The meaning of the golden calf


In this week’s Torah portion, just 40 days after receiving the Divine Revelation at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people become anxious that Moses their leader will not return from on top of the mountain and they make for themselves a golden calf. In the midst of their sensual, noisy, Dionysian worship of the calf they exclaim, “This is your God of Israel who took you out of the Land of Egypt.”

How could a people who had experienced the splitting of the sea and the giving of the Ten Commandments by God at Mount Sinai commit such a grave act of treason against their benevolent redemptive God?

According to Rabbi Shlomo Isaac (Rash’i) the Jewish people are not so much rebelling against God as reacting primarily to Moses’ absence, like children without guidance feeling forsaken by their parent. According to Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (Ramb’n) they were indeed rebelling against God, not because they did not believe God had wroth miracles for them but because spiritually all they could relate to at this point was a concrete God to guide them on their journey, not an infinite One.

I would like to suggest an additional approach.

Though some commentaries argue that these Torah portions are not in proper chronological order, in the Torah as it is written the story of the golden calf proceeds directly after the laws of the Tabernacle and the Shabbat.

Both the tabernacle and Shabbat are places of kidusha, of holiness, in space and in time respectively, and both the holiness of the tabernacle and the holiness of the Sabbath are achieved through limitation and boundary.

This Jewish people, only 90 days redeemed out of 200 years of slavery, do not know how to see the depth, and indeed the freedom, in limitation.

The Jewish people at this point are without focus and can not understand, as the existentialists often write, that only in limitation can their be true freedom.

Even their worship is unbounded, they want a God they can put their hands on and worship with abandon.

The midrash tells us that the tikun, the fixing of the sin of the golden calf, is that the Jews give gold of their own free will and from their hearts to build the Tabernacle and they give more than enough. God does not limit their giving as before to only a half coin, but lets them give with abandon. Their passion is curbed from selfishness into holiness, from their unbridled desire emerging an unbridled giving, to an other, to the community.

According to the Zohar (I:61a), strangely one thing that emerges out of the sin of the golden calf is the ability to procreate. Just as in the case of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, had they not sinned they would not have had children, so too had the Jews not sinned with the golden calf they would not have had any children. God now gives them the opportunity for true expansion, holy God-like creativity through their passion and thus helps the Jews where they are at to take what was sinful and transform it into holiness.

This Shabbat may we learn how to take our own idols and desires and transform them into building a tabernacle for God.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham Congregation prepared this week’s Torah Portion.