The overriding concern of the last portion of the Book of Exodus: how can one relate to God without shrinking God to the limitations of human insight and imagination? The bulk of the material, which begins with the Torah portion Terumah, deals with the intricate description of the construction of the Mishkan, the portable, tent-like sanctuary that was to be the spiritual center of Israelite life during the forty years of desert wandering. Exodus relates the detailed specifications of the Mishkan, its contents and the dress of its priests as revealed to Moses followed by an equally detailed description of how the plans were executed by the skilled Israelite artisans. By building the Mishkan, the Israelites created a place in which God’s presence could rest. But the difficult spiritual issue of what it means to be in an intimate relationship with God is not addressed. By creating religious institutions and structures are we making room for God in our personal and communal lives or are we attempting to contain the Divine in such a way that it can be assessable and useful to us?
We have to wait until this portion, Ki Tisa, to probe that question.
The resumption of the narrative in Ki Tisa is a welcome break from the technical details of the preceding and following Torah portions. Yet it contains one the most challenging stories of the desert experience – the story of the Golden Calf. It teaches us, through the negative example, that we cannot contain God by reducing God to a man-made image. The best we can do is to build a place for God in our hearts, our homes and our communities and pray that that place is filled with God’s spirit. To do otherwise is to fall into the same trap that caught Aaron and the Israelites.
The Israelites, worried that Moses, their leader, had not come down from the mountain, felt abandoned by God and man. They approached Aaron, Moses’ brother who had been left in change of them while Moses communed with God on the peak of Mount Sinai, and demanded that he produce a god for them to lead them on their journey. Aaron complied.
He asked for contributions of gold jewelry, melted it down and cast a figure of a young ox out of the molten metal. The image, known as “the Golden Calf” was acknowledged as the very God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt. Aaron then constructed an altar and declared the following day to be a festival of Y-H-W-H (HaShem / the Eternal).
The next day as the Israelites celebrated, the Eternal informed Moses of the events at the foot of the mountain and sent him hurrying down from the top of Mount Sinai to investigate. Upon seeing the Golden Calf and the festivities, Moses hurled the two tablets of covenant at the image smashing it and the tablets. Moses reproached Aaron and reasserted his leadership of the Israelites.
In the Exodus version of the story, it is clear that the Israelites had no desire to replace the Eternal, the God who had led them out of Egypt, with another deity or deities. They were not rejecting God.
Rather they wanted to have God with them in a way that they could comprehend. The awesome events of the Exodus and the Revelation on Sinai presented them with a God of limitless power who, for all their knowledge, might have even consumed their leader Moses who had guided them from slavery to the foot of Sinai. Aaron, Moses’ brother, the first High Priest, the prototypical religious leader, complied.
While Moses was on the top of Mount Sinai experiencing the boundless nature of Israel’s God, his brother, Aaron, faced the difficult task of packaging the Holy One in a form that would be understandable and spiritually assessable to his people. The image of God that Aaron produced satisfied the Israelites’ spiritual longings. Aaron gave them an image of God that was present in their lives. In this image or through this image they could recognize the very God who brought them out of Egypt. In Aaron’s Golden Calf they had an image of God that they could carry with them, that was safe, and that was domesticated. The only trouble was that it was not God. It was, at best, only a time- and space-bound human attempt to capture the unbounded glory of the divine. Their error was not recognizing this.
Their sin was thinking that their image of God was really God.
Today we are not free of this error. Although we are unlikely to reduce God to a physical image, we, all too often, try to shrink God into an easily digestible theological reality. In times of trouble and stress, we ask our religious leaders to provide us with a god that we can put into our pockets to give us a sense of control over our lives, our world and even, our God.
This is a dangerous error. As we have seen in some unfortunately perennial religious responses to natural disasters, our attempts to explain God’s ways are ultimately intellectually dishonest and spiritually dissatisfying. On deeper reflection their authors and those that accept them seem to follow a God that appears shallow, self-centered, callous, or cruel.
More frightening, however, are those who attempt to bring their image of God into the public arena and political marketplace and strive to force it upon others. These are the people who justify their acts by claiming to know God’s will; those who take their image of God and figuratively and, sadly, all too often these days, realistically beat others over the head with it, justifying aggressive and violent policies and agendas.
As the Golden Calf episode shows us, the Torah rejects such thinking. God is not to be contained. God is to be experienced and we are to respond to that experience in Godly ways.
The final section of the Book of Exodus shows us how our ancestors constructed a place for God in the center of their camp helps us relive the adventure of having that space filled with God’s presence. The goal of the rest of the Torah, and in that light the rest of Scripture, is to teach us not who God is but how to live so that our lives as individuals and as a community reflect God’s presence. In Jewish terms, how to live a life filled with mitzvot.
The aim of Torah is to teach us how to be Godly and not, as Aaron and the Israelites tried to do, to hold the goods on God.