The people (ha-umm) saw that Moshe delayed in descending the mountain, and
the people gathered around Aharon and said to him, "Rise up, make for us
gods that will go before us . . ."
It's like buckling down before a storm. It's like boarding up the windows
and taking all the necessary precautions in advance of a terrible storm
that you know is coming your way while it is still calm.
We began a few weeks ago with Parashas Terumah, which was the start of the
portions that deal with the Mishkan and the service within. However, in
this week's parshah, as the rabbis teach, the Mishkan was only the response
to the golden calf, the antidote, if you will, to a human tendency to want
to worship physical objects.
Of course, the worshipping of physical objects is never permissible,
because it is the essence of idol worship. Therefore, the Mishkan could
only be, at best, a physical place to go and worship the non-physical God,
and a vehicle to focus us and help us to remain focussed on the one, true,
non-corporeal Creation of all that exists.
Thus, even though the previous parshios come before this week's parshah in
the Torah, historically, they occurred after. The golden calf occurred on
the 16th day of Tammuz, towards the end of the first set of 40 days that
Moshe had ascended Mt. Sinai. The instructions to build the Mishkan only
descended with Moshe at the end of the third and last set of 40 days that
Moshe ascended the mountain.
From the 11th day of Tishrei (Seder Olam 6), over the next three months,
and until the 25th day of Kislev (Seder Olam 7), the future date of
Chanukah, the Mishkan was constructed with all its many implements. It
wasn't permanently erected until the following first day of Nissan (Ibid.),
in deference to the birth of Yitzchak Avinu, who had been the ultimate
sacrifice to G-d.
Nothing new so far.
However, later, Rashi writes the following with regard to the mitzvah of
the Parah Adumah - Red Heifer - used as the central part of the
purification process after one has come into contact with the dead:
RED HEIFER: It can be compared to the son of a handmaid who dirtied the
palace of the king. They told his mother to come and clean up the
filth. Thus, the heifer comes to atone for the calf. (Rashi, Bamidbar 19:22)
In other words, as Rashi points out, the Red Heifer atoned for the sin of
the golden calf. The golden calf returned death to the world - which the
Jewish People escaped when they said, "We will do and we will hear" - and
the Parah Adumah atones for defilement by the dead.
Thus, if the analogy is accurate, the Parah Adumah was also a greater
insight into what the golden calf truly represented. For, of all the
mitzvos incumbent upon the Jewish people, the mitzvah of the Parah Adumah
is the most perplexing of all, since in the process of purifying someone,
it results in defilement of the one performing the process itself.
It is the quintessential paradox: Like two people washing from the same
tap, except that one person's hands become clean, while the other person's
hands become dirty. So elusive is its explanation that Shlomo HaMelech,
the wisest man of all time (after Moshe Rabbeinu himself), wrote:
I said about wisdom that it is distant from me. (Koheles 7:23)
The Talmud says that it was in reference to understanding the basis of the
mitzvah of the Parah Adumah that Shlomo HaMelech wrote this (Niddah
9a). But, what does any of this have to do with the sin of idol worship,
or the replacement of a great leader?
"Rise up, make for us gods that will go before us, for this man Moshe who
brought us up from the land of Egypt - we do not know what became of
him!" (Shemos 32:1)
So, that was the entire rationale for committing an act of idolatry,
because of a missing leader? If what they really meant was, "Oh, good, now
that we see Moshe is not coming back, we can finally build idols once again
and not get yelled at, and killed for doing so!"
However, that does not seem to have been their intention behind their
words. On the contrary, it seems that because they missed Moshe, they were
drawn to replace him with the calf. Surely they were sophisticated enough
to know that a golden calf wasn't going to provide the leadership and
miracles that Moshe Rabbeinu himself had provided until that point in time!
Rather, Moshe meant more to the people, especially the Erev Rav - Mixed
Multitude - whom he had taken out of Egypt with the Jewish People. Moshe
Rabbeinu represented answers, an address to go to when life became
confusing and seemed direction-less. He represented resolution - just the
opposite of what the Parah Adumah represented.
If we go back in time to when death first came into the world, we find a
similar idea. Whatever rationale Chava used when deciding to violate the
mitzvah of abstaining from eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and
Evil, the Torah sums it up this way:
And the woman perceived that the tree was good for eating and that it was a
delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a means to wisdom,
and she took of its fruit and ate. (Bereishis 3:6)
Chava did not have to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
because it was edible; she had plenty of other trees to satisfy any need
she had for fruit. Nor did she have to eat from the fruit because it was
appealing to her eyes, for that is rarely a reason to eat anything,
especially when it is forbidden to do so.
Rather, the fact that the tree provided wisdom, something that Chava in her
heightened state of awareness could appreciate - that was a different
story. Especially since she had not died from touching the tree, as Adam
had told her she would, and she experienced for the first time intellectual
She could have waited until Adam had come home from work that day. After
all, he had only been in another part of the Garden while the snake was
pushing the fruit on her. Any questions she had, any doubts she had
experienced could have been resolved by her husband and teacher shortly, if
she had only waited.
