As the situation surrounding COVID-19 continued to change day to day, we like many synagogues last week decided to cancel services and other programs. Subsequently the directives to “social distance” and avoid groups grew, schools closed, and beyond just our Jewish community, our greater society is stepping back and isolating in order to slow the spread of the disease.
Last week we held our first virtual service: rather than all gather in our sanctuary, we gathered from the comfort of our homes over videoconference and live stream. It was in its own way sweet and meaningful, a demonstration of our desire to connect spiritually even if we need to disconnect physically. We will continue to gather in this way for the near future.
At that service, we turned to the Torah portion of Ki Tissa, which tells the famous story of the Golden Calf. Moses has been up on Mount Sinai with God receiving the laws and the commandments that will govern the Israelite people. The people, camped at the foot of the mountain for the past 40 days, grow concerned and unnerved. Their leader, Moses, who led them out of slavery and to this place, has gone, and while he said he would return he hasn’t yet.
The Israelites then turn to Aaron, Moses’s brother, who was left in charge of the people. They want him to build them an idol to worship. The God who liberated them from Egypt, who brought the plagues and split the sea, seems to have disappeared, and they need something on which to focus their spiritual energy. Aaron agrees to the plan, collects the gold, fashions the calf idol, and then the people begin to worship it.
Up on the mountain God is angered by the Israelites’s disobedience, and when Moses goes down the mountain he too is angered and smashes the tablets of the law. He destroys the idol and kills a bunch of the leaders.
The story is obstensibly a warning against idolatry, a message that the Torah teaches again and again. An idol is a substitution of the part for the whole. It is a denial of God because it is a denial of the oneness of all. It takes what is greater than us and reduces it to a tangible item. These are all reasons why idolatry is taboo.
But in this story, can you blame them? The Torah seems to make the Israelites the villain and Moses the hero. But can we consider Moses the villain too? Moses in his anger neglected to realize why the Israelites might want to make an idol in the first place. Moses in his focus on God and Torah—and himself—neglected to think about the people who were waiting for him.
The Israelites had been through the tremendous trauma of enslavement, and the shocking power of liberation. They had witnessed environmental wonders. They had left a life they knew to a life they do not know, and the one person who was their focus, their rock, had disappeared.
In building the calf, the Israelites were acting out of their fear and anxiety.
And that is where we find ourselves today; we too are in a place of fear and anxiety. We are facing a new reality and an unknown future. We need to recognize, unlike Moses, what we are going through and understand that the emotional reactions we are having are real and legitimate. We need to empathize with one another’s shared emotional state.
The question, then, is: what do we do with it? And maybe here is another “sin” of the Golden Calf. In their fear and anxiety the Israelites created a distraction that had the effect of getting them even more worked up. The idol was not a constructive response but a temporary focal point to direct their energy.
On the other hand, as we learned in the past few portions, the Israelites are going to be constructing a Mishkan, a Tabernacle, that will serve as their sacred space and community center as they make their journey. This is a place that will allow the Israelites to connect with God and with each other in meaningful and constructive ways.
The Israelites who are capable of building the Golden Calf in response to their fear and anxiety are also capable of building the Tabernacle in response to that same fear and anxiety. As with them, so too with us. In response to our own feelings, we can build idols, or we can build community.
How might the story of the Golden Calf turned out better if Moses had only realized the reality of fear and anxiety, and honored the place where the Israelites were coming from? We won’t make that same mistake—let us honor the fact that fear and anxiety are real, and that is our current reality.
And in response, let’s continue to think about ways of building not idols but our Tabernacle—our community ties that will support each other and help us weather this difficult time.