The Golden Calf & the Golden Mishkan

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 2/14/2005

For two Shabbats, we have been hearing God explain to Moses how to build the portable holy Shrine, the Mishkan where God's Presence fills the tent of meeting in the Wilderness. Gold and fur, scarlet and silver. Elaborate details about the priestly garments, the Menorah and its olive oil, the Altar and its horns.

And then comes a shattering interruption. Moses has been away too long, the people are bereft and frightened. They build a Golden Calf.

The ancient rabbios thought there was a rfelationship between the Golden Mishkan and the Golden Calf.

The way they understand the relationship was that from watching how the people dance for the calf, God ruefully accepts that the people need a physical focus for their experience of God. So God gives them the Mishkan in place of a calf.

In this approach, the story as we have it in the Torah is "out of order" — chronologically reversed. For it is the experience of the calf that convinces God to design a Mishkan.

But try turning this around, accepting the chronology as it appears in Torah: God designs the Mishkan first, the people build the calf later.

Why do the people need a calf anyway? BecauseMoses' long absence frightens them. And WHY is Moses away so long? Look at the text of what Moses hears upon the mountain — those two full Torah portions we have just completed — and we see that perhaps three- fourths ofGod's talk upon the Mountain is God's description of the Mishkan! —

If the description of how to shape a sacred tent had been briefer, perhaps no more detailed than the rules of Mishpatim about how to shape a sacred society, Moshe could have come down after perhaps twenty days, not forty! The people might never have become so frightened.

Why does the Torah describe God as taking so much time and space to describe the Divine Indwelling Place?

Perhaps the Mishkan was, k'v'yachol (if we dared to be able to say it), God's Own golden calf. (P'too, p'too, p'too!) God's Own triumphalist idol. Even the God Who has all earth and heaven for a dwelling-place can swell with pride at imagining the place where one small people will come to worship with the Presence.

And the people? Dimly. from the foot of the mountain, they hear the overtones, a blur: "Plenty of gold? Uh-huh. And — something about horns? — Un-huh. Must be a golden bull-calf!!"

So they build it. For God as well as us, the truth is firm: What you sow, that you shall reap.

Or to put it in another way: certainly earth is spirit, there needs to be a physical context for the spiritual path. (A "path" is very earthy.)

But do not get addicted to the physicality, do not turn the earthen altar into golden splendor, do not become a "spiritual materialist" who piles up the golden moments of spiritual experiences as if they were gold, to be held tight, possessed, sought for their own sake.

Do not spend all your time imagining God's house instead of making the society a home for human beings!

For if you do, the addiction —no matter how spiritual it may have been at the beginning, no matter how Inspired by God — will degenerate into an atavistic idol.

Torah Portions: