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The Golden Calf Episode and Its Crisis

February 26, 2013 By:
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell
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Several years ago, when traveling in India, I visited Mamallapuram, a city on the Southeastern coast that is the site of magnificent temples with carvings from the seventh century C.E. In the courtyard of one of the excavations I was greeted by an enormous stone animal, head held erect, its neck encircled with engraved garlands.
 
It was a nandi, a bull ridden by Lord Shiva. In another courtyard, we met a procession of stone nandis, each bowing towards the sun. I recognized these animals as the artists’ attempts to capture the divine spark that animates all life. I was moved by these ancient, massive statutes, for my own ancestors had also fashioned a calf to stand for a God they could not see.
 
Professor Elsie Stern calls the incident at the heart of parshah Ki Tissa “the crisis of the Golden Calf Episode.” Stern teaches that this portion poses a question that powers the rest of the Torah: “How can God and Israel maintain a relationship that takes into account the enormous disparities between the two parties — God, who is utterly holy, and Israel, a ‘stiffnecked’ and back-sliding nation that can achieve holiness but not maintain it?” 
 
The Torah describes Moses’ many challenges with the people; here, “when the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain,” they “gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us.’ ”
 
Throughout history, we have created tangible, material substitutes for the power we cannot touch or hold. We construct pal­aces and purchase elaborate furnishings, buy automobiles, boats and airplanes that we think may satisfy our hunger for meaning.
 
Our ancestors turn to Aaron, Moses’ brother, and he assists in crafting “a molten calf.” When it’s presented to the people, they engage in an orgy to welcome their god. Moses comes down from the mountain with the tablets, and when he sees the people’s wild celebration, “he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.”
 
The portion concludes with Moses receiving — and delivering — a second set of tablets. But the rabbis knew that the Israelites’ shame, the crisis of the Golden Calf would linger beyond the conclusion of this portion. On this Shabbat, we read not only Ki Tissa, but also verses from Numbers 19 that detail a purification ritual using the blood and the ashes of a perfect red heifer. This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Parah,” linking our ancestors’ impatience and frenzy with a powerful ritual for transformation. 
 
Can we, who live in a time of great disparity between rich and poor, recognize the “golden calves” of acquisition and materialism that have become our gods? Are we, like our ancestors, so stiff-necked that we fail to recognize that our real hunger is for wisdom, not things, for authentic human connection, not for the false fellowship of the hunt for goods we don’t need?
 
Ki Tissa reminds us that we, too, can be seduced by glittering promises of connection with God and community. Real connections require hard work, listening and the courage to believe in a God of power and compassion Who is beyond sight or touch.
 
May we, stiff necks and all, slide towards, not away from, the sacred connections that enable us to glimpse God in one another’s faces, and in the dazzling magnificence of God’s world.
 
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: slelwell@urj.org.
 

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