This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa. It is read on Shabbat Parah. Ki Tisa is mostly about the sin of the Golden Calf. Parah is a supplementary reading from Numbers describing how the Kohanim (Priests) slaughtered the Red Heifer in order to purify themselves to serve to be able to make the Passover sacrifice. As a Texas Longhorn, I appreciate how once per year we observe a Shabbat focused on cows.
But all kidding aside, the idea of the cow does reoccur in our tradition. The Egel Zahav, or Golden Calf, described in this week’s portion was made up of jewelry offered by the Israelites. According to the Midrash, this jewelry was taken by the Israelites from Egypt as payment for their years of servitude. It as Aaron who then fashioned it into the idol that the Israelites worshipped and celebrated. However, as an aside, contrary to cinematic depictions, this calf was probably very small. Maybe only several inches across, thus lending the absurdity to the worship of the idol.
Later on, after King Solomon’s death approximately 250 years later, Jeroboam I, the first king of Israel, introduced the worship of the bull (or calf) into the Northern Kingdom. He placed two golden calves at either end of his kingdom. One at Dan and the other at Beit El. So whether the narrative in Exodus is reflective of what transpired during the time of Jeroboam or vice versa, the worship of the calf as a symbol for the Israelites was a powerful image indeed.
This was why the idol, in the time of Moses, was not only burned to the ground. But he also spread the ashes over water and made the Israelites drink their bitter medicine. It was an emphatic reminder that we are not to worship idols.
However, idolatry persisted through until at least 568 BCE when the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. The Israelites simply could not or would not let go of their personal idols. No matter how much the prophets exhorted the Israelites, they simply would not listen.
Sadly, the worship of idols is still with us to this day. It is true we may no longer worship stone gods, but there are many who worship fame, celebrity, wealth, popularity, and the like. But as we learn from Proverbs, all of these are vain pursuits. Over and over again we are encouraged to find meaning, to uncover the holy, to create meaningful connections, and to have enlightening experiences.
So I would encourage you, on this Shabbat, to take time away from the regular noise of life, and instead try to find vestiges of the holy in our world. Yes, the work of our hands can be beautiful, but it is the experiences of our lives that are the ones truly worth celebrating.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff