16 March 2017
More than 175 years ago, Scottish-born philosopher Thomas Carlyle published “Heroes and Hero Worship,” a set of lectures he gave in 1840, arguing that individuals, not history per se, are the real reasons for human advancement. These specific individuals, whom Carlyle called “Heroes,” played outsized roles in the world’s advancement. Heroism – and hero worship – is as old as human history, and continues through today. Just think of life-saving first responders and pop culture – sports heroes, anyone? (Including, of course, the amazing underdog Cinderella Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic!).
This week’s parasha – Ki Tisa – contains one of the most famous stories in the Torah: the construction and destruction of the Golden Calf. Moses stays on top of the mountain too long for the Israelites, who then urge Aaron to build them a god to which they can pray. Aaron compromises his leadership role and agrees to build the calf. Who are the heroes worthy of worship in this story: Moses, Aaron, the calf?
Last week, we read in great detail of the building of a sanctuary for God – a place in which God could “dwell” – and a fascinating contrast to this week’s story. While God clearly does not need a physical structure in which to reside, God recognized our need to congregate in a physical location from which we would pray. Yet, a physical representation of God is clearly not tolerated, by either God or Moses. Why?
While the holiness of space was a concession to our limited understanding of an omnipresent God, it is the holiness of time that has sustained the Jewish people. Shabbat, with its total portability, enables us to create holiness with or without physical structures. The Golden Calf, however, sought to make tangible that which is not. The very idea that God could be represented as a particular form is antithetical to Jewish thought, and therefore needed to be destroyed. When Moses returned with the new tablets, one of the commandments was to “remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Shabbat has endured, while the Golden Calf is a distant memory. And the holiness of time – not individuals – emerges as the real hero in Jewish history.