This Torah portion is known for its story of the Golden Calf, built when Moshe failed to return from the mountain on exactly the 40th day as expected. The people panicked, thought Moshe was dead, and that God had abandoned them. Aaron, ever the peace-lover, reasoned that the people needed a visible symbolic representation of God to reassure them. The People were not denying the God of the first commandment, but rather broke the second commandment prohibiting the building of idols. When Moshe returned with the tablets, he was indignant and smashed the tablets to show that the covenant between God and the Children of Israel had been shattered.
Not long afterwards, Moshe pleaded with God not to punish the nation, and asked for God’s mercy.
This Torah portion shows God to be patient and merciful, asking that the Jewish People keep the Shabbat and other mitzvoth between God and the individuals (bein adam l’Makom) who make up the People of Israel such as kashrut, Pesach etc. (as distinguished from mitzvoth between one person and another—bein adam l’havero). Shabbat embodies the holiness of God and the “sign” (“ot”) of a perpetual covenant. As we sing “V’Shamru” on Shabbat we are actually using the verses found here: 31:16-18. In the Bible, there are very few rules listed about Shabbat observance. It is a special day, set apart (kadosh), for rest and delight. Progressive Jews are encouraged to observe the Sabbath. Some choose to follow post-Biblical “do’s and don’ts”; others take the spirit of the Shabbat and find their own personal path. Here too, we can relate to the 13 moral attributes from this Torah portion’s verses which are found in the Yom Kippur liturgy: Shmot 34:6-7: “The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, giving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty”.
At we look back at the story of the Golden Calf, we must not harshly judge the People for their transgression. Today too we need visible symbolic representation of God, and we may find that in our synagogues. This brings us back to the beginning of the Torah portion, when each adult is told to give ½ sheqel to maintain the services of the mishkan. Today, we ask for dues and donations. Wouldn’t it be interesting if everyone who identifies as a Jew would give their ½ sheqel, with no differentiation between rich and poor, to keep up the synagogue. This might help ensure the existence and future of our Jewish communities world-wide. The Bahai community asks its members for $1 per day, and with it rhey create and maintain beautiful structures and gardens around the world. Whether one finds the synagogue to be a place for solace and spiritual elevation, a house of study, or primarily a supportive community for its members, the synagogue can play a vital role both for the individual and the community.
The tragic events of Parkland, Florida have highlighted the importance of the Jewish community and its congregations, which have given succor to the grieving and support for the emotionally devastated residents of the area. In the many heart-warming and touching stories surrounding the aftermath of the loss of seventeen souls, one can glimpse the presence of the Godly spark. The Golden Calf is not needed to provide reassurance. It is the gold in the hearts and souls of those reaching out to console and comfort one another.
Rabbi Miri Gold is the rabbi of Kehilat Birkat Shalom on Kibbutz Gezer, Israel. Read more about Miri and her remarkable work here.