There’s so much in this week’s reading of Ki Tisa – a census, continuing to build the mishkan, shabbat and more, but the sparkly golden calf hides it all and calls our attention. We know the story: Moses didn’t come back and the people got worried. ‘Make a god for us’, they said, ‘who will walk in front of us, for this man Moses, we don’t know what happened to him’!! So the people are scared, feeling alone, needing something “Reall” to put their hands on, ok, but what exactly is so bad about it? We often hear it’s “avoda zara” / idolatry, but what is?? Just a couple of portions ago, they were commanded to bring everything they feel like donating, including gold, to build the Tabernacle. Why then and that was ok, while this, now is suddenly not?
Right after the Giving of the Law, the people were told (Exodus 20:20):
לֹ֥א תַעֲשׂ֖וּן אִתִּ֑י אֱלֹ֤הֵי כֶ֙סֶף֙
וֵאלֹהֵ֣י זָהָ֔ב לֹ֥א תַעֲשׂ֖וּ לָכֶֽם׃
Therefore, you shall not make with me any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.
Two things threaten our faith: not seeing G-d at all – and – seeing Him…. After the revelation at Sinai, it became obvious that G-d can be revealed. The instructions of the Tabernacle made it possible for us to create a space for Him within us, as if this infinite, unfathomable presence, can be held. This holds great potential and along with it, great danger.
Rashi on the above verse says:
אלהי כסף. בָּא לְהַזְהִיר עַל הַכְּרוּבִים שֶׁאַתָּה עוֹשֶׂה לַעֲמֹד אִתִּי, שֶׁלֹּא יִהְיוּ שֶׁל כֶּסֶף, שֶׁאִם שִׁנִּיתֶם לַעֲשׂוֹתָם שֶׁל כֶּסֶף הֲרֵי הֵן לְפָנַי כֶּאֱלוֹהוּת:
GODS OF SILVER — This statement is intended to lay down a prohibition regarding the Cherubim which you will make to stand with Me — that they shall not be made of silver, for if you make any alteration in them by making them of silver and not of gold they will be before me (regarded by Me) as idols.
So, accordingly, we have a very specific warning: the Cherubim which you are about to make, make them of gold and exactly – exactly how I instructed you. If you make them of silver instead of gold, any slight deviation is — idolatry!!
If we look at the pronouns above, we’ll notice that G-d says: gods of gold – don’t make for yourselves. In this week, with regards to the Golden Calf it says:
וַיָּ֧שָׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶל־ה’ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אָ֣נָּ֗א חָטָ֞א הָעָ֤ם הַזֶּה֙ חֲטָאָ֣ה גְדֹלָ֔ה וַיַּֽעֲשׂ֥וּ לָהֶ֖ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י זָהָֽב׃
Moses went back to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people is guilty of a great sin in making for themselves a god of gold.
Gold is one of the most valued and precious metals and it’s ok to use it to make things for G-d, that is not the problem, but it start being a problem when we use it “for ourselves”. Beauty, pride, even creativity – are good as part of a whole and can all become false gods if disconnected and used in the wrong manner.
In a seemingly unrelated article, Rav Kook teaches that the soul prays all the time, and that we should likewise be in constant contact with the Divine. This often gets great pushback: ‘what do you mean pray all the time? You want me to be in shul 24/7? What about my job, my family, my gym membership, my hobbies? What kind of nonsense is this??’…
In an effort to respond, I compare what I think Rav Kook is saying to any other special relationship. For example, when someone is in a loving relationship, they usually don’t forget their spouse. Yes, they go to work and have hobbies and stop by on their way at the store, but even while there, they think, oh honey likes or dislikes that, and adjust their list accordingly, as opposed to saying, great, I am at the store where my relationship doesn’t exist. We don’t stop being in a relationship just because we are not home together; we take the relationship with us wherever they go. To bring the metaphor back, the Golden Calf is like buying a ring for the wrong person. A ring in itself is fine, but for whom and why is it given?
This is what I believe Rav Kook says and this is what the great tragedy of the Golden Calf points to, which goes back to the first question G-d posed to the first human being: איכה ayeka? Where are you? The Golden Calf teaches us that idolatry, while eventually possibly expressed in statues, perhaps most of all is about presence and attention in our relationship with the Divine.