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The Golden Calf: Opening Soon!

Updated: Apr 9

Shabbat shel Pesach 5783

Delivered on April 7, 2023

Maybe you noticed the new sign on Main Street in Great Barrington the other day in front of the old video store across from the Bookloft? In large, all-cap letters, it proclaims THE GOLDEN CALF! COMING SOON! Apologies to anyone involved in opening up this new store. Apparently, it is going to be a vintage clothing shop.

At least it is not another dispensary.

It is remarkable that we would have community members who think the Golden Calf is good branding. I have been imagining the pitch that marketing consultants made to the owners:

You want something bright and shiny? Absolutely! Something that pops and grabs people’s attention as they drive by? For sure! Maybe something that will bring God’s wrath? Have we got an idea for you! Presenting... The Golden Calf! It has brand recognition. It stands the test of time. Sure, not all of it is favorable. It was the greatest sin that the Israelites committed, causing an entire generation to die in the Wilderness only after experiencing the miracle of redemption from Egyptian bondage, but you know what, people’s memories are not that long. And look how cute the calf is!

Idolatry: it is just what Great Barrington needs.

I am sorry. Naming a store The Golden Calf is like calling a boutique hotel The Watergate. Some references do have staying power, and not in a good way. It could have been a golden duck, a silver lamb, or a bronze ostrich. Instead, by intent, we now have the golden calf right here in the middle of Great Barrington.

We read the story of the golden calf a few weeks ago. The events chronologically fall a little after the Exodus from Egypt. So tonight, I want to invite us to be flexible about where we are in our regular reading of the Torah, and consider what happens to the Israelites in the Wilderness. After being redeemed from Egypt, crossing the Sea of Reeds, and making their way into the unknown, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai. Moses heads up Sinai to receive the tablets of the commandments from God. The Israelites are impatient, wondering why Moses takes so long to come down the mountain. They command Aaron to make them a new god from the gold taken from Egypt.

Of course, Jewish tradition offers many reasons why the Israelites need the calf, and why Aaron provides them with it. Considering it psychologically, the golden calf is an idol built out of fear of Divine abandonment and the desire to feel rooted in something familiar. Here are the Israelites, living at the base of Mount Sinai, after escaping the worst of conditions in Egypt, now asked to serve a God they have yet to truly see, asked to trust Moses with little evidence. So, they lean on what they can do and on what they can see to assuage their collective anxieties in their newfound freedom.

God, Moses, and Joshua see what the Israelites create: the golden calf in the middle of the camp. The community dances around it. Aaron dodges accountability, saying he gave the people what they requested. So incensed is Moses that he smashes the most precious physical gift God has given the Israelites up until that point. Moses burns the calf, crushing its ashes and mixing it with water, forcing the Israelites to drink it. Moses is successful in holding off God from destroying the entire community. But the transgression has been committed. This generation of Israel will not make it to the Promised Land because of this transgression.

After this horribly sinful moment, once God, Moses, and the Israelites find their bearings again, God instructs all of Israel to construct the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which will become God’s dwelling place among the Israelites. With this command, God indicates a deeper understanding of the Israelites. The golden calf is the wrong thing to do, but they need something that they can physically see. How can an unseeable God successfully have the Israelites come into divine service? With the building of the golden calf, the Israelites say they need something physical to be in a covenantal relationship with the Eternal God. The Mishkan is God’s concession to that notion.

Through the sin of the golden calf and the building of the Mishkan, God recognizes that people need something tangible if they are going to really believe in it. For this covenantal relationship to work, God must provide the Israelites with something concrete. The immediate memory of miracles is suitable to a certain extent. Yet, as time passes and we are distanced from those moments, the memory of miracles needs a physical place to rest. After the golden calf, God provides the Israelites with evidence that God is with them in their wandering uncertainties, giving them a sense that they will be okay. The building of the Mishkan is God’s response to the Israelites shouting, “We need something we can believe in!”

I think about this each time I drive past the new store, the Golden Calf. Such is the burden of the rabbinate. But this week, with the observance of Passover, given that our spiritual attention is supposed to be on the miracle of our liberation, the juxtaposition of the golden calf with the idea of freedom has got me thinking more deeply about it.

We need something we can believe in.

Passover is the celebration of redemption, the miracles that God performed, the leadership that Moses and Aaron showed, and the trust and willingness of the Israelites to head out into the unknown. Yet, under that nomadic way of being we need something or someplace or someone to remind us about the power of God’s miracles. The golden calf, which happens after redemption, is an object lesson, teaching us what happens when left to our own devices, left to respond to our own internal fears and anxieties of Divine abandonment.

We need something material that tells us all will be okay.

I have been finding it hard to be optimistic lately. My short-term pessimism is getting the better of me. I feel like one of the Israelites wondering why it is taking Moses so long to come down the mountain. When will we know redemption has come? I may need to stop reading the news. The news out of Tennessee has got me down. The national discourse on any given issue in the culture wars is so strident between the left and the right. The growing violence and disquiet in Israel--it all has me down.

Like the Israelites, we need something we can believe in. We need something that gives us hope that we are not devolving into chaos or being abandoned to lives of little worth. We need something that isn’t a golden calf but is a Mishkan around which we organize ourselves. In the face of collective anxiety, we need to take spiritual and mental steps--leaps of faith and decisions to show conviction--to build that spiritual Mishkan in this day and age. And here enters Passover again. I want to argue that our seder tables evidence that there are things and people in which we can believe. I loved the photos that everyone posted online over the last few days. The tables were filled with family heirlooms: Kiddush cups, family china, and tablecloths used until threadbare. The seder represents the ways we continue our people’s story, passing it down the generations, connecting ourselves to generations prior who did all they could so we could lead the lives we do today.

Moreover, if we want something to believe in, we only need to look at the young people who sit with us around the seder table. We make Jewish imprints on them, teaching them our ways and traditions. Seeing the joy young people take from the stories, songs, and games we play around the seder table proves why our practices matter. Like two mirrors held up across from one another, we maintain the traditions of generations who have come before us for the sake of those who will take the baton in their time from us.

The temptation to build a golden calf is still with us. The impulse to despair and follow false gods is the same. That means we need to actively choose to make the Mishkan for ourselves. We pour our energy into creating a meaningful and delicious seder because it matters. The seder is the physical container into which we can pour the hopes and dreams of redemption, that God performed miracles for the Israelites, and can do so again for us in our time.

From the second night of Passover, we begin counting the Omer, the forty-nine-day period in which we travel from the Redemption of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt to the experience of Revelation, when we stand at Sinai. We are now counting our way back to the true north of the Jewish tradition: preparing ourselves to celebrate and hold fast to Torah that has guided our people through countless periods of uncertainty.

We all need something in which to believe. It keeps us from falling for false idols. May we continue to find spiritual meaning and worth in our traditions, holding fast to them for ourselves, one another, and especially for our young people. Those Tabernacles we construct communicate meaning and worth when we might otherwise not be at ease with the world.

May we each do all we can to build and maintain those sacred spaces for ourselves and one another.

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