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The Golden Calf, The Tabernacle, and Playing with Fire

March 12, 2015

The sages make it very clear that the Golden Calf was not intended to be an idol or a deity; rather it was meant to be an intermediary between the people, a replacement for Moses (Exodus 32:1):

And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: ‘Get up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.’

After the first Divine Revelation at Sinai, Moses served as the conduit for God’s word unto the people (Deuteronomy 5:23):

“Go you near, and hear all that the Lord our God may say; and you shall speak unto us all that the Lord our God may speak unto you; and we will hear it and do it.”

Earlier we wrote about how the Cherubim were also by no means idols; they were actually a complicated machine that acted as a divine receiver and speakers for God’s word, and a gauge of closeness of the people to God. Similarly, the midrashim discuss how the calf was made to move and speak, as though it were a machine similar in function and mechanics to what the Cherubim would be.

Rashi comments on the rays of light that shone from Moses’s face (Exodus 30:34):

Come and see how great the power of sin is! Because when they had not yet stretched out their hands to sin [with the golden calf], what does He say? “And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire atop the mountain, before the eyes of the children of Israel” (Exod. 24:17), and they were neither frightened nor quaking. But since they had made the calf, even from Moses’ rays of splendor they recoiled and quaked. [from Sifrei Nasso 11, Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, p. 45]

Here then, is how we understand the succession of events:

Divine revelation is as a devouring fire. It is powerful and dangerous. There are many ways that modern electrical power plants can be built, but the plants that use nuclear energy have to be built especially well, with super-thick, reinforced concrete walls to prevent the lethal radiation from leaking out. Building a nuclear power plant like a coal-burning plant or like a hydroelectric plant would present a major danger to humanity and the environment.

Similarly, the extreme holiness of the divine presence must be carefully kept from frequent and direct human contact. The people realized this early on, when they said (Deuteronomy, ibid., 21-22):

Now therefore why should we die? for this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, then we shall die. For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived?

but they did not wish to be entirely distant. Moses obliged, but then, when they built the calf using the same wisdom that would later be properly used to build the ark of the covenant,  they made a critical error that Bezalel would not make (B’rachoth 55a):

R’ Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Johanan: Bezalel was so called on account of his wisdom. At the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses; Go and tell Bezalel to make me a tabernacle, an ark and vessels, Moses went and reversed the order, saying, Make an ark and vessels and a tabernacle. Bezalel said to him: Moses, our Teacher, as a rule a man first builds a house and then brings vessels into it; but you say, Make me an ark and vessels and a tabernacle. Where shall I put the vessels that I am to make? Can it be that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to you, Make a tabernacle, an ark and vessels? Moses replied: Perhaps you were in the shadow of God and knew!

Bezalel realized that first the housing for such a powerful machine had to be built. The tabernacle had a courtyard surrounding it, and it was guarded by the Levites and Aaronites. The Tent of Meeting itself was multilayered, and admittance thereto was highly restricted. The calf, however, was made straight away, without any levels of separation between it and the people, and in great haste. When the rabble rousers declared, “These are your Gods, O Israel,” the calf led to a spiritual meltdown within the camp of the people.

Once Moses had destroyed the calf, God told him (Exodus 33:5):

Say unto the children of Israel: “You are a stiff necked people; if I go up into the midst of you for one moment, I shall consume you; therefore now put off your ornaments from yourselves, that I may know what to do unto you.”

So Moses (33:7):

used to take the tent and to pitch it without the camp, far from the camp; and he called it the tent of meeting. And it came to pass, that every one that sought the LORD went out unto the tent of meeting, which was without the camp.

That is, the divine presence as manifested by the prophet baring God’s word was too awesome to remain among the people, and needed to be kept far from their habitation. Thus, only once Moses had spent another 40 days on the mount achieving forgiveness for the people were they able to learn how to build a proper meeting place for mortals and the divine right within the middle of their camp.

This could also be a reason for the refrain, “as the Lord commanded Moses,” that ends more than two dozen of the verses in this week’s parasha describing the construction of the Tabernacle in practice. The Israelites’ previous attempt to create a tangible center of approaching the divine was completely out of consonance with God’s word; this attempt was exactly as He commanded.

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From → original, parasha

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