This week we read Parshat Ki Tisa. For the past few weeks we have been reading about the intricate instructions on how to build the mishkan, the desert tabernacle, and find ourselves stumbling into chapter 31, which recounts the story of the golden calf. It’s easy to get confused. Let’s briefly retell the events that are recounted here: Moses has ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from God. His long stay on the mountain began to worry the people who had just left Egypt, a culture filled with idols: visible, tangible, representations of their gods. So the people, led by Aaron, made a molten golden calf out of all the gold jewelry that the men donated. The women, the midrash teaches, refused to participate in this communal campaign. When Moses descended Mount Sinai to see people dancing and worshipping the golden calf, he smashed the tablets he had just received. Moses soon returns to Mount Sinai for another 40-day stay.
This is one of those chapters in the Bible that sticks with us from our childhood. It is full of tense drama, disobedience, and punishment. The question I’d like to ask is what can we learn by it being recounted here in the middle of the chapters about building the mishkan? What is it doing here? It would seem to fit better earlier in Exodus, along with the other stories. Given that the drama of the golden calf is inserted smack in the middle of the mishkan text, I believe that the only way to understand the sin of the golden calf is to compare it to the mishkan, for the building of the mishkan is the context for this story. The main difference between a golden calf and a mishkan is that the mishkan exists for the space within it. It is a structure that is built to send us to that holy inner-ness. All of its beauty, color, and design are dedicated as a nexus point between human and divine, between heaven and earth. The important part is not the outer form, but what’s inside, for that is where God speaks to us. The further within you get, the more holy is the space. The further within you get, the more you touch a shared mystery. Not only is it the meeting place between human and divine, it is also the place where we meet each other, where the differences between us dissolve.
In contrast, the golden calf is solid, existing of and for itself. We supply the gold, but then the calf seems to take on a life of its own. Aaron describes the process saying, “I cast the gold into the fire and out came this calf.” The calf has no interior space. It glorifies itself. It is “full of itself.” It represents the most dangerous hindrance in the life of spiritual practice: that of worshipping and staying attached to the forms, rather than allowing those forms to send us to the essence that they might point toward. The difference between building a mishkan or a golden calf is sometimes very subtle.
That brings me to another favorite dimension of this parsha. If you recall, the people donated generously when Moses called for materials to build the mishkan, just a few chapters ago in Parshat Terumah. They gave with all their hearts and Moses had to tell them to stop. In the story of the golden calf, the men donated but the women refused. Why? Both requests for donations are about building something that would stand in the midst of the community, which would bring the community together and possibly elevate it to a new place. Why did the women refuse to give when asked to donate for the golden calf, yet give generously when asked for the mishkan?
The Maharal of Prague says that the refusal to contribute to the golden calf was not proof of the women’s nobility. It could have stemmed from their desire to hold onto their jewelry and finery. However, when the women donated to the sanctuary, the mishkan, they proved their moral fiber. Had stinginess been part of their nature they would refused in both instances. Had generosity been part of their nature they would have given in both cases. What we see here is that it is their reaction to these two events together: their negative reaction to the golden calf, and their positive reaction to the mishkan, that proved their moral strength and for which they were awarded Rosh Chodesh as a special holiday for themselves. Contrary to popular belief, women were not awarded Rosh Chodesh solely because they refused to contribute to the building of the golden calf, but because they refused to build an idol but later gave willingly to the building of the mishkan. Their ability to tell the difference and to act accordingly is what the rabbis applaud.
We live in a world when we are asked to contribute to communal organizations and projects all the time. We live in a community that is blessed with many institutions that allow us to live rich Jewish lives. We also live at a time when it has become harder for us to give as generously as we may have given in the immediate past. In times like these, we must be diligent in asking ourselves and our leadership to make sure the projects for which funds are being raised are mishkan-like – communal projects through which God comes to reside among us. It is not that the other projects are necessarily “golden calves,” but we must examine them in all their subtleties so as not to be misled.
I believe that the story of the golden calf interrupts the directions about building the mishkan because it is so easy for us to get caught up in building that we too easily forget what is holy and what is idolatrous. Chapter 31 comes where it does to remind us: “You are building the mishkan now, but not so long ago you built this golden calf. Remember? Don’t forget because if you do you’ll do it again.”