This week’s Torah portion has one of the more perplexing episodes in Jewish history. Forty days after the Jewish nation heard God proclaim that they were not to have any gods other than Him, the Israelites made a Golden Calf and then had the audacity to proclaim, “These are your gods that took you out of Egypt.”
Commentators throughout the ages have grappled with the glaring difficulty of how they could so rapidly descend into such a gross absurdity and commit such a grievous sin.
A possible way of trying to understand this is based on the placement of where this story appears in the Torah. The details of building the Tabernacle couch this incident, coming both before and after the narration of the Golden Calf. However, the construction of the Tabernacle was told to Moshe after the Jews sinned.
A recap: They left Egypt and went to Sinai and are there at the base of the mountain. Moshe goes up Mt. Sinai to get the Torah, while the nation all heard the 10 Commandments at the beginning of this 40-day period. Moshe comes down the mountain, smashes the tablets when he sees the abomination of the Golden Calf and then goes back up to the top of Mt. Sinai the next day to pray that God not wipe them out and to re-establish their relationship with Him. He succeeds and returns with the second tablets on the 10th of Tishrei, which we have been commemorating ever since as Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.
And, after all of this, then and only then the nation is told to build a Tabernacle. So clearly this affair is way out of chronological sequence.
Based on this anomaly, the Talmud points out the connection between the two events and says that the Tabernacle was built in response to the Golden Calf. Yes you read that right. The holiest and most sacred article and place of the Tabernacle was a reaction to one of the lowest spiritual points of Jewish history.
The link between the two is even more pronounced given the fact that the holiest spot in the Tabernacle is occupied with Golden figurines. The Gold Keruvim/Cherubim, is the center-piece in the Holy of Holies atop the Ark and from between these golden statues, God Himself spoke to Moshe.
So here we have it, the holiest place on earth is not that much different than the most heinous spiritual crime committed in all of Jewish history. A very fine line indeed separates these two diametrically opposed extremes: direct communication with God on the one hand at the Golden Keruvim, and abject idol worship on the other at the Golden Calf. Two sides of one Gold coin.
To understand this we have to try to imagine the aftermath and impact the Jewish people must have felt right after having just met God face-to-face at Mount Sinai. One can only imagine that, when it was finished, they must have felt that they wanted and needed some physical manifestation to express this lofty spiritual experience. They knew they could not walk away from Sinai without some tangible token of this great moment in their lives. It was a glorious moment that would never be repeated again and they couldn’t just depart from there empty-handed.
When you reach such a zenith of greatness, you need something – anything – as a symbol. Such events in life may be relived in the mind, but it is so much more meaningful if there is some sort of tangible expression to touch or feel or see that brings one back to that monumental occasion. Weddings wouldn’t be the same unless there is a ring present to solidify the event and to be a constant reminder of it.
But not just weddings, we do this all the time when we go to any sporting event or concert and take a selfie or buy a t-shirt with the team or band logo, an autographed ball or the like. And the greater the event, the more selfies will appear on Facebook and Instagram and the more likely we will purchase a souvenir. Stanley Cup Finals pucks far outsell pucks with just a team emblem.
And this is precisely what the Israelites made for themselves. The Golden Calf was their “I Was at Sinai” tchotchke, selfie or t-shirt.
The only problem however was that this token, this Golden Calf, was not officially licensed merchandise but a counterfeit that they created themselves. When you have a life changing experience, a one-time achievement and you wish for it to be awarded or recognized, it must come from without and not from within. You cannot reward yourself a degree or gold medal; it must come from an outside party or judge. Creating your own gold medal is an absurdity as silly as reaching behind your back and patting yourself on it. It’s a self-serving false god that expresses nothing but satisfying your own ego. And nothing could be more fake than that.
To have a direct communication with God is a high like no other and one would do anything to have something to recall that experience forever. It was a Golden moment that demanded a Golden commemoration to be cherished for the rest of time. For the Jewish people to make their own Golden tribute and not wait for one from God turns the whole event on its head. It makes it into a self-serving momentary spiritual high instead of a nationally defining moment signifying the eternal service of God.
Gold medals and commemorations cannot be bought, nor made in your image in your garage. They must be conferred upon by and from an outside, impartial party or judge. The Tabernacle and its golden figures were the real medals that allowed Israel to stand high on the podium and relive the Sinai experience. Anything else was fool’s gold. Foolish and dumb as a cow.
He came from somewhere, back in her long ago
The sentimental fool don’t see
Tryin’ hard to recreate
What had yet to be created…
But what a fool believes
No wise man has the power
to reason away
What seems to be
is always better than nothing