The Golden Calf: A Story
Sermon Ki Tissa 2018
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Golden Calf: A Story
We humans are fickle. We dedicate ourselves to the highest principles, only to be seduced by our basest instincts. There is always that danger that we focus too much on fragmented self-interest and we find ourselves trusting in the idolatry of the immediate.
But you weren’t there. What would you have done?
We witnessed miracles and Revelation. We saw the angel of death in Egypt and the Torah of life at Sinai. We were redeemed and covenanted. In our religious enthusiasm, we donated gold to the Sanctuary in the desert. We trusted.
Yet it wasn’t enough, it seemed.
Moses disappeared. He ascended the mountain to encounter God and we were left wondering how long he would be gone. Moses had always kept his promises. God provided for us in the desert, sated us with manna, quenched our thirst with Miriam’s well. Still we didn’t trust.
Moses was a day late, or so we thought. We panicked.
This desert adventure is scary. We felt lonely at the camp, lost in the unfamiliar, divorced from the only life we knew. Despite the prayers and sacrifices, we felt unsettled.
It became harder and harder to remember why we fled from Egypt in the first place. At night, under that invincible desert sky with the Milky Way strewn across it, we felt very small.
We approached the next-in-line; Aaron. We needed something that we could touch, taste and feel. At least in Egypt, things were real. The pyramids and the Nile, temples housing the finely crafted statues of the gods. We served motherly Isis, friend to the oppressed, the falcon-god Horus and feline Bastet. We had our fleshpots there, bread and cucumbers. We had work. Oppressive work, but a job is a job, you know? We weren’t free but we had a place.
And now we were in the desert, that placeless place, the empty space where the only thing you will encounter is the mirage of yourself. Praying to this faceless God. We didn’t trust this situation at all.
‘Aseh lanu elohim asher yelchu lefaneinu!’ we commanded Aaron (Ex. 32:1). ‘Make us gods who will go before us’. Aaron heard the anger in our voice. What could he do? He stalled by requesting all our gold jewelry, from our husbands and our children. I didn’t want to give, honestly. None of us women did. But we saw the men give and we didn’t stop them. Maybe Aaron thought that this confiscation of the last of our securities would change our mind. It didn’t. Then he stalled by building us a singular idol, the egel, the golden calf. Perhaps he wanted to limit our idolatry to one god rather than many.
We bowed down to it and relapsed to the familiar. The golden calf gleamed majestically in the sun as we proclaimed, ‘this is your god, oh Israel, who brought us out of Egypt!’
Aaron tried to stall us one final time. ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to God!’ he said. But we didn’t trust in tomorrow. Tomorrow is invisible, just like that Israelite God with that breathless name, a presence hovering at the edge of our vision.
We celebrated. Well, it got a little wild, to be honest. If we didn’t trust in God, how could we trust in our own moral compass? If tomorrow cannot be trusted, then we only have today and we need not think about the consequences. We danced till the stars became a blur; we drank and indulged in the pleasures of the flesh. ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife’, that last of the Ten Commandments, was far from our mind.
But God saw. Moses came down the mountain and heard our debauchery. In fury, he smashed the tablets of the Law into a thousand pieces of shattered covenant. Moses ground our idol into powder and made us drink it. It tasted bitter, of disappointment and betrayal.
Then Moses made us choose. “What people are you”, he told us. “One moment you bring offerings for the Sanctuary, and the next moment you tear the rings out of your daughters’ ears for your idols! Do you not know that idols have mouths but cannot speak, have eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear? Those who make them shall become like them!”
“Where now is our God?” we thought. We have the right to doubt and the obligation to question, don’t we? It is hard to trust. But we found out the hard way that the alternative is far worse. What happens if we take a fragment as the whole? Idolatry is about investing things with more meaning and power than they deserve. Until it grows so large that it eclipses what truly matters.
“Whoever is for the Eternal, come here!” (Ex. 32:27). Moses tried to rally us but we didn’t hear his call.
Still our idols tug at us. Things we think are so important. Have we really changed? Look at us now, all those years later.
The glint of money, the gleam of power… it is easy to pay obeisance to these. We fuel this furnace but the only thing we do is burn ourselves down. Ultimately all this falls away. What remains is the Unseen and Eternal. Love, life, ideals of justice, of compassion, of human dignity. Written on our hearts, offering us a focus on the whole, of how this precious and tender life fits in the perspective of the One Who loves us with an eternal love.
1 Reference based on Bavli Shekalim 1:1 ‘said Rabbi Aba Bar Acha, ‘There is no understanding the character of this people! They are solicited for the Golden Calf and they give; they are solicited for the Sanctuary and they give’’
2 Based on Psalm 115:4-5
3 Another reference to Psalm 115:2
4 Reference to the Haftarah from 1 Kings 18:21
5 Ibid, 1 Kings 18:39