As former slaves, the Israelites were no strangers to backbreaking labor to glorify Pharaoh and Egyptian deities. During their transformational journey from Egypt to The Promised Land, the Israelites build two notable structures for their own use. The first, the, the portable Tabernacle, was commanded by God, with its details shared throughout the book of Exodus. The other is the Golden Calf, which is described in this week’s Extreme opposites in impact and legacy, these two structures represent the best and worst uses of human capital and wealth in the face of fear.
Throughout their wilderness journey, the Israelites struggle with feelings of insecurity. At times of challenge, they long for what they knew, their old lives. They complain bitterly, “What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?...it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14:11-12)
The construction of the Golden Calf is rooted in this continual sense of dread. In Ki Tisa, while Moses is away for days receiving the law from God on Mt. Sinai, a faction from among the Israelites confronts Aaron, demanding that he make them a god to lead them. Aaron responds by ordering the men to “tear off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” (Exodus 32:2) The collected earrings are molded into a calf and the people exclaim, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4) Jewish tradition considers the idolatrous worship of the Golden Calf to be the gravest sin committed by the Israelites, with God’s punishment for this disloyal act continuing for generations. (BT, Sanhedrin 102a)
In the, the school of Rabbi Yanni (Israel, 3rd c. CE) taught that Moses defended the Israelites and faulted God, saying, “the gold and silver You lavished upon Israel [during the Exodus from Egypt] until they said enough… caused Israel to make the [Golden] Calf.” (BT, Berakhot 32a) This attempt to diffuse God’s anger against the unfaithful Israelites upholds the idea that wealth is a naturally corrupting force. The counter argument is that the Israelites’ creation of the Mishkan demonstrates that wealth can be used for good. It was fear and trepidation, not wealth, that led to the creation of the idolatrous Golden Calf.
Our tradition grapples with why the Israelites became fearful in Moses’ absence. The rabbis offer an imaginative explanation that the Israelites became worried due to a miscommunication concerning Moses’ return. When he did not reappear at the expected hour, Satan misled the Israelites with the lie that Moses had died. (BT, Shabbat 89a) According to this explanation, building the Golden Calf was the desperate act of a people who feared being leaderless.
A more rational explanation of the Golden Calf was given by Judah HaLevi (Spain, 12th c.), who argued that the Israelites were “unable to dispense with an image to which they directed their worship” because they were, surrounded by pagan idolators. (The Kuzari, as quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Exodus, 550) HaLevi’s words highlight the discomfort the Israelites felt during the shift from inhabiting a world of polytheism to one of monotheism centered on a deity without form or body. In Moses’ absence, they revert to the Egyptian ways.
A structure devoted to God, the Mishkan also addresses the Israelites’ unease. This portable Tabernacle provided focus for the Israelites’ connection with God, as described, “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8) God, however, is not limited to any space. In a midrash, Moses even asks, “Master of the Universe, the highest heavens cannot contain You, and yet you say, ‘Let them make Me a sanctuary?’” (Pesikta DeRav Kahana 2:10) Rabbi Umberto Cassuto (Italy, 20th c.) provides this answer: “Once they set out on their journey [leaving Mt. Sinai], it seemed to them as though the link had been broken, unless there was in their midst a tangible symbol of God’s presence among them.” (A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 319) The Mishkan, therefore, is designed to sooth the Israelites at a time of discomforting transformation.
During times of uncertainty, we can react in a Golden Calf manner, trying to replicate the past, or in a Mishkan manner, gathering others’ talents and resources to find a solution for the common good. Communal anxiety runs high today, and it is tempting to seek comfort in what we have known and done before. Transformative solutions, however, require that we move forward to stability and the betterment of all. In fear, what will we choose to build?
May we build a Mishkan as an answer to the challenges, leading us forward, connecting us to God and each other.