Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods (Parashat Ki Tisa)

The author summarizes the story of the Golden Calf in this commentary, focusing particularly on the Israelites’ desire to be close to God. He argues that there may be external factors that color our thinking about God’s role in the world and in our lives. This is often the case for religiously observant LGBTQ individuals in the process of coming out, who must reconcile their personal identities with non-Queer social norms.

February 22, 2008

By Chaim Moshe haLevi (Marc Howard Landas)

Parashat Ki Tisa

Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods

by Chaim Moshe haLevi on Friday February 22, 2008 16 Adar I, 5768

Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

 

Adonai Adonai,

El rachum v’chanun,

Erech apayim v’rav chessed ve-emet; Notser chessed la-alafim,

Nosey avon vafesha v’chata’ah v’nakeh.

 

God, Who is compassionate and gracious,

slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin.

(from the Yom Kippur liturgy)

 

This week’s parasha includes one of the most famous stories in the Bible, the episode of the Golden Calf. Moses goes up to receive the first set of tablets of the covenant on Shavuot. While Moses is up on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites become concerned that he has not returned after being away for 40 days and 40 nights, the traditional biblical phrase for a very long time. Like a child whose mommy or daddy has gone away, the Israelites begin to cry out that something has happened to their teacher, fearing he will never return. Even after God has redeemed them from bondage and provided for their well-being while they have been in the desert, they still do not have enough faith in God and worry that their leader has been taken away.

Much like a baby who needs its pacifier, the Israelites seek out something familiar to comfort them during this most stressful time. They turn to Aaron who has been left in charge during Moses’s absence, telling him to make them idols to worship, something with which they were familiar and comfortable from their 400 years of bondage in Egypt. Aaron tells them to bring him the gold earrings of their wives, sons, and daughters. As the medieval commentator Rashi explains, Aaron is trying to stall them, figuring that the wives, especially, would be reluctant to part with their jewelry. Aaron fashions a calf of the gold that has been melted down. All hell breaks loose as the Israelites frolic and play, engaging in the basest of behaviors.

Many might recall what happens next from the way it is shown in the epic film, The Ten Commandments. Moses descends the mountain, sees the golden calf and in a fit of rage smashes the two tablets. The idolators are separated from the non-sinners, and the earth opens up and swallows them. However, this is not the biblical account. In what I feel is a much more disturbing outcome, the Levites who had not engaged in the idolatry are told to kill those of all of the other tribes who had been part of the sinning. This seems to point to the severity of the crime of idolatry; anyone who engages in this activity has directly offended God and must be eliminated lest it seem like this behavior can be condoned.

The sin of the golden calf is said to have occurred on Tisha B’Av – a traditional day of Jewish mourning. The aberrant behavior of the people on that day, which resulted in the smashing of the original set of the tablets, is said to be one of the reasons that the 9th of Av became the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. At this point, God is basically fed up with this kvetchy band of nudniks.

Moses pleads on behalf of the people, bargaining with God in much the way Abraham does in the book of Genesis. In takes another “long time” before God completely forgives the people. This occurs on Yom Kippur. Moses descends the mountain with a second set of tablets, one that specifically spells out, among other things, that God is a jealous deity and is fully intolerant of idolatry. Moses’s face emanates light from having been in the presence of the Almighty.

Just like Moses, we also want to “know” (be close) to God. In today’s society there are many obstacles that keep people from their closeness to God. Sometimes God seems close and at other times God seems far away or even absent. Oftentimes, this distance is equated with a lack of trust, much like the Israelites experienced. Likewise, we might feel a void.

There are many reasons for this divide. There may be internal influences such as negative or conflicting emotions (anger, doubt, sadness) and lack of spiritual connection. In addition to the inner conflicts one may have, there may be external factors that color our thinking about God’s role in the world and in our lives. These influences include other people, the media, one’s personal past (negative worship or religious school experiences), and historical events (the Shoah and September 11, 2001). This is often true for religiously observant GLBTIQ individuals in the process of coming out, who must reconcile their personal identities with non-Queer social norms. According to gurus of popular spirituality, all of this pessimism comes from fear, qualified as the absence of love. Furthermore, these spiritual leaders state that the without love, there can be no Godness.

Just as with an impatient people who imagine the worst when their leader has failed to return from his mission, we also live in a world of great uncertainty. Whether frantically stockpiling groceries before a winter snowstorm or invading another country suspected of having nuclear weapons, fear is the basis of many of our actions. Okay, at the time, each of these decisions may seem prudent to the person/s who make them, but more often than not, we find that the storm passes and that justifications for war aren’t always well-informed.

In order to cope with our feelings, as did the Israelites, each of us, whether deliberately or unconsciously, becomes an “idolator” of one sort or another. Unfortunately, many of our choices originate in miscued thinking. We place priority on certain things to provide us with happiness whether that happiness will be momentary or lasting. We attempt to gratify desires, satiate needs, and block our pain, with modern day idols of various forms.

First, there are idols of power and status: the “best” schools, jobs, communities, and political connections. Then there are the economic idols like money, shopping, luxury, and wealth. Along with these are idols of distraction falling into two main categories, entertainment (films, theater, sporting events and travel) and electronics (TV, phone, portable devices for music and communications, video games and computers). Finally, there are the idols of addictive substances and behaviors: alcohol, drugs, smoking, food, gambling and sex.

We suffer dire, sometimes fatal, consequences in engaging these modern day golden calves. These specific idols are especially dangerous within the GLBTIQ community which has a higher rate of substance abuse problems and addictive behaviors than their non-Queer counterparts. Look no further than the way crystal meth is impacting our community. Partying and playing with Tina has been correlated to increased risk of HIV and STD transmission, since the drug reduces sexual inhibition.

Despite what a circa 1985 Madonna says, relying on the material for solace is beyond misguided; it is profane. Instead we should attempt at every opportunity to engage in the sacred work of the soul. Just like Moses, we may never get to see God, but if we trust enough, we, too, can fully embrace that God is always there for us, El rachum v’chanun.

Keshet

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