If only she had waited. However, she didn't wait. Eating from the fruit of
the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil also represented an answer to her
question: If I did not die from touching the tree, would I die from eating
it? Adam HaRishon, at the moment, had represented "distant wisdom,"
whereas the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represented an on-the-spot
We are still paying the price for Chava's impatience for wisdom. And, as
Rashi says, we are still paying a price for the sin of the golden calf as well:
There is no punishment that comes to the Jewish people that is not
partially because of the sin of the golden calf. (Rashi, Shemos 32:34)
Really, they were one and the same sin: Impatience for resolution, the
opposite of, by definition, what the paradox of the Parah Adumah
represented. As Shlomo HaMelech, the very man who represented human
ability par excellence to bring about resolution, had to admit that, when
it came to the Red Heifer, he could not find resolution.
Not that it did not exist, but rather, that it existed on another plane
altogether, one that he had not been permitted to reach in his life. The
Parah Adumah was "distant wisdom," and he would have to wait to attain it,
or meet with disaster trying to find a short cut, as Chava did before him,
and as Shlomo did when he decided to marry 1,000 wives against the Torah's
It happened as he drew near the camp and saw the calf and the dances, that
Moshe's anger flared up. (Shemos 32:19)
Perhaps one of the most difficult questions to resolve in human history is,
where is all of this leading? Is this world all there is, or is this world
just a corridor to another one, as many traditions teach? And, if there is
another world after this one, what is it like - better or worse than this one?
The Torah doesn't speak about the World-to-Come. It barely even alludes to
a future world, which is quite bizarre considering that so much is riding
on one's belief in such a reality. I can't remember the last time I told a
secular Jew, "Look, the only reason why the Torah does not speak about the
World-to-Come, is to make sure that you serve G-d for altruistic reasons,"
and he answered, "Oh, now I get it. Where do I sign up?"
The question is not a pressing one when mitzvos are enjoyable to do. The
question doesn't even get off the ground for the rare individual who simply
loves G-d so much that he performs every mitzvah that comes his way, no
questions asked. And, it may not arise for the Jew who knows no other way
of life than the one he was raised into, in this case, Torah Judaism.
However, for countless others, Judaism without a clear-cut belief in reward
for mitzvos in the World-to-Come is like playing basketball without the
ball, and the multi-million dollar salaries to go along with it, as
well. Who is going to run back and forth across the court without a ball
to put it through the hoop, even for tons of money?
According to the Talmud, G-d appreciated our impatience, and imbued Shabbos
with a little aspect of the World-to-Come, so that we could at least
"taste" it enough to know it will come at some point in the
future. However, it is not so easy to get that taste, and for many others,
it is not enough of a taste to convince them that it is worth sacrificing
the forbidden pleasures of this world for one that may or may not exist, or
may or may not be better.
Thus, the golden calf also represented this impatience as well. By all
accounts, the golden calf represented an abandonment to the present, to the
pleasures of this world without thought or care of what the future
World-to-Come may offer. It was the symbol of the philosophy of, "eat,
drink, and be merry, for who knows what tomorrow will bring."
Well, when "tomorrow" came around for Adam and Chava, it brought
death. And, literally, on the morrow after the golden calf was fashioned,
death reigned in the Jewish camp as Moshe punished those guilty of their
part in the sin. The message for all time: Those who sacrifice the
World-to-Come for this world usually end up losing both worlds:
He took the calf that they had made and burned it in fire. He ground it to
fine power and sprinkled it over the water. He made the Children of Israel
drink. (Ibid. 20)
So much for the golden calf.
Then G-d struck the people with a plague, because they had made the calf
that Aharon has made. (Ibid. 35)
So much for the pleasures of this world.
I shall not ascend among you, for you are a stiff-necked people. (Shemos 33:3)
Personally, I do suffer from stiff necks on an ongoing basis, but I don't
think that this is what the Torah is talking about. The Torah, of course,
is referring to our stubbornness to get the message - THE message.
We Jews are big gamblers, and likewise, big losers as well. Time and time
again, we have gambled away the future in the name of the
present. Historically, diversions away from Torah have rarely been
ideological, usually being a matter of convenience, of comfort.
When the force of a Torah lifestyle has come head-one with the persistent
reality of Western living, for many the resolution has been immediate and
in favor of physical gratification. The Western world does not wait for
anyone, and it rarely offers second chances, and mockingly taunts, "You're
going to pass me up for something you've never seen or experienced? "Yes,
I am." "Are you that gullible?" "No, I'm not, but I'm going to do it anyway."
In the beginning of our history, the answer was mostly, "yes, we will do,
and then we will understand." There were some stragglers who jumped the
Torah ship even before they had planted their feet firmly upon
it. However, now, towards the end of our history, it is only the small
minority who answer in the positive, the large majority having little, if
any, interest at all in Torah and its promise of eternal reward.
It was no different before the Holocaust either, but probably vastly
different during it. The Holocaust divested Jews of just about every last
earthly possession they had, and had to have made many wonder if they
should have pursued a more spiritual lifestyle in the end.
As the World Trade Center, the symbol of the goals of Western society and
the icon of financial prowess, burned to the ground, the people inside the
building probably wondered, if they had time, what had it all been
for? Once again, the immediate pleasure of the "golden calf" brought on
the morrow only death.
Did we learn a lesson?
The Torah has told us: Sacrifice in this physical world of ours, as
difficult as it may seem to be at times, is worth it in the long run. When
we build our golden calves and sacrifice our "tomorrows" on the altar of
the present, we can, and have only met with death in the end - in this
world and in the next world. Resolution of all the contradictions and
difficulties is forthcoming.
However, patience - and it may take a while, but the wait will surely have
been worth it.