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People Long to Have a Symbol of the Divine
KI TISSA, Exodus 30:11-34:35
Rav Abba bar Aha said: "It is difficult to fathom the character of this people: when asked to contribute to the making of the [golden] calf, they respond; when asked to contribute to the building of the Tabernacle, they respond!"
This midrash points to a central puzzle in this week's portion, Ki Tissa. It opens with a census of the people where they also contribute a half shekel each toward the building of the Tent of Meeting. The exquisitely detailed instructions for this building, which began two portions ago, are continued. Bezalel and Oholiab receive the artistic skill necessary "to make everything that I have commanded you." All seems to be on track for the building of the Tabernacle.
Yet when Moses is still not down from Mt. Sinai after many weeks, the people contribute to a different kind of building. Nervous without Moses, they threaten rebellion, and Aaron asks them to give their gold ornaments toward the making of an idol. Aaron makes his own mold for the calf, with no communication or instruction from God. When the golden calf emerges from the fire, Aaron builds an altar in front of it and the people offer sacrifices upon it and begin to celebrate.
Many of the midrashim on this incident focus on the question of how the people could have forgotten the God that just delivered them from Egypt. Surprisingly, many of the answers apologize for the people. Midrash after midrash explains that the gold and silver that God allowed the people was too hard to resist making into an idol, or that they learned their behavior from being enslaved in the idol-making nation of Egypt, so God should never have let them become enslaved there in the first place.
In the apologetic tradition of these midrashim, I offer another apology. Perhaps, by contributing to the golden calf, the people were doing their best not to forget God. Most of us long to have more of a divine presence in our lives, to see evidence of God's work on this earth. There is an impulse in humans to make the ethereal physical, to bring the transcendent down to earthly imminence, to see and touch and feel the holy. Why else do we kiss the Torah as it circles the room, or lean our foreheads on the Western Wall in Jerusalem?
Judaism is a religion of time, as A.J. Heschel argues, but it is also a religion of space. The impulse to contribute to the building of the Tabernacle is an impulse akin to contributing to the golden calf. People long to have a symbol of the divine in front of them, and when Moses, the people's link to God, seemed to be lost, the people strayed from their efforts to build the sanctuary and began to build the calf.
As sympathetic as we may be to this impulse, though, we must still consider its repercussions. When Moses does come down from Mt. Sinai and sees the people worshipping the calf, he drops the two stone tablets that were inscribed "with the finger of God."
Torah and empty idol worship are mutually exclusive. They cannot exist in the same place. Only once the calf is destroyed can new tablets be created and brought down.
The message is clear. The presence of God in our lives is manifest through following the commandments in the Torah and building our relationship to God. There is no room for distractions. We must remember this especially today, when there are all these shiny things out in the world that we may mistake for containing God's presence.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: email@example.com.