Take Two Tablets
By Rabbi Basil Herring
The story is told of a man of few words who came home from Church one Sunday at noon, and as usual, was asked by his wife as to the subject of the sermon that day. "Well," he answered, "the Reverend spoke about sin.'
"And what did he say about sin?" she inquired.
"Well," came the reply, "he was against it!"
Certainly, it is true that we men of the cloth who presume to preach to the faithful ought to address the subject of sin. And hardly anyone is surprised if, from time to time, there issue forth from pulpits and journals' pages condemnations of sinful behavior. Indeed, some would say that that should be the primary message of a sermon or rabbinical column, whether or not it is accompanied by threats of hell and brimstone to follow. As for myself, I prefer to avoid the subject of sin, not so much because I find itunpleasant, but, frankly, because it occurs to me that the attempt to denounce iniquity from these types of platforms is largely an exercise in futility, and if anything, counterproductive. Nonetheless, there are occasions when some ruminations on the subject are in order. I would, therefore, allow myself on this occasion to discuss the subject of not only sin in the abstract, but about one transgression in particular, that, if I understand it properly, can be said to be the one that leads to all the others.
The Sin of the Golden Calf
We can begin with a text that is both suggestive and problematic. It is the episode of the Golden Calf as recounted in Exodus: 32. To be sure, there are many explanations, some of them more literal, some more imaginative. But there is one in particular that I find especially compelling: that of R. Meir Simhah of Dvinsk, in his Meshekh Hokhmah. As he explains it, the fundamental problem that resulted in the catastrophic behavior of the people at the foot of the mountain in Moshe's absence was this: they did not understand that there is nothing other than God and God's will as embodied in the Torah that has any inherent sanctity whatsoever. Everything else, be it the holiness of places such as Israel or Jerusalem, or of times such as Shabbas and Yomtov, or of people such as Moses or Aaron, or of behavior such as prayer and sacrifice - all of them have absolutely no intrinsic spiritual validity per se: whatever sanctity and sanction they may possess is totally dependent on, and a function of, God's will as defined in the Torah.
And where religious man goes fundamentally wrong, is when he comes to believe that somehow God's will and holiness, His presence or His grace, can be identified with, or found in, other objects or behaviors or places, in ways that are not found in the Torah. The primary illustration of this cardinal error, says R. Meir Simhah, is the behavior of the people at the Golden Calf incident. What were they trying to accomplish in making that Calf? Is it possible that a mere 40 days after the earth- shattering revelation of God, Himself, at that same spot, that they could have so descended to the spiritual depths of depravity? Was it merely a case of idolatry and graven images?
Looking for a
The answer, says R. Meir Simhah, is no; rather, in creating and then serving that Calf, they were attempting to come up with a practical way to serve God, thinking that this Calf could be made to possess some special sanctity through which they could worship God, Himself, the better. They believed, in their misguided fervor, that such an object could have some special holiness, and their worshipping God through it receive divine approval because of the purity of their hearts and intentions. And when they built this Calf, it betrayed a fundamental error in the way they had related to Moses himself. For it now became obvious that Moses had played the same role in their minds as this Calf was doing now: for them, Moses's function had been to embody God's spirit in their midst, as if the Torah and God's will themselves were totally dependent on, and identified with, Moses. And thus, once he was gone, this Calf that they had made was seen as his replacement, an expression of their own spiritual creativity and innovation.
It is for this reason, and no other, that Moses casts down the two stone tablets: for he realizes at that moment that were he to give them these divinely imprinted stones, the people would consider them, too, to have some inherent sanctity in and of themselves, having been formed directly by God. They might even have come to substitute the tablets for the Calf, and worship them. And so to disabuse them of any such notion, he takes the very tablets and breaks them into small pieces - making it as clear as possible that nothing whatsoever, not even the Lukhot, could come to embody or epitomize God's will - other than the Torah and its commandments. This, says R. Meir Simhah, helps us to understand the statement of Chazal that Moses made sure to preserve not only the replacement set of Tablets, but also the broken pieces of the first set, in the Aron Kodesh in the Mishkan: to remind the people throughout posterity that it was not the original ones made by God that were intact or superior, but rather those that were made by an ordinary man of flesh and blood ? Moses ? as long as it was done in accordance with the will of God as found in the Torah.
The Greatest Sin
What is the lesson, in what is doubtless a brilliant and illuminating insight by Meir Simhah of Dvinsk into this remarkable chapter? Why should we consider this particular sin committed by the Children of Israel to be so fundamental and conducive to all others? I would venture to say that there are two reasons:
First because throughout our history, and up to the present time, we have always tended to objectify God and the religious life, identifying religion and religious practice with specific places, times, and people. Instead of understanding that all of life must be sanctified by our behavior at all times by each of us without exception, we incline naturally to put religion on an artificial pedestal - be it the synagogue to the exclusion of the home, or the Temple to the exclusion of the marketplace, or to be performed vicariously by the Rabbi and Cantor as opposed to our own selves.
