Parashat Ki Tisa
It had all started so well, a dramatic departure from Egypt, the parting of the Reed Sea, the miracles of deliverance and redemption still vibrating in the communal memory, G-d had acted to set us free! Moshe had gone up to receive the teachings we were now to live by, and then… tragedy strikes. Just how did we get from the amazing spiritual highs of the Exodus and Sinai to the fashioning of the Golden Calf? Ideas abound: Some say that the apparent delay in the return of Moshe from being with the Lord on the mountain caused us to be impatient, and that led us to fear that we had been abandoned; in desperation we turned again to the ‘gods’ of Egypt, in particular here the Apis bull worshipped in Egypt. We had feared the cult of this ‘deity’ because of the state power that came out of it via the priests and Pharaoh. Maybe if we worshipped it now we could also have that power for ourselves and our nation in Moshe’s absence.
But the truth remains that this event of worshipping the Golden Calf is deeply problematic; Aaron whose actions would apparently make him complicit in the sin of idolatry, stays unpunished by the Lord while others are judged. The mere fact THAT Israel could drop to such a spiritual low so rapidly also caused the sages and rabbis a real problem. But happen it did, and for whatever reason (some speculate that Aaron feared for his life because Hur is no longer mentioned, i.e. that the mob had already killed him) Aaron fashions the idol and causes, or allows the fake festival to take place (because of his unwillingness to restrain the people from sin). It is a very sorry state of affairs.
But let’s be ‘charitable’ for a moment too. It is possible to see an attempt by Aaron to steer the people towards the Lord (on the surface). He says when talking about the idol now made ‘tomorrow is a feast to Adonai’. Well, it wasn’t. It was a man-made festival dressed up in quasi-religious garb to placate the masses. This had nothing to do with the Lord, and everything to do with the people themselves. It was what they felt they NEEDED spiritually at that moment, like a spiritual plaster; but such motivation never produces righteousness. Likewise it is possible that Aaron thought that by compromising the truth with error it would keep the people loyal to G-d and him. But compromising truth never bought loyalty from anyone. Aaron sensed, maybe even discerned the situation correctly, but rather than instruct the people unto righteousness he caved in to what was spiritually expedient. In fact his error came out of two areas: an unwillingness to take responsibility for the people’s real spiritual health, and secondly overplaying the emotional aspects of the situation. He thought that by surrendering to their supposed needs at that moment and generating an emotionally driven response that the people would stay true to the Lord. But they didn’t. It’s the truth that sets free and the truth that holds you close to the Lord. Idolatry can do neither because it is fake. And what we see here with the golden calf is illustrative of all idolatry: it is emotion driven, what feels right, attracts the senses, taste, touch, sight. Idolatry appeals to the flesh because it is in its very essence sensory and seems to satisfy the immediate spiritual or emotional needs of the individual. It appears as such in the cultic religions in Roman and Greek times where there were temple prostitutes who ‘helped’ the worship, and even in pagan religions where fertility rites had to be performed etc.
Idolatry is connected with the basest of human drives and emotions. Why so? Well it actually takes us to a puzzle that sheds some light on this concept. In Psalms 115:4-8 we read ‘Those that make them are like them’. Just who is fashioning whom here? The idols are just dumb objects, as the passage here says, can’t speak, smell etc. And yet apparently those who make them become like the idols… The idols in themselves are nothing, they are not gods. Yet somehow there is an inter-relational thing going on according to the Torah. Isaiah talks about the idols our own hands have made, and here is the clue: the idol represents our own projected selves, who WE are not who the supposed deity is. In fashioning an idol we create a deity in our own image, expressing the things that we want, need, allowing the practices that we want to do, giving the full expression to the deepest and therefore often basest of human drives and emotions. It is in fact carnal. Suddenly we can see what the Psalmist means when he says ‘those who make them are like them’, they have to be because they are the projection of self and the meeting of personal needs, either emotional, quasi-spiritual or the desire for control and power in life. The idol as a false god IS an extension of sinful and corrupted humanity in full flow. That is why we are commanded to never take our eyes off of our G-d, and allow HIM to mould us and not the other way round.