On the Weekly Torah Portion of Ki Tisa

egyptian-gold-calf-god-yahThe Torah portion of this week, ki tisa, (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35) continues with the theme of the construction of the Tabernacle. But it also contains one of the most potent stories of the book of Exodus: the story of the golden calf.

In a nutshell: after the people of Israel received, collectively, a revelation of God’s voice, including the Ten Commandments, they signed on the dotted line by famously declaring na’aseh ve-nishma’ (נעשה ונשמע) “We will do and listen” (Exodus 24:7). The midrash takes these words to signify their complete trust, since the word na’aseh, “we will do”, preceded the word nishma’, “we will listen”: they committed themselves to obey the Torah even before they heard it fully.

But when Moses goes up the mountain to receive the word of God for them and stays a while, the following happens:

וַיַּרְא הָעָם כִּי בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן הָהָר וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ כִּי זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה הָיָה לוֹ:
When the people of Israel saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.”
(Exodus 32:1)

Aaron yields to the pressure. He collects the golden earrings from everybody and fashions a golden statue of a calf. Almost instantly, the Israelites start worshipping this idol, saying:

אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:
This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!
(Exodus 32:4)

As a school kid, I found this story incomprehensible. How could they do it? In the four months that have passed since the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites witnessed dozens of miracles, each of which, on its own, should have knocked any doubt even out of the worst cynic: the ten plagues; the parting of the Red Sea for the Israelites and the drowning of the pursuing Egyptian forces; the manna and the quails to feed them and the water from the rock to quench their thirst; the “cosmic GPS”—the pillar of light to guide them by night and the pillar of smoke by day; and to top it all off, the collective experience of the revelation of the Ten Commandments, the first of which is the ban on worshipping any idols.

Over the years, I have come to relate to this story as a metaphor for the perils of the spiritual path that many committed spiritual practitioners are familiar with. Anyone who has had a “peak experience”, a moment of clarity in which the screens that normally veil one’s perception lift from one’s eyes and one gazes directly at Truth face to face, knows how one’s sense of self momentarily changes. One’s existential doubts, anxiety and neurosis dissolve in a moment; trust, love, surrender and freedom take over and one is convinced that life will never be the same.

In very rare cases, such an experience leads to a profound and permanent transformation. In most cases, however, the experience fades, and one finds oneself in a predicament—one has fallen deeply in love, but the object of one’s love is nowhere to be found. And for someone new on the path, this can cause a kind of panic, a strong desire to retrieve the clarity of the initial experience and an almost frantic exploration of ways in which that experience could be stabilized.

I am reminded of the first years of starting to meditate. At first, meditation was its own reward. Soon, within months, we (new meditators) kept our ears opened to see if there was anything that we could do to hasten out “spiritual growth.” Maharishi, we notice, wore coral beads; should we wear coral too? Should we be vegetarians? Should we be celibate? Golden calves come in various shapes and forms. The Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa called this spiritual materialism.

What is the moral of the story? For a spiritual aspirant, it is that of patient commitment. Don’t draw conclusions about the nature of ultimate reality based on your emotional experience, even if it is a peak emotional experience. The ultimate reality is One; it is beyond good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. As long as our interpretation of our closeness to God is based on the quality of our experience, we are still in the land of mitzrayim (מצרים), Egypt, which means the duality of boundaries.

* * *

As I said, this Torah portion continues to deal with the construction of the temple. Readers of the previous two entries of this blog will remember, that I have emphasized the need to understand the tabernacle not as a physical structure outside oneself, but rather as a “structure” that we create within our consciousness for the shekhina (the divine presence) to dwell within us (the Hebrew word lishkon, to dwell, comes from the same root as shekhinah, which is also the root of the word mishkan, the Hebrew name for the tabernacle).

Here is what Rabbi Ephraim of Sudilkov, the grandson of the founder of Hassidism, the Baal Shem Tov, wrote in his in his commentary on this week’s Torah portion, ki tisa:

בודאי לא לחנם נכתב מעשה המשכן וכל כליו בתורתנו הקדושה אלא כדי להורות לנו הדרך האיך הוא בכל אדם שיוכל לבנות משכן וכלים להשראת השכינה בקרבו כי זה היה כל מעשה המשכן כמו שכתוב (שמות כה, ח) ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם. בתוכו לא נאמר, אלא בתוכם ממש.
Surely, the story of the tabernacle and all its tools was not written in our Sacred Torah except for one purpose: to instruct us regarding the way in which every person could build within themselves a tabernacle and tools for inspiring the shekhinah [to dwell] within them. This was the whole story of the tabernacle. As the Torah tells us (in Exodus 25,8): “They will build me a sanctuary, and I will dwell within them.” It does not say “[They will build me a sanctuary, and I will dwell] within it”, but literally “within them.”
(From Degel Machane Ephraim, commentary on ki tisa).

And if we apply this mode of interpretation to the story of the golden calf, we may conclude that under the momentary pressure of doubt, the Israelites regressed to relying on their animal nature as a source of ultimate meaning and happiness.

The Torah does not deny our animal nature or advise us to suppress it. Quite the opposite: it seeks to incorporate it into our spiritual life. But just like in the story of Jacob and Esau, the important message is who gets seniority. Jacob, which stands for our spirituality, has to be senior; Esau, the hunter, cannot be the ultimate good. Likewise, the mistake here is taking the golden calf and referring it as the God that “brought you out of the land of Egypt”. There is only one ultimate reality.

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)