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Ki Tissah: Buns of Steel, Calves of Gold?  What???

02/15/2022 04:40:38 PM


Rabbi Rudin


   Calf of Gold...

Sorry for the bad pun.  But really... if you were going to build an idol to inspire and lead your community forward, would you choose a Golden Calf?  Not too inspiring, right?  So... what's behind this strange narrative in the Torah?

Just to review: Moses goes up into the thunderclouds of Sinai and vanishes.  The nation he is leading down below gets nervous.  One week... two weeks.... five weeks... what's going on?  Wild rumors spread: Moses is dead, struck by lightning on the mountain!  We're on our own!  What to do?

Up! the tribal leaders yell at Aaron and Hur who have been left in charge.  Build us gods to lead us forward!  Hur, the son of Miriam, Moses' and Aaron's nephew, is hot-headed and passionate.  "Don't you dare abandon HaShem who took you from Egypt amid signs and wonder!"  But the tribes become violent.  They kill Hur and turn on Aaron.  

So Aaron tries to stall ordering them to take all of their wives' jewelry, taken as backpay for slavery from the Egyptians.  But the women won't have it.  So the men take their own treasures and jewelry.  And Aaron fashions a Golden Calf.  The tribes declare an orgiastic feast and proclaim, "these are. your gods O Israel, who took you out of Egypt!"

Every society has its icons, symbols of power and appeal.  Every society has its aspirational figures as shown on TV: "You too can have... You too can be...." and so on.  Ripped abs, wealth, adventure, big houses, fast cars, popularity,security and happiness.. These are the symbols that idolatry trucks in.  

So it's easy now to understand.  Gold is the color of the Egyptian solar diety, and the calf or bull, Apis is a potent Egyptian amalgamation of symbols of divinity, power, fertility and leadership, charging against foes and a symbol of abundance.  No wonder that the Jews, immersed in Egyptian idolatry, fell back on this figure as an aspirational figure.

And where would the Egyptian sun god lead them but back to Egypt, the great Fleshpot where the former slaves longed for the good vittles and security of slavery?   In times of stress and anxiety and above all loss of faith in themselves to fulfill G-d's purpose, the ancient Israelites fall back time and again on the fantasy of an idealized infancy as slaves. 

And for us?  This story comes as a warning.  The Hasidic masters teach that a tiny coin, laid over the eye, can blind us to all of the glory of the heavens.  We are easily besotted and swayed, convinced that the urgency of lower needs and emotions means that they are more important than the more elevated and harder to access aspects of our humanity.   Indeed, as the sages of the Mishna say, without flour -- the needs of the physical -- there is not Torah -- the spiritual life.  But the reverse is even more true: without the higher life, there is no flour, no humanity at all, only a meaningless existence driven from fashion to fashion, fad to fad, need of the hour to need of the hour.

Idolatry in the Torah isn't generally a sudden crisis like in the Golden Calf account.  Usually, it accrues gradually.  When the sons of Jacob go to Beth El with their father after arriving in Israel, they are told to cleanse themselves of idols which they bury before moving on to the encounter with the G-d of Israel.  In the same way, we are called to cleanse ourselves of service to the Golden Calves in our lives and to turn and turn again to the quiet but ever-present call of the Higher Life that we all know in our hearts we are here to do.  We read the story over and over because we must turn, over and over, each time at a higher level, toward an ever higher inner call to holiness.  Shabbat Shalom. 


Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784