Like our ancestors, we too are subject to vacillate between walking God’s path and turning from it.
In the hierarchy of mistakes we commit as human beings, our tradition is quite clear that idolatry is the most egregious. The fundamental objective of Torah is to help us to understand the nature of the relationship between God and humanity. And even though idolatry is the direct opposite of faith in God, this week’s Torah portion demonstrates how precarious the line is between the two.
The narrative takes place immediately following a long section over the past few weeks, when God described a wide range of laws to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Finally, we are told, “Upon finishing speaking with him on Mt. Sinai, [God] gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God.” (Exodus 31:18)
What a glorious moment that must have been! The promise of our Exodus from Egypt, after all, was not freedom … but the opportunity to use our liberty in order to build a new society in the image of God. It would not be an overstatement to suggest that this moment was the culmination of human history up to that point in time — the beginning of our national identity and partnership with God in the project of creating a new and better world.
And then, before a word can be uttered, before a hand can be lifted in celebration — the very next verse informs us that we may not be ready for such self-determination: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses — the envoy who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him.’”
The golden calf was born of fear, but it was also a product of ignorance. The people didn’t know what happened to their leader, and so they demanded someone — something — else. We can certainly relate to that. What might we be capable of when we feel lost and afraid? Who might we turn to when we become disillusioned? How will we treat our precious freedom?
As much as we have progressed, we are not so different from our ancestors long ago. Much more than a chronicle of ancient events, the Exodus is a template for the human journey that fills each of our lives. The Israelites spend much of the Torah vacillating between walking God’s path and turning from it. We, too, are challenged all the time — and as much as we might like to believe we are generally on the righteous path, the subtle message embedded in this week’s Torah portion is that it does not take a lot to move us from a good place to a bad place.
It is up to us to bring full intention to our shared goal of living good lives, building strong relationships and creating a successful society. When we do so, I am confident we will all reach the top of the mountain together.
Rabbi Mark Miller is senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township.