The popular television show American Idol seeks the most talented singers, hoping to promote each one as the next "superstar." There is a lot that is positive about American Idol. It is founded on the belief that there is the potential for great talent in anyone. The show allows "ordinary people" a chance they might not otherwise have to achieve the most they can in life. The success of the show has transformed the term "idol" from its original connotation of something false and deviant into something positive. Then again, perhaps the trivialization of the term "idol" is a hint to the shallowness of what popular culture truly values. The ultimate goal of American Idol , of course,is not simply to showcase talent, but to have the winner get "a major recording contract" (www.americanidol.com/about) . In this, the real purpose is revealed ― not fame, but fortune; not glamour, but gold.
The dramatic story of eigel hazahav , the "Golden Calf," is at the center of this week's parashah, Ki Tisa. Commentators debate what it is that the people truly yearn for when they say to Aaron, "Come, make us a god" ( elohim , literally "gods" [Exodus 32:1]). Rashi indicates that the people seek a pantheon of gods as a substitute for God. Many argue that the people are afraid because Moses has not returned from the mountain, so they want a "new Moses" (Ramban on 32:1), "someone to go before them" (Ibn Ezra on 32:1) as a leader. Others suggest that the "Israelites are demandinga god, rather than the God," hinting that any diversion from the people's fears of abandonment is as comforting as any other ( The Torah: A Women's Commentary , ed. Tamara Cohn Eshkenazi and Andrea L. Weiss [New York: URJ Press, 2008], p. 502).
Torah clearly forbids the making of idols (Exodus 20:4-5; Deuteronomy 5:8-9), so anything the people made would have been a transgression. But is there something more at work here, alluded to by the nature of the material with which eigel hazahav is made, the method by which it comes to be, and what happens to it afterwards?
The idol is made from gold ― the material used as the measure of wealth for most of human history. While there are other precious metals and commodities, gold has long been symbolic of wealth. There is, in Jewish thought, nothing wrong with the making of money. "Rabbi Yishmael said, 'One who wishes to acquire wisdom should study the way that money works, for there is no greater area of Torah study than this. It is like an ever-flowing stream'" (Babylonian Talmud,Bava Batra 175b). Emblematic of the fact that there is nothing inherently wrong with wealth is that the Ark of the Covenant is itself covered with gold "inside and out" (Exodus 25:11).
The issue is not the material used to build eigel hazahav , therefore, but how this material is used. The calf, like all idols, is false because it represents only a part of the whole and, more importantly, because it is seen as the source of greatest authority. The people of Israel had left Egypt, but they had not distanced themselves from a worship of the material plentitude they saw around them. Even as Moses ascends the spiritual heights, the masses return to a tangible, material "thing," assuming that this work ― the literal representation of their shared wealth ― is the true source of blessing.
The method of its construction reveals a second problem ― that of communal culpability. Five hundred years ago, Don Isaac Abravanel asked, "Why did God tell Moses, 'Your people . . . have made a golden calf' (Exodus 32:7-8), when it was really Aaron who made it?" (Abravanel on Ki Tisa 31:18, question 4). The answer is that while Aaron bore primary responsibility for the casting of the statue, the people as a whole gave him the authority to act on their behalf. Though a number of traditional commentators argue that only a small percentage of the people were involved (see, for example, Rashi and Ramban on Exodus 32:7), they miss the clear understanding of the text that the gold comes from "all the people" (Exodus 32:3). This is more than tacit acceptance of what their leader is doing. They endorse what they have done by saying, "This is your god" (Exodus 32:4). The text underscores the focus on materialism by noting that the people began "to eat and drink, and then rose to dance [ l'tzacheik , literally 'to play']" (Exodus 32:6). Then, as in every age, wealth led to an overindulging of desire.
After Moses rebukes the people for turning from God, he grinds the idol into a powder, sprinkles it over water, and has the people drink it (Exodus 32:20). In this, Moses seems to be teaching the people that the real problem of idolatry begins inside of us. After they were berated, the people might have been tempted to blame Aaron. Moses does not allow for such an easy deflection of personal responsibility. This act is a powerful, physical lesson that the idol is merely a symbol. The real idol is the internal desire ― and it can be eliminated only by, quite literally, flushing this false god of materialism out of their system.
We are in the midst of a time of great financial challenge, facing a reduction of wealth not seen in generations. Though incredibly painful, such a moment challenges us to reflect on what it is that we have valued. Surely the greed and deception of some has led to greater pain. But just as the people of Israel all gave in to the worship of gold, so, in recent years, did we as a society lose perspective. The time to "play" has come to an end, and while we can blame others, we must not shirk our own sense of having placed too great a store in the accumulation of "things."
The transgression of the Golden Calf is not the pursuit of money and acquisition of things per se . We turn from the truth of Sinai, however, when the measure of our worth is based in what we possess, and a day of reckoning inevitably comes. As Rambam taught, "Let the wealthy not revel in their wealth . . . but one should glory in knowing and understanding God . . . (so as) to act with mercy, justice, and righteousness" (Guide to the Perplexed 3:54, quoting Jeremiah 9:22-23).
Rabbi Irwin A. Zeplowitz is the senior rabbi at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, New York. He has taught at Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, JLearn on Long Island, and the URJ Kallah. He is immediate past president of the Alumni Association of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and was chair of the Joint Commission on Sustaining Rabbinic Education. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Something has always bothered me about this week's Torah portion: to regain control of the rebellious mob dancing around the Golden Calf, we engage in "righteous killing." Moses exclaims, "Whoever is for the Eternal, come here!" (Exodus 32:26). He proceeds to give instructions to the tribe of Levi to "slay sibling, neighbor, and kin" (Exodus 32:27).
On a smaller scale, such "righteous killing" had happened before, after the rape of Dinah (Genesis 33:18-34:31). Simeon and Levi massacred the perpetrators and their families. Many years later at Sinai, we kill three thousand of our own (Exodus 32:28). Arguably, if this did not happen, the story of our people could have ended in the wilderness.
What's God's response to the bloodletting? Killing even in the name of God requires a purification period; what had to be done had to be done, but there is a price. After the chaos is controlled, Moses tells God, "Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the record which You have written!" (Exodus 32:32). (Let's assume that "their sin" refers to those who killed to control the chaotic mixed multitude.)
Have you seen the movie Taken? In it, a former spy is forced to engage in righteous killing when his daughter is kidnapped overseas to become a sex slave.
I have four-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. As the movie progressed, I began to wonder what I would be willing to do to save my family. Could I engage in righteous killing? Could I even take the life of my extended family or neighbors if they stood in my way?
We can be moralistic and claim to know what "God" demands of us. But when we are forced to protect the good and welfare of our closest kin, what are we willing to become? In the aftermath, will we too seek purification for what we have done? Would we even have the chutzpah of Moses to demand forgiveness for engaging in "righteous killing"?
Rabbi Barry Cohen serves Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11–34:35
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 632–662; Revised Edition, pp. 581–606;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 495–520