Parshat Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11–34:35
Shortly after witnessing the Divine miracles of the Exodus from Egypt first-hand, the Israelites found themselves building an idol: a Golden Calf (Exodus 32: 2-6). It is astounding to imagine how this could happen: Didn’t these same Israelites just witness the true power of God’s justice and mercy? Were they not witness to the greatest contravention of nature with the splitting of the Red Sea? Yet, as the Torah relays to us, Moses disappears to bring forth God’s law while this great betrayal occurs. The Israelites, yearning for freedom from the moral depravities of the Egyptian mindset now find themselves returning to it at the first moment without the guiding hand of their appointed leader. Surely, this could have been the end of the Jewish people.
But was this really only a one-time occurrence in history? We might ask ourselves: Don’t we Jews today have our own Golden Calves? Are there not false idols we worship at the first sign of a leadership vacuum?
Let’s step back and think for a moment about the most vital issues that are important to contemporary Jews. In other words, what is Judaism all about? Perhaps, for us, the best expression of Judaism is about supporting Israel, or about volunteering, or about the legacy of community institutions we’ve been privileged to be members of; maybe the love for our particular Jewish denomination and ideology is of principal concern. One wonders when these priorities become more than interests, and move into the realm of something darker. When all of Jewish life becomes concretized into a single priority, at the expense of broader ideals, we have indeed moved on the path of building something akin to the Golden Calf.
As important as it is for community members to affiliate with a synagogue, or a Jewish cause, or building a local institution, imagine if we replaced that No. 1 priority with the priority of becoming more akin to the Creator? What if we were to work each day on our spiritual attributes and our moral character? What if we spent less time wondering what others owe us and think about how to use our resources to give back? Rather than asking what local institutions and leaders were going to provide for us, we need to ask: “How could I help build and support others in the community who need it the most?” Instead of arrogantly worshipping something concrete and knowable, we humbly yearn for the unknowable. Instead of persuading others toward our answer, we engage together with the questions.
At that same moment as the Israelites were building a Golden Calf, Moses was completing his holy task and coming down the mountain with the stone tablets upon which the 10 Commandments were etched. Upon witnessing the worship of a false God, the foundations of the nascent Jewish people shook. In that myopic moment, the tablets — which were imbued with a holiness that we can never dream to imagine — lost their sanctity to the point that Moses could only break them in despair. Indeed, when our Jewish communal life is simply about institutional competition, business models and philanthropy at the expense of values-driven character development, and when our isolated model becomes the golden calf, the holiness of the collective Jewish enterprise dissipates, indeed shatters. Communal fragmentation. Trust lost. Every zero-sum game.
But even after the Jewish people strayed, not all was lost. For there is only one God of truth, love and justice. And the ideal way to serve this God, the rabbis teach, is to emulate the holy Divine attributes such as becoming more compassionate, even after we fall short. Let us love and develop the Judaism that works best for us. At the same time, let us not lose the big picture of a much grander inheritance and merely worship the “god” constructed in the image of our projected desires. Each of us, conservative or liberal, Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform, institutional or post-institutional, cultural or religious, millennial or boomer, has the power to transcend the allure of false idols and take up the challenge to zoom in and zoom out of how we best operate to make the world a better place. We do this not only for ourselves, but for our posterity in the thousands of generations to come. JN
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of 13 books on Jewish ethics.