25 February 2016
This week’s parasha – Ki Tisa – contains one of the most famous stories in the Torah: the building 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.
Last week, we read in great detail about the building of a sanctuary for God – a place in which God could “dwell”. This is in fascinating contrast to this week’s story. While God clearly did not need a physical structure in which to reside, God recognized our need to congregate in a physical location in which we would pray. Yet, a physical representation of God is 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 instead 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.