Torah Reading for Week of March 4 – March 10, 2012
“The Golden Calf and You Tube”
By Tamar Frankiel, Ph.D., AJRCA Dean of Academic Affairs
The people were desperate. “This man Moshe, we do not know what became of him!” (Exod 32.1) “Get up!” they said to Aaron. “Make us gods that will go before us.”
In a three-millennia retrospective, we can see that the disappearance of Moshe, together with their uncertainty about the new life they were being asked to undertake, had created a vacuum of terrifying anxiety. The image of the calf, fashioned by Aaron, provided a salve – “This is your god,” the people said to one another. Aaron tried to distract: he built an altar and declared a festival to G-d the next day. The people brought offerings, as one might expect, and had a festive meal. But then they left Aaron’s altar and got up “to revel,” l’tzachek, to laugh and dance joyously around the calf. The temporary salve now represented salvation.
But there was a yet darker side. The midrash tells us that Hur, the grandson of Miriam, tried to stop them and was murdered. Nothing and no one could stand in the way of their fervent determination. That murder is not explicit in the text; it is inferred from the fact that Hur simply disappears. But it hints at a great anger behind the apparent joy and relief.
Their rage was like that of a child abandoned – or perhaps more accurately, an adolescent who recognizes that he cannot stand on his own two feet, though he hates being dependent. Similarly, the Jewish people had accepted responsibility at Sinai, asserting their willingness to do what G-d asked of them. They would guard the covenant and keep the commandments. But when Moshe did not return as expected, their resolve collapsed. In their fury – really a fury at themselves as much as Moshe, they demanded another god be made for them; and then like adolescents, they immersed themselves in what looked like spontaneous joy, dissolving in collective frenzy.
A few weeks ago, a media event recorded the anger of a teenage daughter against her parents expressed on Facebook, and the father’s response, recorded on You-Tube, of shooting her computer. Both father and daughter turned to the social media, our version of dancing around the calf, reveling in collective emotion. We know, however, that what father and daughter really needed was not Facebook but face-to-face encounter, a meeting not on the tube, but one where “you and I” actually speak and listen to one another.
What parents and children often lack is the personal meeting, the I-Thou of which Buber wrote. What the Israelites missed when Moses left was also personal. True, they had given over to him the role of talking to G-d, “You speak to us and we will hear – let God not speak to us lest we die” (20:16). Nevertheless, through him – as often through our religious leaders when they are authentic and sincere – the people had sustained their connection to the revelation at Sinai. In replacing Moshe with another god-image, they thought they could restore themselves. But they were wrong.
The Torah says, “Moshe saw the people, that it was exposed, for Aaron had exposed them to disgrace among those who rise up against them.” Rather than being heroic, they were disgraced. Like those who “expose” their emotions on reality television, talk shows, and social media, they became an archetypal bad example.
When Moshe returned, he addressed the issue in a healing mode. He publicly destroyed the stone tablets, lest they too become a fetish. That might remind us of the father destroying the computer. But he went much deeper: he led the people through rituals that enabled them to recognize what they had done, pursue teshuvah, and receive forgiveness. They had to drink water that contained the gold of the calf, ground to powder. They humbly removed the ornaments they had acquired at Sinai. They had to watch Moshe going in and out of his tent, praying for their forgiveness. And they had to wait once more – this time bearing silently the burden of his absence – until he returned with his face alight, bearing the new tablets.
Only following Moshe’s model, learning to reflect within themselves, could the Jewish people overcome their instinctive reactions. Only this slow development of humility and patience could prepare the people for what was yet to come.