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Two Sides of the Golden Calf

This week's parashah, Ki Tisa, includes the narrative of the Golden Calf. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, according to rabbinic tradition the incident of the calf is contiguous with the giving of the Ten Commandments and precedes the giving of the instructions for the building of the Mishkan/Tabernacle. Sinai and the Golden Calf are inextricably linked to one another. Sinai represents the creation of a relationship between the people of Israel and God. The Golden Calf represents, among other things, their refusal to totally let go of their past and also their inability to maintain their commitment to one concept, symbol or ideal if their patience is tested. In short, Sinai implies trust and the Golden Calf implies its rejection.

Aviva Zornberg discusses the fact that the two sides of the coin that is the Golden Calf may seem to be contradictory, yet are in reality complimentary, or perhaps even symbiotic.

One of the reasons given for the building of the Calf is the fact that the people believed that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain and so they said to Aaron "Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt - we do not know what has happened to him (32:1)." In reading this verse it becomes clear that the idolatry began long before the calf, for the people had already associated Moses with the redemption from slavery and not God. It has been said that idolatry is when people worship a part and confuse it with the whole. If God is the whole - the One of the Universe - then any human being, or any object for that matter, can only be a small part of the whole. But Moses, a mere human, becomes almost deified. According to one Midrash, Satan then shows the people that Moses is either dead or suspended somewhere between heaven and earth. In this mass hallucination, as Zornberg calls it, the people come to see "this man" Moses as no longer with them, and so they must create a new "god" to provide them with a physical representation of that which has no physical representation. They must substitute a new part to worship as a proxy for the whole. The people are unable to face God without Moses, just as they were unable to hear God's voice at Sinai, but instead relied on Moses to relay the message to. The people forget God and God's oneness and instead searched for a new god to worship (even though this new god was still, in reality, a representation of the One God).

As Zornberg puts it, this ultimate infidelity co-exists with an extreme form of fidelity found in the phrase "stiff-necked people" that we read for the first time in this narrative. According to Rashi (12th cent. France) and others, "stiff necked" referred to turning one's back on the present and future and maintaining an unexpected "fidelity" to old ideals. In the face of their belief that Moses was gone for good they revert to the old ideas of Egypt which they are unable to leave behind. In essence they are simultaneously unwilling to leave their attachment to the past and also quite willing to create a new object to replace God. The ultimate climax is when the people proclaim of the Golden Calf "this is your god, O Israel." In doing so they are not denying that it is the One God who redeemed them from Egypt, but they are content to conceptualize and represent the unlimited God in a very limited way.

This concept of human beings as unwilling to leave the past behind and yet all-too-ready to embrace new, albeit incomplete or perverse, ideas that give them comfort is at the heart of much of humanity's struggles. We can certainly apply these ideas to our lives at various times. For all of us, I believe, are suspended between these two poles, much as Moses is described in the midrash as suspended between heaven and earth.

Even if we look at the political situation in the world today it is easy to see how we get caught in the middle and in particular how human beings are inclined to confuse the part with the whole.

In the Iraq crisis I believe that many of our leaders are unable to let go of old ideas of how to combat hatred and evil in the world. Though there is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein is evil, I don't know that the stance currently being taken by our government is the most productive way to fight. I believe instead that it is our own contemporary form of being stiff-necked. At the same time it seems that Iraq has become the idol that represents evil to our nation, if not the world. Yet Saddam is only one part of the whole. Though I found the phrase "axis of evil" to be somewhat of a hyperbole, I do believe that there are many governments and leaders throughout the world that rule their countries based on hatred and fear. Not only Iraq, Iran and North Korea, but also China and other countries that we do have relations with, are guilty of perpetuating oppression, hatred and - yes - evil in our world. If we are going to truly fulfill the vision of our prophets then we must work to fight against all evil.

But the analogy of the idolatry of the Golden Calf also works for our view of justice and goodness in the world as well. As the only remaining superpower in the world I believe that our country often views itself as the whole rather than a part. We are the saviors. We are the source of righteousness and liberty for all. Yet, in reality, in order to create a world that is free for all humanity we must realize that we are connected to so many other countries and peoples as well. That is why I believe it is imperative that we only act with the consent of the world community as represented by the United Nations.

Now I have not always been a fan of the UN and I even protested against its decision to equate Zionism with racism in the 1970s. However, for better or for worse, it does represent the world community. We must therefore see ourselves as a part of it and operate within its guidelines so long as they are not antithetical to our core values - which I do not believe they are.

Being the only superpower does not give us the right to make unilateral decisions that can affect the entire world. Rather, I believe that it gives us the responsibility and the imperative to act in concert with the other nations of the world that are dedicated to the same or similar values. For if we set ourselves apart, as we have at other times in our past, we set ourselves up as the idol du jour and ultimately bring about negative consequences for ourselves.

Who knows what might have happened had the United States viewed itself as part of the whole during the isolationist pre-World War II era. And who knows what might happen if we continue to view ourselves as separate from and above everyone else in the current political climate.

I love and support my country, but I realize that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts, let alone one part - even if it is the largest part. I hope and pray that our leaders find a way to remember the lesson of the Golden Calf and focus on acknowledging the oneness of humanity and not the alone-ness of the United States. In this way we can hopefully bring about a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis, or if we do fight it will be together with the other countries of the world that are dedicated to freedom, justice and equality.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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