Nicholas Poussin, The Adoration of the Golden Calf
Torah Talk on Ki Tisa 5779
This week we read the traumatic Torah portion of Ki Tisa, the story of the Golden Calf. While Moses is up on Mt. Sinai receiving the 10 commandments the Israelites start to worry that he’s not coming back. And so, while God is carving the words “You shall have no other gods besides Me, nor make any image of them” into a stone tablet, the faithless people persuade his brother Aaron to make them an idol of gold, a calf, that they can call their new god. Pleased with the result, they worship it and then throw a big party, a bacchanal, a carnival, Mardi Gras in the Sinai.
Coming down the mountain, Joshua and Moses hear the noise from the camp below. Joshua is astonished, and thinks it must be the sound of battle, but Moses knows what a party sounds like. And when Moses sees all the cavorting, and the newly Chosen People worshipping a golden idol, he throws down the sacred stone tablets of the commandments, shattering them. The music and dancing stop suddenly. It is a shocking scene.
For the rabbis this is one of most dramatic and distressing portions in the entire Torah. The problem is acute: according to the text, our people witnessed the divine power of the Ten Plagues, were personally saved at the shore of the Sea of Reeds by God, received the direct revelation at Sinai—in short, experienced God more directly than any other group in history ever has—and almost immediately after turned around and rejected God in order to worship a cow made out of their own jewelry.
In rabbinic midrash this week’s events are called the Ma’asei Ha’eigel, the awful story of the calf. How can a people given such a clear set of signs and wonders, including direct revelation and verbal commands, only follow the true God for 40 days before pursuing such a ridiculous substitute?
The answer lies in our own makeup. We enjoy spectacle, are impressed by it, even awed by it—but as soon as it is gone its effects linger a very short time indeed. What makes us tick as human beings, what keeps us in line, is the very dailiness of regular rules and schedules, the kinds of laws and rituals that are very much a part of practical Judaism. We need both ritual and structure, and until these are provided in a coherent way we tend to flounder—even disastrously so, as we did at the time of the Golden Calf.
Without a way to connect to God regularly, without prayer services and a personal commitment to actually doing mitzvot each day, we quickly lose our ability to be holy. Instead we chase gold, or idols, or both. We become obsessed with our own pursuits, chase our own idols of gold.
We need more than grand ideas or sweeping spirituality: we need religion and a Jewish grounding in practice and experience, or we won’t be able to remain ethical. Without that we begin to worship Golden Calves of every kind.
At the end of Ki Tisa there is a denouement to this painful story of spiritual failure, providing a kind of limited redemption. Moses goes back up Mt. Sinai and brings down another set of tablets. And then he asks God to reveal God’s essence to him. Moses doesn’t get exactly what he wants, but he is provided the privilege of experiencing God’s passing presence. And then Moses, too, must continue to try to sense the presence every day thereafter.
In other words, even Moses, the best of us, the person closest to God, must continually seek God’s presence.
How much more so is that true for the rest of us Jews today, we modern-day Israelites? In spite of our failures of faith and action, if we nonetheless continue to seek to find God, we too will be blessed with a touch of that sacred divine presence. We, too, will find holiness.