The Golden Calf
Based on Relationships: Beneath the Skin by Rabbi Leib Kelemen
by Braha Bender
Where is Moshe? Where is Moshe? The question sweeps through the camp like wildfire. Some ask with worry. Others ask with irritation. Still others ask placidly, confident that their trustworthy leader will soon return, but nobody is free of the question. Moshe (Moses) said he would return on the fortieth day. A large group of pseudo-converts from Egypt, the eruv rav, have pointed out in no uncertain terms that forty days have come and gone. They do not know yet that they have miscalculated. Where is Moshe? Nobody knows the answer.
How will they connect with the Almighty if they have no Moshe to speak for them, to listen for them? Moshe is the eyes and ears of the nation. All three million people, men, women, the elderly and the children heard G-d speak, but the first two commandments impacted the people so profoundly that their bodies had literally expired:
“G-d spoke all these words, saying: ‘I am God, your Lord, Who brought you out of Egypt, from the place of slavery. Do not have any other gods before Me.” (Exodus 20:1-3)
Upon hearing the direct communication of the Almighty Himself, their souls had departed en masse only for the people to miraculously be brought back to life.
Where is Moshe now? He had been there for them then when they had begged, “Moshe, please, receive the Torah for all of us. Be our messenger!” Death and revival twice had been enough. Back then, with the Almighty’s blessing, Moshe had agreed. They had all heard the Almighty tell him to come up to the mountain, and up he had gone.
No one has seen him since. They all knew it was supposed to be forty days and forty nights, but where is he now? The eruv rav claim that the forty days are over, and who is arguing? Will Moshe ever come back? Or is he gone?
How will they connect with the Almighty? They do not believe that they can connect on their own, alone, by themselves…
“We need a new messenger!,” rises the outcry in the camp, “ Some intermediary that will serve our interests instead of Moshe! Moshe is gone! Gone!” A strange air breezes through the camp now, a wildness, a darkness, a desperation. The men want action. The men want the women’s gold.
“When the people saw that Moshe was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aharon (Aaron), and they said to him: ‘Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moshe, who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don't know what has become of him.’” (ibid 32:1)
“We will build a golden calf!” Why a calf? At the splitting of the sea they had all seen it – the merkava, G-d’s chariot of glory, the spiritual mechanism through which the Almighty runs the entire world. All of creation is operated through this mystical, divine device. The word chariot is a metaphor, but a powerful one. The merkava is the vehicle carrying the presence of the Almighty. Yechezkel will see it later in history and describe it in his prophecy. As Yechezkel will write, on the chariot are depicted four animals. One of them is a calf.
The men believe that a golden calf, an idol of magic and power, will be their intermediary. They will use the calf like a spiritual remote control to manipulate the Almighty into giving them whatever they want. Do they still want connection with Him? Doesn’t the Almighty forbid connecting by means of an intermediary? No matter! Their minds are closed – the true desire of their hearts has been forgotten – they clamp their eyes shut and believe that whatever they want, the calf will provide.
The golden calf! The golden calf! The cry is a chant now, the buzz of a thousand hornets all intent on a single merciless goal. The men will build a golden calf to tweak the heavens, to control the stars, to bribe G-d Himself.
The women cry as the men wrench away their jewelry, melt it into the shape of a calf, and begin dancing. Dancing! The crazed mob spins like fever, like nausea unrelenting, twisting like a snake round and round. A bacchanalia of food, drink, and violent promiscuity razor blades the fragile holiness of the camp. Eyes are bloodshot. Children are screaming.
"These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!" (ibid 4) The lie shrieks triumphantly, spinning madly on the one leg it has to stand on. Someone brought us out of Egypt, right? And Moshe? Well, Moshe isn’t here!
…Until Moshe does return.
“Now it came to pass when he drew closer to the camp and saw the calf and the dances, that Moses' anger was kindled, and he flung the tablets from his hands, shattering them at the foot of the mountain.” (ibid 19)
And the perfect original tablets of Torah, crafted by G-d Himself, lay shattered on the ground. Broken. Broken like the bond between the Almighty and His beloved People. Broken like the trust between husband and wife. Broken like their hearts.
Golden calf? What have we done? Where was our emunah?
Why did we think we needed an intermediary? Manipulate G-d? Why did we think we needed to manipulate Him?
Hasn’t He proven His love to us a thousand times before?
What were we so afraid of?
Today, what are we so afraid of? Why do we continue to worship golden calves?
Excerpted and Adapted from the upcoming Adon Olam by Rabbi Zalman Weiss with Braha Bender