How common it is, for example, for rabbis to be regarded by their congregants as "symbolic exemplars," men who must perform all the mitzvahs and laws impeccably so as to make up for the failure of the flock themselves to do so! In this way, and many others, we compartmentalize reality into the sacred versus the secular, the holy versus the profane, the ecclesiastical versus the temporal, as if such artificial distinctions are anything more than a Christianization of Judaism. Worse yet, when we so divide up the world, we lay the basis for considering vast areas of our lives as "religion-free zones," somehow imagining that we can de-spiritualize our business, social, or family leisure activities as being religiously insignificant. Such an approach is surely a travesty of what the Torah considers right and proper, i.e., that in all our activities and concerns we function as b' nai and b' not Torah (children of the Torah), upholding and strengthening the values and practices of Jewish law and ethics, whether or not they can be identified in this or that chapter of the Shulkhan Arukh or other code.
I would illustrate the tragedy of this error, with the following, perhaps well known story: The parents of a little Jewish girl living in suburbia were able to go away on vacation for a week, but only because they got their own parents to agree to take her into their home in the city. As it ham pened, the grandparents were very observant in outlook and practice, much more than the parents had become. Well, for a whole week, the little girl was exposed to a whole new world: a Jewish home filled with Jewish books and religious objects, a kitchen filled with Jewish foods and aromas, a neighborhood where yarmulkes and tzitzit were not exceptions, stores where Yiddish expressions abounded, schools where Torah was learned, and synagogues filled with a warmth and love of Torah. For a whole week the little girl lived in a world of Torah and yiddishkeit, where God was invoked, spoken about, prayed to; where His presence was lovingly sensed at every turn. Then one evening her parents returned from vacation, and came to Boobie and Zeidah's house to fetch their little treasure. She packed her bags, hugged her grandparents, walked to the front door - and stopped. She reached up to the mezuzah, kissed it, and then said "Goodbye, God. I have to go home now."
So with her, and so with us. Mistakenly, we think that God is to be found only in certain places; that His will can be fol?lowed and fulfilled by us only under certain circumstances. But it is not so at all. The religious life is, and must be, synonymous with life itself ? all of life.
A Chasidic master taught his followers the same lesson when he asked them, "Where is God?"
Incredulous, they answered, "Why Rebbe, God is everywhere!"
To which he replied, "No, God is only where you let him in."
Taking Liberties with Commandments
I havespoken of one lesson of the Golden Calf. There is a second, and it is this: There has always been a powerful impulse among Jews to create new and unsanctioned forms of worship and divine service, forms that are, if anything, opposed to the commandments of the Torah. How easily we slip into a rationalization of such illegitimate worship is shown by the activities of Reform Judaism in this century. But it is not just Reform Judaism that is guilty of such improvisation. Most of us are guilty of this approach to Judaism when we justify to ourselves and to others the liberties that we take with the commandments and laws of the Torah, both written and oral, saying that in our day such laws are not viable or binding or meaningful, that today we can and should devise more appropriate approaches to living Jewishly or finding our individual ways to God.
Can it not be seen that such arguments and assumptions, or should we say cliches, are nothing but a rehashing of the Golden Calf mentality, sharing the same ideology, embracing the same rejection of God's will as embodied in the Torah and nothing but the Torah?
Of course, we understand that there is a rationale, a framework of good intentions, behind and undergirding such innovations in religious practice. Surely we can appreciate that Judaism and the Torah must be made attractive and appealing to the masses of our people, seduced as they are by so many competing ideologies and impulses, sharing so much in common with the pagan mentality of old. But such "merchandising" of our faith and our way of life, creative though they may be, can never come at the cost of sacrificing even one of the commandments of the Torah, as defined and delineated by Chazal, our Sages of blessed memory. To do otherwise, is surely to condemn to failure the very efforts that might be made, to preserve and strengthen the Jewish way of life, which is none other than the Torah's way, and therefore the way of God.
Let us, therefore, in considering the significance of the episode of the Golden Calf, ponder the contemporaneous implications for our own relation to the Torah and its commandments. Let us not fall into similar patterns of spiritually barren thinking or behavior; and even as we marvel at the timeless significance of the Torah and its narratives, let us resolve to redouble our commitments and our efforts to be faithful to the proven ways of tradition. In so doing, to serve the God of Abraham and of Moses, with every breath that we breathe, every step that we take, at home and abroad, by day and by night alike.
Basil Herring, PhD is the spiritual leolier of the