Aaron makes the golden calf. Moses brings down the first pair of stone tablets and sees the people ecstatically worshiping the idol. He orders the guilty slain (except for Aaron), and the Levites kill 3,000 men. Moses hikes back up Mount Sinai. God reveals the attributes of the divine nature, then inscribes the second pair of stone tablets. Moses returns to the people with a supernaturally radiant face due to his exposure to the divine.
Ki Tissa, this week’s Torah portion, is action-packed. Out of all my earlier blog posts I chose to rework this one: Ki Tissa: Heard But Not Seen. It addresses the question of why God orders the Israelites to make a pair of golden keruvim for God’s sanctuary, but completely rejects the golden calf. What makes the golden calf, but not the keruvim, an idol?
The Torah says an idol is inanimate and useless. For example:
Their idols are silver and gold,
Work of human hands.
They have a mouth but they cannot speak,
They have eyes but they cannot see,
They have ears but they cannot hear,
They have a nose but they cannot smell,
They have hands but they cannot feel,
They have feet but they cannot walk.
They cannot make a sound in their throat! (Psalm 115:4-7)
The Canaanites and Israelites who used idols were probably not as unsophisticated as the psalm makes them sound. Other writings from the Ancient Near East indicate that they did not expect the metal or pottery objects they made to see, hear, smell, feel, move, or speak. Instead, they hoped a god would inhabit the image from time to time, or use it as a throne. Then they could use the idol to communicate with the god behind it. But in the Torah, idols distract people from serving the God of Israel. So God forbids the creation or worship of idols.
Today we say people “idolize” a pop music star when they devote a lot of time to a useless fantasy. Or they “make an idol” out of the pursuit of money when they dedicate their lives to an activity that does nothing for their souls.
I have seen some fascinating idols in Jerusalem. I am not talking about metaphorical idols, though there are some. I am fascinated by the artifacts that archaeologists have uncovered in the region. I took all the photos on this post at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Not one of them is larger than my hand. But they evoked gods—divine powers that ruled the aspects of life humans cannot control, such as birth and death, not to mention the weather.
It must have been hard to give up these magical connections to various gods, and embrace the belief that a single intangible and invisible God is in control.
It must have been harder still, centuries later, to give up the “idols” representing the God of Israel: the Holy of Holies, the priests’ routines, the altar to turn offerings into smoke that rose to heaven.
Even today, I know people who cling to signs and omens, and people who strive perform rituals exactly the “right” way. It is hard to give up the illusion that following the correct esoteric procedure can bring you the comfort of certain knowledge. It is hard to embrace the mystery of the unknown.