Why Was the Golden Calf Built?

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, includes the story of the Golden Calf. This story is familiar even for many who would not consider themselves knowledgeable in the Bible. Moses was on the mountain talking to God for a really long time, and the Israelites became impatient. Perhaps he’ll never come back? They lost their faith in Moses, in this new God they couldn’t see, and they built an idol – a “god” they could see.

Yesterday, at a worship committee meeting, I asked our members why the Israelites built the Golden Calf. I wanted to dig deeper than the usual reasons listed above. We talked about the trauma the Israelites had experienced: years of slavery and now suddenly being free. They didn’t know where they were going, what was happening, what the future would hold. They were wandering, lost – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The one person who held a hint to the answer of these mysteries was gone. He had disappeared, and there was no word when or if he would return.

They needed to do something. So they return to the familiar, to their comfort zone even if they know in their hearts that no positive outcome will result from their actions. After all, this Golden Calf, a symbol of Egypt, is almost like a memorial to their past enslavement. But they can’t seem to help themselves.

We, too, are a little lost. We yearn for answers: what does the future look like? Many of us hold on to our comfort coping methods, even when we know that they’re not so helpful: Oh chocolate, how lovely do you make me feel! We think about “going back to normal” when there’s no such thing as “going back” or “normal”. But we can’t seem to help ourselves.

When Moses finally comes down the mountain, he offers guidance for the future: the innovation of the 10 Commandments, and some say the Torah. Yes, it’s a new path, unfamiliar and scary. But what he – and God – have provided is a way to heal by going forward.

We, too, will find a new path to embrace, even if it is unfamiliar and scary. It will have characteristics of the past, like spending time together and in person, and seeing the smiling faces of other people. It won’t be the same, and it will be the way we heal forward.

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