea reaches all the way to the Ein Sof. God responds. His response always involves interaction of a particular sort. It could involve God as the conqueror of the legions of the wicked, in which case God would be called Zevoat, it could involve God assuming the attribute of justice and then He would be called Elohim. Whatever character trait the response demonstrates when translated into human terms has a Divine name attached to it. These are the windows through which we catch glimpses of the Ein Sof.

Jews never feel overwhelmed by physical reality. We know that this level of the universe is only the very outermost layer of reality. It is the easiest to alter and change as it is merely the projection of our relationship with God and ultimately the Ein Sof. Instead of worrying about the physical world, Jews worry about their relationship with God. As long as this relationship is warm and healthy, the very outermost level of reality will be full of light and user friendly in any case.

Published: February 23, 2002

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