Dear TEE community,

What do people do when they encounter times of change and uncertainty? Where do we find reassurance and comfort? Does meeting our emotional needs always accord with what we know to be right? These very immediate questions are also timeless ones. We find them not only in our present experiences of the pandemic but also in the Torah’s millennia old story of the golden calf.

The Book of Exodus relates that when Moses apparently disappears up Mt. Sinai, the Israelites become fearful and bewildered. How should they be led in his absence? Will he even return? Where can they go for an explanation of their utterly new circumstances? Not surprisingly, they attempt to answer these concerns by relying on something tangible and familiar, a physical image now forbidden by the commandments they have just received.

Although many of us were raised with the idea that the Israelites’ transgression was worshipping the golden calf itself, the actual story is more complex than that. Throughout the Ancient Near East, deities were often depicted as sitting or standing on a throne in the shape of an animal. In Canaanite religion, the chief god, El, was associated with a bull. Scholars believe that, in constructing a calf of gold, the Israelites were not creating an image of God, but an object through which to invoke God’s Presence.

To complicate matters even further, Exodus 25 instructs the Israelites to make a cover for the ark on which there are two keruvim. Although we don’t know the exact details of the appearance of the keruvim, they were probably winged animals, perhaps even bulls, similar to those found in Mesopotamian culture. In the Exodus passage, God says, “There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two keruvim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” In other words, it appears that the keruvim are to act as exactly the kind of throne the Israelites thought they were making with the golden calf. No wonder the people were confused!

Living as we are now in a time of confusion and disruption, I can sympathize with those Israelites who just wanted to do something to make it better.  I understand that people just want to get back to a sense of normality – to have a party or not have to wear a mask everywhere. But Jewish tradition teaches the difficult yet essential lesson that we must face reality. Pretending doesn’t really help and, in fact, can be dangerous.

When the Israelites looked to the golden calf, whether as a deity or a symbol of God, they turned away from the reality of their new lives. They exchanged the expansive possibilities of the future for the narrow vision of the past. In other words, they returned to “Egypt,” something familiar, something momentarily comforting. In doing so, they implicitly rejected God’s offer of liberation and broke the covenant they had just made.

While our response to the current situation may not have the cosmic impact of what the Torah tells us happened at Sinai, our choices do make a difference. After a year of pandemic related restrictions, it may be hard not to chafe at the thought of six months or more of continued restraint. Like our Israelite ancestors, we need to feel secure and comforted. It is completely reasonable to want certainty and reassurance. Reflecting on the story of the golden calf gives us the opportunity to consider whether we might do better and find a way out of our confinement, our “Egypt,” in a way that meets our needs while aligning with our deepest values.

During this week’s Shabbat service, we will be reflecting on these questions and others as we discuss the story of what happened when Moses went up the mountain. I hope you will join us.

Be well / Zei gesunt / Sano,

Rabbi Drorah Setel