This week’s Torah portion begins with Exodus 32:1 (Everett Fox’s translation, The Five Books of Moses, Schocken):
“Now when the people saw that Moshe was shamefully-late in coming down from the mountain, the people assembled against Aharon and said to him: Arise, make us a god who will go before us, for this Moshe, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!
Aharon said to them: Break off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons and your daughters, and bring (them) to me.
All the people broke off the gold rings that were in their ears, and brought (them) to Aharon.
He took (them) from their hand, fashioned it with a graving-tool, and made it into a molten calf.
Then they said: This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!"
This – the Golden Calf – is the model of idolatry in the Hebrew Bible and for many cultures and communities for the last few thousand years.
The question that occurs to me is, “Why did Moses take so long before he came back to the people from the summit of Sinai?”
And when I looked at what the story says is going on at the mountaintop, a great proportion of it is not the Ten Utterances, not the rules and regulations of sacred daily practice, but the description of the portable Sanctuary, the Shrine or Mishkan. Descriptions of gold, silver, purple, scarlet, fur, cloth. Great detail.
Almost as if God become obsessed with the Shrine. Almost as if the Shrine, the Mishkan, had become God’s Own golden calf, God’s own idol. From that perspective, not so surprising that the response of the people was to create an idol.
Imagine a story in which God spoke briefly: Build me a Shrine. It needs a slaughter-site, incense, gorgeou colors. Go figure it out!
Would the people have gotten so fearful, feeling so abandoned, that they needed an idol?
What does this teach us? It reminds me of a story in the Talmud: Some of the ancient Rabbis decide to hunt for the evil impulse that stirs some people to give in to idolatry. They hunt and hunt, and finally find it hiding in the most sacred place, the Holy of Holies at the heart of the Temple.
Both tales warn us: It is possible to turn what is most holy into an idol. Those who destroyed the Twin Towers in New York, killing about 3,000 people, said they were avenging the US desecration of the sacred sites of Saudi Arabia by putting military bases there. They turned that sacred land into their idol. Some Catholics refused to cleanse the Catholic Church of child abusers because they did not want to bring the sacred Church into scandal. They made the Church into their idol. Some Jews have refused to criticize the Government of the State of Israel when it maltreated Palestinians because they thought they were protecting Israel’s reputation. For them, Israel became not a sacred place of freedom but an idol.
With the true God, you can argue and criticize as Abraham did. With the true God you can wrestle, as Jacob did, giving the name Yisrael, Godwrestler, to the whole people. An idol is what you must not criticize. An idol is what you think too sacred to criticize. An idol is what you think so sacred you can kill the innocent to protect it.
Look around. Ask yourself, your true Self: have I mySelf turned what is holy into an idol?