In today’s Torah portion, we learn about the building of the portable tabernacle (the mishkan) and the incident of the golden calf. We get to reflect on our belief in the one true God and in his grace of giving us second chances to be his children. When the Israelites make the covenant with God on Sinai, they say: “We will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7). They profess their total faith in the one God and promise to follow God’s laws. But not for long.
When Moses is delayed on Mount Sinai when receiving God’s instruction, the people become impatient for his return. Fearful and confused, they demand that Aaron make them a god “who can go before” them. With the gold and jewelry collected, Aaron makes a golden calf. Moses is shocked when he descends from Mount Sinai to see the people happily dancing around the idol. The people totally disobey the commandment against making idols as they backslide into performing Egyptian idol worship. The idolatry and apostasy make God consider annihilating the ”stiff-necked” people (Exod. 32:9) and starting a new nation with Moses.
The tragic golden calf incident is considered a rupture, a discontinuity with the past. It is told about midway, like an exception, in the long narrative on the building of the tabernacle (mishkan) which constitutes about a third of the book of Exodus. This has prompted some commentators to say that the narrative is written out of chronological order. The instructions to build the tabernacle are given after the incident of the golden calf; and, the tabernacle “was only taken as a full atonement for the sin.” Others say the events may have occurred as they are presented. God gives the command and the plans to build the tabernacle, but the people commit sin, and they begin to build it only after they were forgiven. Like a defining moment, they say that before the golden calf, the tabernacle was primarily a place to do worship and service like the bringing of the offerings, the lighting of the menorah, the burning of the incense, etc. They cite that the first instructions regarding oil for the lamp, the priestly vestments, the ephod and others refer to what would be used for offerings. But after the golden calf, the tabernacle serves as a token of the full atonement for the sin: with the gold of the Mishkan to atone for the gold from which the calf was made (for example, the mercy seat is to be made of pure gold as well as the two cherubim).
It is stated however in the Hebrew Scriptures that the tabernacle is not time-bound. It is to be a place where God’s Divine presence (Shechinah) could dwell in the world. God instructs Israel, “And they will make for me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them” (Exod. 25:8). This Torah portion ends with Moses getting the second set of Ten Commandments; but achieving renewal after the rupture did not come easily. Among other things, Moses had to bargain hard with God. His earnest plea has led to the most famous and important theological statement in the Hebrew Scriptures: “The LORD! The LORD! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness. . .” (Exod. 34:6).
Today, the tragic story of the golden calf teaches us to do our best to affirm the words of the ‘Shema prayer’: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad (the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.), to continually affirm God’s presence and find ways to hear and to do God’swords in our daily lives.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. How have you experienced a “golden calf” incident in your life? 2. What are ways ‘to hear and do’ in your day-to-day life and with your family, colleagues or community?
Bibliography: ETZ Hayim: Torah and Commentary (New York, 2001); Sarna, Exodus: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS (New York/Philadelphia, 1991); https://wrj.org/learning/torah-study/torah-commentary/parashat-shmot
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Minerva Generalao, Philippines, Bat Kol Alumna, July 2014