Is the Story of the Golden Calf a Love Story? A d’var Torah for Ki Tissa (and Valentine’s Day)

Today is Valentine’s Day, the day set aside to focus on romantic love. I know this holiday isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It might seem too commercial, a “Hallmark holiday” as it is sometimes called. And it is a day that is especially hard for those who are not in a relationship at the moment, or who are having difficultues, and I readily acknowledge that. Also, the violent history of the day—the capture and death of a priest who married soldiers in opposition to a Roman decree—is off putting to some and the clear Chrisitan roots give some Jews pause.

We do mark the day in our house. In the schools I think it to be cute how classes will exchange cards and small gifts with each other, an expression of friendship and affection that knows no boundaries. And we in our house exchange little trinkets and gifts—I traditionally get candy and socks—as signs of sweetness and affection.

This Shabbat, which falls on Valentine’s Day, is parasha Ki Tissa—famous for containing the story of the Golden Calf. The story is familiar to us: After leaving Egypt the Israelites travel to Mount Sinai. Moses up on the mountain meeting with God and receiving the Torah. The people down below getting restless, imploring Aaron to make them an idol. The idol is made and celebration begins. God gets angry and threatens to kill them all until Moses intercedes. Moses descends and is so upset that he smashes the tablets, destroys the idols and has a bunch of people killed.

The story is told mostly about obedience and lack thereof, the dangers of idolatry, the passion of God, and the “failure” of the Israelites and Aaron to recognize the true divinity of the one God.

But what if we read this story as a tale of love?

Love—ahavah—is not a foreign concept in the Torah, but is different than what we usually think of as romantic love. In the Torah (and I say Torah specifically, not thinking at the moment of the rest of the Tanakh with the erotic imagery of the Song of Songs and the lustful passions of King David) we do not have much of what we consider to be romantic love. Most marriages are arranged, and for those that are not explicit about the arrangements, we do not know exactly why they choose the spouses that they do. The famous dictum “Love your neighbor as yourself” is about how you behave towards your neighbor, not necessarily about how you feel about him. And loving God, as in the Deuteronomy passage that finds its way into our liturgy in the Shema, “you shall love Adonai your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” is a covenantal love which is expressed in action, observance of the mitzvot.

But while love is an act, it is also a feeling. And in the story of the Golden Calf, we see perhaps the playing out of the drama of love—full of passion, emotion, pain and ecstasy—and the desire for, and fulfillment of intimacy. The different episodes of the narrative demonstrate a dynamic in a close loving relationship:

The desire for intimacy: We usually read the desire of the Israelites as a lack of faith, a turning away from God to worship the idols they once held dear. But what if it the desire for the Calf is not a desire to turn away, but a desire to draw close? The Israelites are longing for intimacy, for close connection. The God who saved them from Egypt is remote, and now their one link—Moses—is also gone. The Israelites desire closeness, touch, feeling. The appeal for the Calf is an expression of love, not rejection. But as with matters of the heart, when we draw near in intimacy we run the risk of making mistakes and the stakes are so high.

The pain of rejection of unrequited love. God does not experience the building of the Calf as a desire for intimacy. God experiences is as a rejection of God’s advances. The Exodus was God’s expression of love towards the Israelites. God now feels that the love God extended is not being reciprocated. And as the Israelites may have made a misstep in the ways of love, so too does God. The ability to overinterpret and overanalyze the actions and motivations of our partners is immense. When that happens, we need…

The ability to express intense feelings in the safe space held by a partner. God gets upset and wants to destroy the Israelites. What does God say? “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them” (Exod. 32:10). What does God mean, the rabbis ask, by “let me be”? The midrash teaches in Exodus Rabbah,

By a parable of a king who became angry at his son and brought him into a chamber for punishment. There, as he began preparing himself to beat him, he kept shouting loudly, “Let me alone, that I may beat him!”–so loudly that he could be heard outside the chamber. The son’s tutor, standing in the reception room, said to himself: The king and his son are [alone] inside the chamber.

Why does the king keep shouting, “Let me alone,” unless he wants me to come in and plead on behalf of his son? That is why he keeps shouting, “Let me alone.” Likewise, when the Holy One said to Moses, “Now therefore let Me alone,” Moses reasoned: Because the Holy One wishes me to plead on Israel’s behalf, that is why God said, “Now therefore let Me alone.” At once he began to beseech mercy in their behalf.

God relies on the relationship and understanding God has with Moses—God wants Moses to intervene! Sometimes with an intimate partner we rely on that partner to anticipate our needs or to accommodate our emotional swings. In our intense emotion we give loving permission to our partner to intervene, to keep us in check, to allow us to get emotional, because with whom else can we let our true feelings show? This dynamic is sometimes part of the drama of love.

To play out this drama, we need to remember that when things go bad in the relationship, it does not mean the relationship ends. Rather the fact of the relationship itself is the basis for healing. God’s initial reaction is to destroy the Israelites and start over with Moses—“I will make of you [Moses] a great nation.” Moses, however, challenges God. You can not do that, Moses says, because you have already made a commitment to these people. You formed a covenant with their ancestors and therefore with them. You may be upset, but the fact of the relationship stands. You can not just abandon that relationship when things go bad. And is Moses’s plea, it is the appeal to the relationship—the covenant—which leads God to…

Forgiveness: When we allow our emotions to be expressed in a safe space, and we are reminded of the primacy of the relationship itself, we are able to forgive and make amends. The gift of forgiveness to a loving partner is one of the greatest gifts we can bestow. When we seek and grant forgiveness we are humble and vulnerable. These intentions are their most intense and their easiest when with a loving partner.

After trial and forgiveness comes the renewed desire for intimacy. At the end of the Golden Calf episode, what does Moses do? He too makes a renewed appeal to intimacy. I don’t really know you God, he says, even though I am with you are you are with me. Can you show me your glory, so I can truly know you? Moses perhaps is still feeling as remote as the Israelites did when they desired a Calf, and in his desire for intimacy he does not want to make the same mistake. He truly wants to draw close.

God acquiesces to the request, but states that Moses can only see part of the divine, a human could not stand to see it all. So he shows him God’s “back” or trace. The intimacy is forged, but with a bit of the mystery remaining. As with any intimate partner, there should always be more to discover and reveal. Even the person to whom we are closest we can not truly know.

And after this? A beautiful image of Moses ascending the mountain again and God descending in a cloud to meet him. And God “passing by” Moses and revealing the 13 attributes of mercy. (Exodus 34:4-7) After his second time descending the mountain Moses’s face is “radiant”—flush from the close and loving encounter with the divine.

While traditionally understood as a story of obedience and punishment, a polemic against idolatry and lack of faith, the story of the Golden Calf is a story of love and emotion and relationship. It begins with a deep desire to draw near and be close, an act fraught with the danger of taking missteps. It continues with anger and hurt over a seeming rejection of love, and a demonstration of emoting in the safe space guaranteed by a loving partner. It affirms that the relationship itself is fundamental, especially as a basis for forgiveness, which needs to be sought and granted. Then finally an expressed desire for renewed intimacy, to guarantee the same mistakes will not be repeated and an even deeper closeness can result.

A desire to draw close? Renewed intimacy following a period of difficulty? Revelation and mystery, radiance and satisfaction? The ever-strengthening of bonds?

Sounds like love to me.

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