July 22, 2024
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The Golden Calf and Modern-Day Idolatry

A Jewish woman went to India on what seemed to be a spiritual quest. She traveled a great distance to get to this ashram and to see if she could get a meeting with the head guru. She was told by the attendant that the guru was a very busy man who spent most of his time in meditation and if she wanted to meet the guru himself, she’d have to wait three days and keep the session very short. The rule was that whatever question she had, it would have to be kept to three words or less.

Finally, the three days pass and the attendant brings the woman into the guru’s chambers where he is deep in mediation. She approaches the guru and, keeping to the three-word requirement, the Jewish woman turns to the guru and says, “Sheldon, come home.”

What is the obsession that Jews have with spirituality? And what is the relationship between spirituality and religion because, as we all know, they don’t always go hand in hand. In fact, a recent Pew study showed that almost one in five Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

In this week’s parsha, we read about chayt haegel, the sin of the golden calf. Moshe had promised the Nation of Israel that he would return from atop Mount Sinai after 40 days. On the 40th day, the very day Moshe was set to return with the Torah, the nation built an idol of a golden calf and prostrated themselves before it. How do we understand this sin? The Jewish people had just witnessed the 10 plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah

and then Moshe doesn’t come back “on time” and they immediately revert back to their polytheistic ways?

Rashi comments that the tremendous attraction the Jewish people had to idolatry hadn’t worn off. However, other commentators suggest that the sin wasn’t truly idolatry per se:

The Kuzari says that they needed a place to focus their prayers and thoughts on God and therefore they hoped Moshe would bring something tangible down through which they could direct their hearts. And when Moshe didn’t come back, they created that focus on their own.

The Ibn Ezra comments that only 3,000 people believed this golden calf was God. The rest merely used it as an intermediary to connect with the Almighty.

So what was their crime? Because the golden calf didn’t come from God. It was an unauthorized form of worship.

But what’s wrong with that?

A few years ago, my wife, Jill, and I went to see the Allman Brothers Band in concert. One guitar solo went on for over five minutes. Psychedelic imagery permeated the screen. Marijuana smoke filled the air. Everywhere I looked, I saw people trying to “connect.”

How is that any less of a spiritual experience than davening in shul on Shabbos morning?

Because while we may have the ability to know what makes us “feel” more connected we don’t have the power to determine how to actually be connected to God. The Allman Brothers may make us “feel” more connected but the experience in shul, we believe, is actually connecting us.

The words in our prayer book were not written by God but by Prophets who spoke with God,

by Sages who were connected to God and were somehow Divinely inspired.

The word mitzvah means commandment which implies both a metzaveh, a commander, and a meztuveh, a commandee. But a mitzvah also binds us to God because we believe it’s from God and not simply something we created to feel more connected. It’s something from a higher place designed by the Almighty to bind us with Him.

Shabbos makes a lot of sense and yes it feels good when we observe it, but ultimately we keep Shabbos because we believe it connects us to God and to each other. Not only because it feels that way but also because it’s an observance found in the Torah, which we believe all emanates from God Himself.

Inevitably there will be Shabbatot which don’t move us but that also doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not connecting. That’s the beauty of following a system which one believes is Divine in nature. It doesn’t depend on how we’re feeling. It has validity whether we feel it or not.

Of course, we should try to feel that way but if our faith is based only on our feelings, who are we serving?

A sociologist published a story about a woman named Sheilah Larson. She describes her faith as “Sheila-ism” because although Sheilah says she believes in God, she simply listens to her own “little voice” as she put it. “My faith has carried me a long way, its Sheilah-ism” she was quoted as saying. One of my rabbis, when he heard this, sai,: “If only her name was Judy.”

In my mind it all boils down to humility. Do we really have such insight into our own souls, into our own spiritual selves to know what truly binds us with God and what doesn’t?

Do we have such confidence based on what we may be feeling at a given time to know what is religious experience and what isn’t?

I’m not sure we do and that’s why Torah and mitzvot are such an indispensable part of our lives. They inform us as to what behaviors bring us closer to God and which create distance.

That was the chayt haegel. Our ancestors made the mistake of believing that they themselves could know from their own feelings what was truly religious and what was not. That too is a form of idol worship since ultimately it’s the worship of our own selves. We should value and cherish our feelings and emotions but never for a moment imagine that they alone determine our relationship with God or with our fellow man.

May each of us strive to always find meaning and purpose in the mitzvot we perform and to feel it emotionally, that’s a huge zechut. But at the same time know that even if we don’t feel that emotion, we are still fulfilling Hashem’s word and in doing so, we truly are being spiritual.

Shabbat Shalom!


Rabbi Mark N. Wildes is the founder/director of Manhattan Jewish Experience. 

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