Parshat Ki Tissa
Worshiping the Golden Calf was the first and arguably biggest communal sin ever perpetrated by the Jewish people. Before the calf, we were to be a holy nation and kingdom of Priests; after the calf we were forever tainted and got what we deserved; our own priestly caste. The Midrash says: “there is no generation that doesn’t take a small portion of the sin of the Golden Calf”. (Shemot Rabba 43, 3).
The common understanding is that the Calf was a momentary theological lapse. The generation of the Exodus replaced their newly adopted transcendent God for an old fashioned idol of molten gold. Theirs was that age-old stumbling block of idol worship. In his search for the infinite, man stops prematurely and settles for a piece of finite stone or wood.
The text suggests, however, that the Calf was not a God-substitute as much as it was a Moses-substitute.
And Aaron said: ‘Let not the anger of my lord wax hot; thou knowest the people that they are set on (or in) evil. So they said unto me: Make us a god, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him. (Exodus 32, 22-23)
Like much of the bible, the Golden Calf was not primarily about theology. The new god was to replace Moses, not God. Through the loss of Moses, it became clear to the people that they needed a new Moses. To Aaron, it became clear that the people had previously mistaken Moses for a god, an untouchable, a higher life-form, a singular messenger of God…. It became clear to Aaron and to us; the reader, that by his absence, Moses proved himself to the people to be just another common man. For the people, a common man would not do.
Theirs was not a misconception in the form or role of God, it was rather a misunderstanding in the newly defined purpose and powers of man. Theirs was not a lack of faith in God, rather it was in man that they were short on faith.
If the Calf had only been a mistake in theology, the affront would have been manageable. Rather the Calf showed that the generation of the Exodus Revolution had missed the whole point of the revolution. The Calf represented that day, when the sweet taste of a revolution turns foul.
The Calf represented the morning after the spring awakening. It was at this moment that Aaron, Moses and we can imagine; God, realized that the revolution was over. This was not a paradigm shift. These people just did not get it.
The Exodus Revolution had proclaimed that you serve only one God… and therefore … and this is the punch line… you serve no object and certainly no man or power produced by man. The Exodus Revolution’s credo was that you serve no man, no king, no priest, no angel, no messenger.. You serve only God. You cannot delegate your responsibilities and neither will God. By example, God did not delegate the revolution and neither can you. As it says in the Haggadah:
“The Lord took us out of Egypt,” not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger. The Holy One, blessed be He, did it in His glory by Himself.
Thus it is said: “In that night I will pass through the land of Egypt, and I will smite every first-born in the land of Egypt, from man to beast, and I will carry out judgments against all the gods of Egypt, I the Lord.
“I will pass through the land of Egypt,” I and not an angel;
“And I will smite every first-born in the land of Egypt,” I and not a seraph;
”And I will carry out judgments against all the gods of Egypt,” I and not a messenger;
“I the Lord,” it is I, and none other!
These newly liberated Jews had missed the point. They had replaced Pharaoh’s regime with a new regime to be run by this messenger of God, called Moses. It wasn’t that these small-minded people were bad רע rather they were just trapped in a bad place ברע .
These survivors were lacking in faith, not in God but in themselves. It was their misconception that a human being of flesh and blood cannot possibly talk face-to-face with God… the ultimate source of power. They did not believe in the spiritual and political power within man, or better yet, they were not willing to accept the responsibility such a belief created.
In the people’s view, Moses must have been a super-man. When Moshe failed to appear they realized that he too was only a common man. They built themselves another demi-god, not to replace God, rather to replace the common man.
And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: ‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him. (Exodus 32, 1)
The sin of the Golden Calf was ultimately the sin of timidity…. Which it turns out, may be the greatest possible crime a human being can commit. Timidity is an evil that every generation; every individual must protect himself from. [i]
The question we continually must ask as individuals and as societies: Do we dare to take control of our own destiny or do we leave such things for others, for others who are; comfortably for us, not quite human? In short, do we want to go back to the Egypt of the past where we were slaves, or do we move on to our promised land with the responsibility of freedom on our shoulders?
By not relating to Moses as a human being; as one of their own, the people deified him. They distanced his role from theirs, which conveniently provided them with an easy way out… just build a calf. We see a similar approach to philanthropy and social services today. Have a problem… delegate it to professionals and build an institution.
For the first time in 600 years, a Pope has resigned. There are those that argue that this abdication of divinity may be Pope Benedict’s greatest act. Only history will tell, and only Catholics need to deal with the nuances of how retirement reflects on infallibility. But for the rest of us, we certainly can use the Pope’s courageous and disruptive act to make us ponder the limits of political and religious leadership and how these limits reflect on us owning up to our own responsibilities. Certainly one characteristic that fundamentalists and orthodoxies have is a tendency towards hero worship verging on idol worship of their leaders and mostly male elders. Term limits for God’s Chosen sounds like a good idea, if only to teach us, from time to time, how to act without a leader.
The revolution started in ancient Egypt, ended at the foot of Sinai. The Exodus Revolution was short-lived and God accepted the wishes of the people. He had had enough. If they wished for an intermediary angel, an angel they would have. [ii]
At the end of the day, the limits that we impose on our leaders are directly related to the responsibilities that we accept upon ourselves as individuals, each created in the image of God. Personal responsibility and self-empowerment is the ultimate lesson of the Golden Calf.
[i] When I was studying in Yeshivat Be’er Ya’akov, a Mussar Yeshiva under the guidance of HaRav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l I was introduced to the quest for greatness… Gadlut and its opposite; the sin of smallness Katnut קטנות .
I also came across the writings of a brilliant Rabbi who tragically died at 34. He combined the best of the 19th century Jewish movements of Mussar and Hasidism and his name was Avrohom Eliyahu Kaplan. In his book: Be’ikvos haYir’ah he writes in poetic terms about the false humility that is idol worship:
It is not pride that holds us back, but rather humility. We are humble and not brash. Our souls are like widows, without anything to lean on or security, without the power of knowledge. A humility not in God’s name is this; rather in the name of laziness that is in despair that is in laziness. It is for the poor who are happy with their portion.. that is, in their spiritual [portion].
It is this same misplaced humility that Nelson Mandela allegedly warned against on the day of his inauguration:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’ We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. (click here for actual source of quote)
[ii] And now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee; behold, Mine angel shall go before thee; nevertheless in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them. (Exodus 32: 34)
and I will send an angel before thee; and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite– unto a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people; lest I consume thee in the way. (Exodus 33: 2-3)
God challenged the Jewish people by fulfilling their desire. I will keep my promises. You will go to the land of Milk and Honey. You will live happily in your land, and rooted in the land you will remain. My spirit will no longer bother you. You will no longer merit my anger. You will continue to be a stiff necked people, unable to govern yourselves and insensitive to the spirit, to the challenge of growth … stiff as a corpse. The fate of the Jewish people was put into their own hands. To be satisfied with “the good life” or to meet the demands of a life worth living. The generation of the Exodus took the first step.. they recognized the calamity of their mistake:
And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned; and no man did put on him his ornaments. (Exodus 33:4)