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The Golden Calf: Yesterday and Today

Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35 )

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

The battle for life is the battle for sanity.

As Cecille B. DeMille would say: "Let's set the scene." The Jewish people have just stood at Mount Sinai and heard the Ten Commandments. Their trusty leader Moses announces that he's going up the mountain for 40 days – to learn more Torah and get the stone tablets. The Torah describes what happens next:

The people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron, and said to him, "Make us a shrine which will go before us. We have no idea what became of Moses, the man who brought us out of Egypt..."

The people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron, who cast them into a molten calf. Some of the people began to say, "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt." (Exodus 32:1-4)

The question is obvious: If the Jews had just witnessed God's awesome power in the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the revelation at Mount Sinai, how could these same people turn around and worship a Golden Calf?!

The answer is that the Jews never built the calf to be worshipped.

Here's what happened: When Moses said, "I'm going up the mountain for 40 days," his intent was 40 full days. The people, however, mistakenly included in their count that first day – thus expecting Moses to return one day earlier. (For example, if today is Sunday, and I say you've got "one week" to get a certain job done – it's confusing whether you've got until Saturday or the following Sunday.)

So when Day 39 rolled around, the Jews began to wonder: "Where's Moses?" This caused great anxiety. For although the people knew it was God Himself Who'd orchestrated all the miracles, it was nevertheless Moses who'd raised his staff for the Red Sea to split. They relied on Moses as captain of the team around whom they rallied to get the job done.

Their fundamental mistake? They lost patience, the serenity of knowing that life is a process and everything happens in its time. This lack of trust in made them lose touch with reality and – fueled by fear and anxiety – their imaginations began to run wild.

On Day 39, the malcontents in the camp seized on this energy and began circulating rumors that Moses wasn't coming back at all. The Talmud says that they managed to instill so much doubt that the people actually saw a vision of Moses dead! (So strong is the power of suggestion.)

Then the Jews reasoned: If Moses isn't coming back, we must craft a replacement. And so the Golden Calf was born. Not as an idol; not as a rebellion against God. But as a figurehead. A mere shrine to replace the missing Moses.

The next thing you know, it's full-blown idolatry.

Lack of Focus

What happened?

Maimonides explains that idolatry is not a single step, but rather a process. In the old days, someone would carve a piece of stone and call it the "sun god." He'd want to pay tribute to God as creator of the sun. Before long, they were worshipping the sun itself. They believed that something other than God was the ultimate source of strength and salvation.

Today, it's not uncommon to believe that money, fame, stock options, status, an iPhone, or good looks is our source of fulfillment and happiness. Treating something other than God as having ultimate significance is the very definition of idolatry!

People start off focused and clear on the priorities of life. But then we get sidetracked and may even forget what we're truly living for. We imagine that putting our trust in [fill in the blank – money, power, beauty, prestige, etc.] will bring me happiness.

Ask the typical high school senior: "Why are you going to college?" He's likely to reply, "Because I need to get a job." "Okay, why do you need a job?" "So I can pay my bills and have peace of mind to pursue the important things in life – family, friends, passions." Check in with him 10 years later – he's likely working 60 hours a week with no time for family, friends or passions.

Lack of Focus

After Moses came down from the mountain and smashed the Tablets, he issued a pronouncement to all Jews:

"You can now turn back and avoid tragedy. Stop worshipping the Golden Calf and affirm your loyalty to God."

Only the Tribe of Levi, comprising about 3% of the Jewish population, accepted Moses' words. The other 97% remained stuck in their failed venture.

How often do we see someone continuing a destructive relationship simply because they're deeply invested and stuck. The physical or emotional gratification may have us hooked. And once we're in, it's hard to stop.

Recently at a young adult discussion group in Los Angeles, my colleague Rabbi Nachum Braverman tried an experiment. He held up a $20 bill and made the following announcement: "We are going to auction off this $20 bill to the highest bidder. The only catch is that whoever finishes as the second-highest bidder, also has to pay their bid, getting nothing in return."

The bidding began in a fun and festive tone. Quickly the bidding passed the $20 mark and was down to two final bidders. At that point, each bidder had to outbid the other in order to avoid becoming the second-highest bidder who would pay for nothing. The mood in the room turned ominous, as everyone realized that someone was about to lose a lot of money! The bidding reached a frenzied panic, the two contestants, locked into a no-win situation. The room was breathless. And finally, that $20 bill sold for $76. Crazy.

It's true what they say: "The fight for life is the fight for sanity."

Many times in life, we hear a little voice in our head saying, 'Stop the idolatry.' Something will challenge us to stand up and be counted. In which camp are we? Do we have the clarity and conviction to stay on the right track? Because how we respond will have implications not only for us, but for generations beyond.

The lesson of the Golden Calf is to think about what we're doing. What starts innocently may turn out tragic. Have we lost sight of our true priorities? Are we being swept away by the mob?

We need to take a deep breathe and read the signs being sent to us every moment. With the right clarity, when we hear the voice, we will stand up and be counted.


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