Decorating a Torah in glory is far different from idolatry

Exodus 30:11-34:34

Numbers 19:1-33

I Kings 18:1-39

by Rabbi Stephen Pearce

The story of the Golden Calf, the centerpiece of Kee Tissa, does not make any sense. It is too simplistic, transparent, unsophisticated; it is counter-intuitive. It must be possible to find deeper meaning in this incongruous sequence of events: The Israelites left Egypt with Pharaoh's army in pursuit; they came to the Red Sea; they were trapped until the sea miraculously split and the Israelites crossed on dry land; the sea closed over the pursuing Egyptians and the Israelites rejoiced in their victory.

Later, Moses ascended Mount Sinai and spent 40 days and nights at the summit, while below, Moses' brother Aaron orchestrated the building and worship of the Golden Calf, a god that replicated the Egyptian fertility god Apis.

Why did the Israelites abandon the God who saw them through the dark nights of their Egyptian enslavement and redeemed them "with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm"? It does not make sense for the Israelites to have behaved as they did.

Looking beyond the simplistic meaning of this saga, a student of Torah will discover that this narrative represents a central motif of Jewish history, the ever-present tension between the squandering of a community's material wealth and the spending of it for higher purposes.

Instead of establishing a spiritual home to teach lessons about the living God the Israelites had seen in action, their obsession became the building of something of little inherent and lasting value with their gold. In so doing, they unwittingly framed the struggle for Jews in every age: the purposeful utilization of communal resources. While the Israelites could have contributed their gold and silver for the aggrandizement of the imperishable message they had learned, instead they were swept into the frenzy of cult worship, building an idol of no enduring value.

The "edifice complex" — the race to build magnificent monuments while neglecting the strengthening of Jewish education, the keystone of the Jewish future — is an ever-present tension. Every community has limited resources and has to decide where to allocate its precious funds. Synagogues, the front lines in the preservation of Jewish life, often are the stepchildren of a community's largess. What community leaders often fail to recognize is that the synagogue, centered in education and Torah will endure, but monuments and idols of self-importance will crumble and fade.

A contemporary example — and an appalling one — is provided in Israel, where the tyranny of the fervently religious oligarchy results in the open attack against the institutions of liberal Jews. As Israel edges closer to a theocracy, a state ruled by religious fanatics, its democratic ideals will be subverted. The majority of worldwide Jewry will be excluded from Israel's previously inclusive environment as restrictive forms of ritual and practice are imposed on the entire population. It is a paradox that at the same time that worldwide Jewry continues to support Israel, precious few communal funds are being allocated to build liberal Judaism's synagogues and programs there.

Why should Jewish education be central to Jewish life? Jews are known as the "People of the Book." The Book, the centerpiece of Judaism, is so important that we decorate it with crowns of gold and silver, not to make it an object of worship, but to demonstrate that it is our holiest, most noble book. David Ben-Gurion said it best of all: "We have preserved the Book, and the Book has preserved us." He did not say that about any building or monument — it was simply our devotion to our crowned Book.

Legend reports that when Moses descended the mountain and saw the idol the Israelites had made and were worshipping, the letters on the tablets vanished. Without the letters, the tablets became unbearably heavy, and Moses was forced to drop them. This metaphor reminds us that when Jews devote communal wealth to concerns other than the love of the Torah and Jewish learning, then Judaism becomes too heavy a burden to carry and the secret of our survival vanishes.

The contrast between Moses holding the divinely inspired Tablets of the Law and the Israelites worshipping the work of their own hands is a powerful one. It should make Jews mindful that strengthening Jewish life by building temples of the heart and mind empowers Jews to seize hold of a rich tradition of learning.