February 21, 2003 by Morris Seeskin
During my childhood, there were two Biblical stories that puzzled me more than any others. One, of course, was the binding of Isaac and the other from today's parsha was the golden calf. I didn't understand why the Israelites standing at Sinai, waiting to receive the Law of The Almighty, would turn to such a base form of idolatry. As I have matured, both stories have remained puzzlements. To help make some sense out of the story of the golden calf I offer this midrash.
By our tradition when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, across the Sea, and into the desert and later when he brought God's Law down from Sinai, all the Jewish people were there. Not just those we might think of as being present, but all those who would come. Your grandparents were there, so were you, and so were your as yet unborn childrens' childrens' children. Remember from the Passover Seder the story of the parent telling the wicked child, "It is because of what the Almighty did for me, when he led me out of Egypt."
Thirty two hundred years ago the Jewish people stood at Sinai to receive the word of Adonai, and by tradition each of us here tonight was present when Moses descended. Moses led YOU and ME out of Egypt and came down from Sinai with the Ten Commandments while YOU and I watched. By tradition we all were there, not just in spirit, but actually there.
Remember now what happened in those long ago days. Our ancestors had been slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt for 400 years. During that time the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel had become a distant memory. Then one day Moses arrived from the Land of Midian. He said that he was an Israelite, but there were rumors that in fact he was an Egyptian, possibly of the royal house or maybe a priest. He claimed to have spoken with the almost forgotten God of our ancestors. Aided by Aaron, who he said was his brother, he demanded that Pharaoh release us from slavery. Some of us took him at face value, but many of us had doubts, doubts about Moses, doubts about his motives, doubts about his authority, and, yes, surely doubts about his invisible God.
Moses and Aaron said that unless Pharaoh let us go, their God would afflict the Egyptians with plagues. Pharaoh's heart hardened and he resisted. Ten plagues followed. Some said that the plagues were natural events and others said that they were evidence of a test of powers between Moses and Pharaoh's court magicians. Some said that Moses won a battle of wills with Pharaoh, that he wore Pharaoh down. Others said that he was lucky. Still others said that he was just a better magician. Of course, some said that Moses prevailed because he was doing God's will.
Whatever really happened, after the slaying of the first born of the Egyptians, Pharaoh finally relented and said that we could leave. Moses said it was due to the power of his invisible God, but many, maybe most, thought that Moses had been lucky, had outwitted Pharaoh, or possessed more powerful magic.
Moses led us out of Egypt in the middle of the night. By the time we reached the Sea, Pharaoh had changed his mind and sent his forces after us. The Sea parted and we crossed, but Pharaoh's pursuing forces drowned. Again Moses said it was due to the power of his invisible God. Moses and Miriam led us in songs of praise and thanksgiving. Many again said it was magic. Some thought it was natural, having to do with tides, winds, and the weight of people on foot as opposed to warriors on horseback and in chariots. Many of us weren't sure about the cause, but were not inclined to challenge Moses.
Moses goaded us into the desert. He said that God in the form of a pillar of smoke during the day and a pillar of fire at night would lead us. Not everybody believed him, but the pillars he promised did appear. They hardly seemed natural, but those who leaned toward magical explanations were sure that they knew what was going on. We all followed Moses and the pillars nonetheless. We wandered for months, finally arriving at the base of a mountain called Sinai.
One day Moses called us all together. He said that this mountain was holy to Adonai, who had summoned Moses to the summit to receive God's Law. Moses told us to wait in our camp at the base of the mountain for him to return with the Law. On pain of death we were not to touch yet alone ascend the mountain.
After months wandering in the desert, everybody, particularly the elderly, the infirm, and parents with young children, appreciated the opportunity to rest. We settled into daily routines and waited for Moses to return from the mountain. We mended torn clothing and tents. We repaired broken equipment, utensils, and tools. Injured and sick people and animals healed. Friends gathered around campfires to share memories and to tell stories. Children played.
Days passed and we waited. People began to wonder. How long would Moses be gone? What if he were hurt? What if he were dead? How would we know? A few wanted to climb the mountain themselves, but Aaron forbade it and no one was willing to oppose him.
Days turned into weeks and still we waited. We saw lightening at the summit, we heard thunder, and we were fearful. Some talked about returning to Egypt. No one said that directly to Aaron, but he knew. At least in Egypt there was real food to eat. Back to Egypt? Who among us knew the way? How would we recross the Sea? What if Moses returned to find us all gone? Wouldn't Pharaoh pour out his wrath on any who returned, particularly if Moses wasn't with us? We waited. In fear we waited.
One week ran into another. Real fear, a sense of dread, resided in our camp. At times even Aaron seemed to waver. During the days small groups of men gathered and talked in hushed tones, always looking to be sure that no one else overheard. At night husbands and wives whispered their fears to one another. The hearty stopped looking at the old ones, as if their mere looks would kill. The children seemed to understand that they might have no future at all. The boys became much more aggressive in their play; the girls turned inward, hiding in their tents.
After a month, ... after a month, life, if we can call it that, was filled with outright terror. Still there was no sign from the mountain. Moses had led us into the desert and abandoned us. Aaron stayed in his tent, afraid to face the community. Miriam, too, was unseen. Even Joshua, the fearless one, showed doubt in his face. People openly cursed the day when they had listened to Moses, following him out of Egypt and into the desert. What kind of God led people out of slavery and into the hostile desert to sit, to sit and wait, to sit and wait and die?
Do you now remember how it was? As we neared forty days in that hellish desert, someone recalled the almost forgotten story of Noah and the rain that killed everyone not in the ark. God had promised no more such floods, but had said nothing of the arid desert heat. Fear became terror, terror became anger, and anger became rage. The whispers were now spoken aloud. The spoken word became uncontrollable sobbing and screaming. Do you remember those days? All pretense of supporting one another disappeared. Moses was surely dead and soon we all would follow.
I was there to hear the first mention of the calf. I was ready to grasp at any hope and I was not alone. Do you remember? We gave our jewelry to make the calf. Aaron understood our need. We danced and we sang and we revelled. Lovers embraced. New lovers were found. After forty days of fear, hope returned and we welcomed it with wild abandon. We forgot about Moses and his invisible God.
And then, ... there he was..., Moses, with a radiant face and two stone tablets in his arms. There he stood and the rage that had so recently been in us rose in him. Ah ... the rest you know.
Until I started writing this D'var Torah, the meaning of the golden calf episode had escaped me. Think of it. The message we were to hear was the word of Adonai, our God. The messenger was Moses. We turned away, unwilling to accept the message and unwilling to listen to its holy messenger. Instead we chose to be with our ignorance, our fear, and our anger.
That was three thousand two hundred years ago when you and I were at Sinai. Today ... well today, the message of God's Law is the same. The messenger, though is different. Moses died before crossing into the Promised Land. Today the messengers are rabbis, teachers, and friends in Torah Study groups. Still today we often turn away from God's Law. We turn away in ignorance, fear, and anger.
And yet, we are only human and incapable of strictly following God's Law. God understands this, even if we do not always. What is more important than our strict compliance is that we strive to comply with Adonai's Law. It is the striving to comply rather than strict compliance that truly matters. Notwithstanding the golden calf, Aaron became the High Priest and the Israelites became a kingdom of priests, a holy people.
Despite our many faults, weaknesses, and set-backs, may we be counted among those who strive to comply with God's law.