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Idolatry, Security, and Surety

03/01/2024 01:30:13 PM

Mar1

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Ki Tisa, the story of the infamous Golden Calf. In this week’s (M)Oral Torah from T’ruah opens with a story from Rabbi Andrea Goldstein recalling a Bar Mitzvah student who compared the Golden Calf to a small child’s security blanket. Just like this other Rabbi Goldstein, I also feel struck by that comparison. It’s not the first time I’ve thought that the Golden Calf incident displayed an understandable display of childish behavior from the Israelites, but many years I come down more harshly on them as a people who witnessed such miracles first-hand and yet still gave over to impatience and fear. This year, I find I am more sympathetic than ever to the excuse of the Israelite’s spiritual immaturity and the comfort of the Golden Calf like a security blanket.

            Not all that long ago, someone gifted me a weighted stuffed unicorn. It is incredibly soft and cute, but the weight of it is truly soothing. I find myself making sure it is in reach every night, if not already in bed with me (my cat gets jealous if its in her spot, but she’s a cat so she doesn’t always want to be in her spot in bed with me either, so I need options). My mom has a similar thing, a dog she acquired during the quarantine period of 2020, which is not only weighted and soft but also microwaveable like a heating pack. And, she and my dad have taken to posing it and taking pictures of it joining them on their travels or with housework, not only as though it were animate but in face anthropomorphic. It’s very cute and amusing, but also pretty weird. Here we are, completely grown adults, who still have security and comfort items of our own. I’m not saying we worship these toys, but they certainly provide a physical soothing and companionship that an abstract faith in an ineffable God doesn’t really provide. Of course, we also don’t experience God in the kind of direct way the ancient Israelites of our Exodus story does. Ineffable and unknowable as Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh is in the story, there’s still the plagues, and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and the terrifying Divine voice crackling around Mt. Sinai before the people send Moses up to talk to God one-on-one. I’ve had spiritual experiences before, but nothing as vivid as all that.

Maybe all the more so, because all they had known previously was the idolatry of their ancient Egyptian overlords, and more recently they have come to know a God that was so personal and visible, in the quiet of God’s and Moses’s absence at the bottom of the mountain, they needed something they could see and feel, and maybe even fear. To create the Golden Calf, their gold needed to be melted down, a great fire needed to be built, there’s something sort of dangerous and exciting about the creation of such an idol, just as I’m sure the people were frightened and (hopefully) excited by God’s presence forty days prior. 

When in times of uncertainty and loneliness, it seems that all the more so we need tangible comforts, obvious evidence of an order to the universe or to the presence of abiding love all around us. For the Israelites, that was the moment the clock ticked “forty days” and Moses wasn’t back, and no further proof of God was visible. For many, that was the early days of the pandemic. For my household at the moment, it’s the uncertainty around health and the future of our family planning. It would be great to have an awe-inspiring synesthetic episode where we can feel assured of our direction, of the grand plan to life, of the rules and steps required to experience maximum safety and security, not only for ourselves but for everyone. But we are not likely to get that. I think it should be ok, and even expected, to look elsewhere for the soothing and validation we need, as long as we don’t mistake them for being the end-all-be-all.

When the Calf emerges from the molten mush, Aaron says, “Behold this is your God who led you out of Egypt.” Although the TaNaKh does reiterate in many ways throughout the whole of the text that idols are inherently wrong, I am going to suggest a reframing of this story that the real crime is claiming the idol is equal to HaShem. To anyone facing a period of uncertainty, grief, or other struggles with your mental or physical health, my blessing this week is for you. May you find the comfort and security you need, wherever you choose to look for it. May you remember that God is not necessarily comfort, and comfort is not necessarily God, but they don’t necessarily cancel each other out either. And may we all feel closer to one another and to a Divine love this Shabbat and always. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784