I suppose global catastrophes make it easier to find meaning in the simplest things. A month ago, the golden calf of Parsha Ki Tisa would’ve been humankind’s pursuit of personal wealth at the expense of others. Or something like that.
But reading Parsha Tetzaveh in the midst of the coronavirus intensified that reading. Today, the golden calf is ego––people putting their desires over the health and safety of others.
I can’t explain the selfishness I’ve seen, people blatantly going against best medical advice to avoid playgrounds, restaurants, and bars. It’s hard to know what people are thinking about when I see them walking around. This whole experience has been like a horror movie. Because I’m not talking about the coronavirus with strangers while walking the dog (coincidentally named Moses), it seems like they don’t know what’s going on. Obviously they do, but we’re not talking about. So there’s this surreal sense that I’m in a horror movie, privy to information that nobody else is. I know the aliens are coming but nobody else does.
I’ve tried to give people the benefit of the doubt. But there they are, hanging out at a cafe, smoking outside, and it amplifies the sense of selfishness. It was even worse a week earlier when most people didn’t even believe serious measures needed to be taken and were happy to mix it up in large crowds.
The Golden Calf
Usually, I use this space to walk fellow amateur Jews through the narrative of the weekly Parsha as I’ve understood it. I’ve kvetched the past couple of weeks that the Torah has been getting a little slow. Between that and the outbreak of the pandemic, I’ve felt a tad less motivated to keep up on schedule as I had been up to the previous Parsha. I’m sure you get it.
I’m writing this now a couple of weeks late on a quarantined Saturday morning, playing catch up on the last few Parshas of Exodus. I feel less motivated to summarize the narrative, highlighting lines that seem humorously odd in a modern-English tongue, like “in the habit of goring” from a few weeks back. It seems even less important as Exodus winds down and the narrative simplifies. That said, there is an important plot development in this Parsha, which I’ve already noted––the golden calf.
Moses is up on Mount Sinai with God for 40 days and 40 nights, etching out the 10 Commandments on stone tablets. God reiterates some of the greatest hits we’ve already come to know throughout this journey, like the importance of keeping the Sabbath.
The Israelites grow impatient and beg Aaron to “make us a god.” Aaron commands the Israelites to give him their gold and he molds it into a golden calf. “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” he proclaims. Everyone’s elated and they throw a festival to celebrate the idol.
God knows this is going down and is pissed. “Hurry down,” he says to Moses, “for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely.” Before Moses can even take off, God says he’s going to destroy them. Moses, like Abraham before him, argues with God to reconsider.
“Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.'”
Moses reminds God of the covenant He made with his forefathers, promising them a great nation and offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven. Moses has a point. A nation isn’t all that numerous when your God kills them off.
It works… to an extent. Moses is free to go down to the Israelites. He’s enraged as soon as he sees his fellow Israelites celebrating around the golden calf and shatters the tablets with the commandments. Then, “he took that calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it.”
Aaron tries to explain what happened, but it does little to appease Moses’s anger. He demands that “whoever is for the Lord, come here!” The Levites rally to him and he gives his instructions to “slay brother, neighbor, and kind” in the camps. Some three thousand people were killed at Moses’s command.
That’s the part that usually gets left out in the retelling of the Exodus. But I get why. Imagine trying to root for Batman, a similarly flawed individual in a leadership position, if he called out to the citizens of Gotham to slaughter all those who have strayed from his interpretation of the law. It’s a very different comic book series.
After the slaughter, Moses reminds the living that they “have been guilty of a great sin” before going up to the Lord to try and win forgiveness for their sin. But God isn’t moved and vows to “erase” those from His record who have sinned against Him while instructing Moses to continue leading his people to the Promised Land. The Parsha then finishes with the ominous yet coldly matter-of-fact: “Then the Lord sent a plague upon the people, for what they did with the calf that Aaron made.”
The coronavirus feels like an eleventh plague nobody asked for. And the wayward Israelites celebrating the golden calf of ego, ignoring the wisdom of the Lord (in this case, medical professionals) are putting everyone else at risk of prolonging this thing.
Onward with Parsha Vayakhel-Pekudei.