Beyond the Drama of the Golden Calf

When I signed up to lead the weekly study circle at my synagogue, I did so having no idea what Torah portion I would be getting, but I trusted that whatever I was assigned would hold some specific meaning for me. And it did.

When I opened up the Bible to the section, Ki Tisa, (Exodus 30.11-31.17), I felt as though my strictly observant grandmother had reached beyond the grave to choose for me the passage she most thought I needed to review.

That’s because I inadvertently signed up to study the section of Exodus in which Moses receives the Ten Commandments, the Jews’ worship the golden calf, and injunctions to observe the Sabbath, and keep kosher are discussed. In short, this parsha contains key Jewish laws—all of which I am guilty (to greater or lesser extents) of breaking.

For example, in my work as a self-help author specializing in dreams and mindfulness, I am often invited to yoga retreats and ashrams where I participate in ceremonies featuring Hindu deities, and these programs often take place on Saturdays.

And when I try to justify my actions to myself or observant relatives, I can hear my grandmother’s voice loud and clear saying, as she so often did, “You can’t pick and choose” which parts of Judaism to observe and which to dismiss.

She never called me a stiff-necked Jew, the epithet that first appears in this section of the Bible, by the way, but the implication was that I was just that: stubborn and disobedient.

And yet the fact that I spent several hours this week on the couch studying the Torah, rather than watching the latest Netflix series or doing whatever it is your average American does in their weeknight leisure time, attests to the fact that I’m a deeply spiritual and even religious person.

A Golden Opportunity

So, here’s what I learned: While the drama about the Golden Calf, God’s ensuing fury, and Moses’ tablet-crushing tirade pretty much steal the show, there are also subtleties and subplots I’d missed on previous readings.

For example, why were the Jews worshipping that golden calf to begin with? As it turns out, they hadn’t just idly (so to speak) decided to defy orders. Instead, while Moses was off conferring with God about the Ten Commandments, they felt a spiritual loneliness in his absence, and asked Aaron, who’d been left in charge, to give them a god to worship in the meantime. Yes, they chose to fill this spiritual yearning with something inappropriate, but isn’t that what any of us who’ve found ourselves on the couch in front of the TV with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and a spoon on a Saturday night were doing? Isn’t it what people who turn to gambling, shopping, alcohol, over-work, or any number of modern-day idols, are doing? We are trying to fulfill a nagging hunger at the core of our being, rather than connecting with spiritual nourishment. What’s more, the golden calf was made from the Israelites’ own gold jewelry, which to me indicates a sacrifice of material wealth in the service of a spiritual goal.

But neither God nor Moses seem to have taken these mitigating circumstances into account. God is so furious with his people that he tells Moses he will obliterate them with the fire and fury of his rage. For his part, Moses smashes the tablets and destroys the statue, and then forces the Jews to drink the water in which he’s thrown the bits of gold dust.

In some ways this is just the backdrop to what I read as another chapter in the ongoing story of God’s evolving relationship with his people, and they to him.

In one Bible story after another, starting with Eve’s disobedience in the Garden, we the Jewish people disobey and disappoint God. Time and again God considers destroying us and starting over. And again and again he agrees to stick with us anyway.

In this parsha, not only does God agree not to kill the Jews, Moses persuades Him to come down from the Mountain and go forth with the people as they venture out through the desert. In making his argument, Moses doesn’t sing the Jews’ praises. Instead, according to some rabbinical interpretations of the Hebrew word “ki” used in his plea, Moses asks God to accompany the Israelites, not “in spite of” the fact that they are disobedient and stubborn (stiff-necked), but because they are all of those things. God agrees, not as a reward for their good behavior, but because their bad behavior shows how much they need him.

Relationship Building

Further, this reading offers a teaching about the dangers of either having too distant a relationship to God, or one that is too close.

At the beginning of this story Moses is the exclusive mediator between God and the Israelites, bringing communications back and forth between the two. Many religions are built around this type of system with priestly leaders buffering against direct communication with God, which can easily be interpreted through a cynical lens as a way to control people. But in this story we can also see this layer of distance as a kind of protection on behalf of the people. Without Moses as a mediator between God and the Israelites, they would have been wiped out by God’s anger.

But the danger of this type of indirect and more distant relationship is also revealed. As we saw earlier, when Moses is not available, the people are left with a spiritual emptiness that led them to idol worship. Had they had a vehicle for a more personal and direct experience with God, perhaps they wouldn’t have asked for the golden calf to begin with.

But it’s not that simple. In this story we also see what would happen if people were allowed to interact directly with God. When Moses asks to be able to see him, God agrees only with strict limits in place: Moses may view only his back in passing, but never his face. Even that level of contact leaves Moses with what is described here as a radiant glow, like a light sunburn. Imagine what might have happened had he seen God’s face full on. More prosaic dangers include the temptation to justify lazy or harmful choices by using self-serving interpretations of God’s word or will.

So this portion shows us both the dangers of too close a relationship with God, but also with one that is too distant and impersonal. Thus, I feel we are invited to find a healthy balance between experiencing God in our own hearts through meditation, prayer, and contemplation—while aiming to stay true the teachings of the Torah, and also relying on our Rabbis and other spiritual teachers to help us safely walk the line between the two.

So, studying these passages has reminded me that God loves us and will stay close to us, not only in spite of, but also because of, our stubbornness and disobedience. As individuals and as a people we have proven that this stubbornness has a positive side, too. I—and we—remain devoted to our faith despite the personal inconveniences of living a Jewish life in a world that can be at best indifferent to and at worst intolerant of our desire to do so.

As a people we’ve stubbornly stuck to our Jewish identity and religion despite relentless waves of anti-Semitism, pogroms, and genocides.

So, yes, I am a stiff-necked Jew, who is trying to negotiate her relationship with religion, God and her own heart. Studying this portion, and wrestling with these questions, is for me what it means to be a Jew, as much as taking off from work on Saturdays, or not having a glass of milk with a roast beef sandwich.

I invite you to review your own relationship with the Divine in light of these teachings:

  • How do you connect closely with the Divine?
  • How do you benefit from being obedient to the traditional teachings of your faith?
  • And how does your heart help you mediate between the two?