By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
This Parsha, Torah Portion, contains one of the most dramatic episodes in the entire Torah: Moses struggles to the top of Mount Sinai, leaving Aaron to supervise the People of Israel. When the Master-Prophet fails to return after a short number of days, the multitude begins to chafe and rebel. To appease them, Aaron allows them to build an idol, a Golden Calf. Whether the Israelites were worshiping the Calf itself or the invisible god who rode it (there are many mythological traditions in the Middle East of a thunder-god named Baal—he resembled the Norse god, Odin—riding a bull, or calf, as a symbol of strength and potency) is immaterial. The sin was their turning away from the Invisible Power atop the mountain, for an easily-accessible golden toy at its foot.
Moses, of course, eventually returns, and is horrified to see the orgiastic abominations that the Israelites are committing. He smashes the Tablets, believing that the people are unfit to receive God’s Teaching. Following their punishment and penance, he makes the hard climb again, to talk God out of destroying the people, and receive a second set of Tablets.
It is significant that this dramatic, tragic event falls in the midst of a lengthy set of instructions for building the Mishkan, the “dwelling place” for God during this wilderness sojourn period. The Sefat Emet (pen name of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905) interprets Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 1040-1105), the prince of Torah Commentators, to explain that God’s original intent was to keep the People of Israel with Him always.
Rashi offers the Talmudic parable of the king’s beloved daughter, a princess, who (naturally) married a prince. The king would have loved to keep the newlyweds in his castle, but they were anxious to see the world and all its wonders.
The king therefore said to them, “Wherever you go, make a little chamber for me, and I will dwell with you.”
Rashi says, “This implies the building of the Mishkan, God’s sacred dwelling-place amid the Israelites, with all of its gold and silver decorations, and the sacrificial service of the priests and Levites. Had the sin of the Golden Calf not taken place, there would not have been any separation between God and His beloved daughter (Israel) at all. But once the sin occurred, God’s Presence in the Mishkan softened the blow.”
What does this mean to us Post-Moderns? We need religion to overcome our existential distance from God, especially in our impersonal, Internetted, computerized world, where our Social Security number is more valuable than our name. Mere spirituality will not suffice.
True, there are spirit-laden “Sinai Moments” in our lives—sacred lifecycle events like births, b’nai mitzvah, marriage, graduations, and anniversaries; holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, and Pesach—when we feel God’s Presence, there amid family and friends. But on other occasions, we need the warmth of temples, congregations, sung prayer, and Torah study to draw us closer to the God Whose love we all yearn for. “Sinai Moments” are precious in our lives, but temple moments are equally sacred, and far easier to achieve.
Do you seek God? Find Him in the welcoming, smiling faces of your fellow congregants; you will never be disappointed.
Arthur Green, Trans. & Ed. The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger. Phila.: JPS, 1998.