One of the episodes in the Torah that is most difficult to understand
is the story of the Golden Calf. Not only is it almost incomprehensible
that a nation which saw the hand of Hashem redeem them had become
so perfidious. After such majestic revelation, the words that
they used to declare the Golden Calf as their new god are inconceivable.
The Torah tells us that Moshe, according to the Jews' calculations,
tarried in returning from Sinai's mountaintop. The Jews panicked.
Egyptian converts who joined the Jews at the exodus stirred the
crowd. So Ahron stalled for time. He asked them to donate prized
possessions -- the gold and silver that were taken from the Egyptians
and now were worn by the women and children. The men didn't wait
for their spouses. In the most enthusiastic response to an appeal
to date, they gave their own gold. This gold meant a lot
to them. It was their first taste of freedom in 210 years. But
they gave impulsively and passionately. Ahron took the gold and
heaved it into a large fire, and with uncalled-for input from
a few sorcerers, a Golden Calf emerged. That was bad enough.
What is more striking is the declaration of the nation that followed.
The people danced around their newly created deity and shouted,
"These are your gods which brought you up from the land
of Egypt!" (Exodus:32:8)
What could they have meant? Could they truly have thought that
the molten image of the Golden Calf led them from Egypt? It's
an absurdity! Surely they did not believe that a Golden Calf was
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman of Atlanta, in his recent work Tales
Out of Shul, related that he once made a hospital visit to
a gentlemen from south Georgia. He promptly received the following
"Dear Rabbi: Thank you for visiting my husband in the
hospital. I thought that orthodox Rabbis just sit and study and
pray all day. I am pleased that you do not."
Another time, Rabbi Feldman writes, he was on a plane, and
due to overbooking he was bumped up from economy class to a seat
in the first class section of the aircraft. During the entire
flight, a major Jewish philanthropist, who was seated in first
class as a matter of monetary right, kept staring at Rabbi Feldman
with a look of curious displeasure. As they were departing the
aircraft, the wealthy man could control himself no longer. "Excuse
me, Rabbi," he imposed. "Do you always fly first class?"
At first Rabbi Feldman was taken aback but he composed himself
and without apologies he comfortably replied, "Doesn't everybody?"
People have impressions of defining actions, moments, and behavior.
"Orthodox Rabbis pray all day and don't tend to the sick."
"A Rabbi is paid to fly in economy class -- not first class."
The same holds true of mitzvos. Often we designate certain
mitzvos as the raison d'être of Judaism. Certain
mitzvos or ideals become a cause celebré as others fall
to the wayside. We ignore some as we point our fingers to our
favorites and shout, "This is our god!"
The Jews thought that Moshe would never return. They were left
in the dessert with nothing -- except one mitzvah. Their
beloved leader Moshe had asked them to ask the Egyptians for gold
and silver. And they did. That gold and silver represented their
emergence into freedom. It was the remnant of the glory of their
redemption and the now-missing man who importuned them to ask
for gold. It was all that reminded them of the man that gave them
a sense of pride and justice. That gold now stood in front of
them in the form of a calf. That gold was now their god! They
had chosen a mitzvah, cherished it, danced about it, and unfortunately,
now they worshipped it.
The author is the Associate Dean of the
Yeshiva of South Shore.
Drasha is the e-mail edition of FaxHomily, a weekly torah facsimile
on the weekly portion
which is sponsored by The Henry and Myrtle Hirsch Foundation