Lessons from the golden calf


Imagine the scene: Moses is up on Mount Sinai, listening to God’s words – which somehow end up written on tablets of stone.

Did Moses write those words? Were they etched into the stone by the fire of God? Did Moses and God write the words together, to create what we later called the Tablets of the Law?

We are not sure. But what we do know is that both Moses and God took this event very seriously. Moses understood that freedom without laws is no freedom at all. Leaving Egypt in the great exodus gave the Children of Israel a taste of freedom. Receiving God’s rules and regulations provided them with a whole meal of freedom. This was important stuff.

In the meantime, something else was happening below. Before he left for the Sinai summit, Moses had announced that he would be gone for 40 days. So, on the 40th day, when he did not appear, the Israelites became frightened. Where was their leader? And if he was gone, who would take care of them? Who would lead them to the Promised Land, wherever and whatever that was?  Would they have to turn back towards Egypt, to become re-enslaved? And what about this God that Moses had spoken about so often – did he also abandon them?

In other words, they panicked. And, as we know, panicked people can easily become a panicked mob – and this was the prospect faced by Aaron, Moses’ brother, who was desperately trying to maintain peace and calm amid growing discontent, agitation and fear.

What was Aaron to do? Well, at first, he tried to reassure them that Moses would be back soon. But, in the evening, the folks began to revolt – they did not realize that the next day could still be counted as the 40th day because in Judaism, the day begins the previous night.

At any rate, Aaron had to do something, and quickly. He tried to reason with them, but no-go. He reminded them that Moses was with God and would be down, just as sure as they were able to cross the Red Sea. That, too, failed. He told them to have faith in God, that all would be OK, but it still didn’t work.

The Israelites were getting anxious, rambunctious and ready to rumble.

“Make us a new god,” they yelled, “a new god that will replace Moses and give us a sense of ease, comfort and trust.”

There was no turning them down. Aaron may have looked at the mountaintop one last time – alas, nothing.

Wait, he may have thought to himself, maybe there is a way, a plan to hold off this idol thing. He said to them, bring me your gold, your earrings, bracelets, nose rings, ankle bracelets – all you have, as much as you have – so I can melt it all down and make you your god.

He thought this would be a great stalling tactic. After all, it would take some time to gather all the jewelry – or they might decide that they wanted to keep their gold.

Not so much! In their anxious state, they showed up with all their gold in no time. And still, no Moses.

So Aaron melted the gold and fashioned it into a calf, which was an Egyptian deity, one they were familiar with – and the Israelites broke into party mode. There was singing and dancing and swaying to the music. Needless to say, there was also drinking, and frolicking, and other stuff that many of our politicians know all too well.

It was into this scene that Moses finally arrived – tablets in hand, mouth open, head shaking in disbelief, disappointment and anger mounting, perhaps even a tear or two of sadness. OMG, he might have said to himself, what is going on down here?!

As his anger grew, he smashed the tablets on the ground, sending smithereens hither and thither. How could they do this after leaving Egypt as free people? How could they lose their trust in God after witnessing the plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, the manna from heaven, the victory over the fierce Amalek tribe that had attacked them soon after the exodus? And how could Aaron, his trusted and worthy brother, succumb to their wishes?

We can almost understand how Moses was moved to utterly destroy those tablets. However, this did not sit well with the rabbis. Did Moses so lose control of his emotions that he destroyed tablets with God’s name on them? Tablets perhaps written with God’s own fingers. Tablets that contained the blueprint for Jewish life for millennia to come. Could the holy man Moses really do this?

The rabbis’ answer was an unequivocal “no way.” But, the fact is, he did do that – the Torah itself says he did.

However, a midrash comes to the rescue – a rabbinic interpretation to ease the severity of Moses’ actions. According to this viewpoint, the fire of God actually burned through the stone to create letters: you could see right through them, from front to back and back to front.

Since most of the stone had been burned away, the tablets were light and it was easy for Moses to carry them, the rabbis explained.

However, the rabbis say, when Moses came upon the golden calf celebration, the letters in the tablets refilled themselves with stone, and the tablets became heavier and heavier. In a short time, they became so heavy that Moses was afraid he would be crushed by their weight. He thus let them go, and quickly moved out of the way – and they came crashing down. This way, he did not “throw” the tablets on the ground. Rather, he let them fall in a desperate move to avoid serious injury.

Eventually, Moses returned to the mountaintop and created a second set of tablets.

It is now about 3,500 years after these events. What we know about the story is what we read, and what the interpreters have said, and continue to say. And we also know that Torah stories, narratives and other components serve to teach us – about ourselves, about others, about life.

So now that we know the story, what does the incident of the golden calf teach us?  Some possibilities: 

            Trust in faith – Moses was just hours away from appearing.

            The lure of gold can corrupt otherwise appropriate thinking.

            We are who we were to some degree – Moses could take the Israelites out of Egypt, but he couldn’t take the Egypt out of the Israelites.

            God and Moses did not give up on the Israelites – and we should not give up on one another or ourselves. We should always look for ways to create our own second tablets.

            When life is stressful, don’t have a cow!

ETHAN ADLER is rabbi of Congregation Beth David, in Narragansett.