On this Shabbat Chol Hamoed, as with Shabbat Chol Hamoed of Succoth, we read a chapter in Exodus that recounts and reviews the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Succoth. But this description comes after the most inauspicious event that the Israelites experienced in the desert. The Israelites demanded and received a molten image in front of which they danced and reveled. Moshe, returning from 40 days and nights with God on Mount Sinai, sees the revelry, smashes the tablets, placates God’s anger and now, in our reading, takes two new ones to bring up to God.
Obviously, the Torah portion of the day should relate to the holidays. But why was this particular reading chosen, attached as it is to the golden calf story (the calf is not mentioned but the sentence preceding the holidays is: “Masks of gods ye shall not make for yourselves”)? At least six other readings mention the holidays and could have been used instead (albeit most of them were already assigned to the holidays themselves).
Rabbi Adina Allen offers an interesting explanation. We know that the story of the golden calf comes midway through Moshe’s instructions for building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which would serve as “God’s Place” in the Israelite camp. As both the Mishkan and the golden calf were combined artistic-sacred endeavors, they are open to comparison.
It is true, Allen says, that that both the Mishkan and the calf were attempts to connect with an unseen God. One was made below while instructions for the other were given from on high. This by itself may be enough to explain why the one is idolatry and the other is a sanctioned spiritual connection to the divine. But there is more.
The calf was created out of desperation, fear. Their leader, symbol of certainty in a land of uncertainty, had gone missing for 40 days. They needed something, almost anything to be their standard bearer, an entity they could see as they had seen Moshe (even if that entity could do nothing more than stand there and glitter in the sun).
We note that after Aharon casts the calf, the people are told (evidently by the agitators) “This is your god who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” This is a one-way, single-level relationship. What you see is what you get. No ambiguity, no questions about who what when, your god is here whenever you want to look at him. Be happy, don’t worry.
Symbolically, the calf may be perceived as a form of further oppression. It was made from a cast that could churn out innumerable identical reproductions that were unchanging in appearance and in its inanimate essence. It seems to say, “No differences are tolerated here.” It’s as if the people are being told, “You had a question – here’s the answer. Now shut up.”
The Mishkan, the Tabernacle, on the other hand, was planned to be something different. It was to be a space where God could dwell among and “mingle with” the people. In other words, its purpose was to facilitate a relationship between the people and the divine.
The people contributed gold and other valuables for the construction of both the calf and the Mishkan. The calf itself was created by Aharon alone, while the Mishkan was the product of a joint venture. Two people were in overall charge, Bezalel and Aholiav, but the people brought the materials and they engaged in the construction of the Tabernacle. It’s true that the God who was to reside there was unseen and unknowable in many ways, but this ambiguity, this uncertainty was to become part of a stable yet ever-changing relationship.
These were the two choices facing the Israelites in the desert, a scant few months after their exodus from Egypt: a visible but inanimate calf or an unseeable but vibrant God. The punishment they received for the calf helped to disabuse them about the error of seeking their future with an unchanging, unchangeable golden calf, which could not yield milk, direction or salvation. They were reminded of God’s mercy (the 13 attributes are mentioned too) and took their chastisement to heart.
With this choice made, at least for the moment, the next step is to announce the dates on which the people will bring their gifts to God as a symbol of their acceptance of His sovereignty over them. And so we have a listing of the three pilgrimage holidays.
Our lonely seder, with or without Zoom meetings with our near and dear, is behind us and another few days of Pesach are before us. Then we will return, at least for a while, to…more of the same except with chametz in the house (that is, if we are allowed to go out!). And so this unique Pesach Present joins the many Pesachs Past in our long history of events good and bad and will be recalled with wonder in Pesachs Future as “the Pesach of the eleventh plague.”
May we enjoy the rest of the holiday and a speedy return to normality – and good health!
Shabbat Shalom – Moadim L’simcha