This week’s Torah portion called Ki Tissa is best known for the episode with the Golden Calf. Moses had been up on the mountain for forty days and nights. The Israelites did not know if he was alive or dead.
Imagine you were an Israelite at the time. You saw Moses leave the camp, with meager provisions, and you didn’t hear from him for almost six weeks. What would you think? The same as the Israelites; their leader had abandoned them or was dead. Without Moses present and visible, without signs of God’s presence to assure them, they became unmoored.
In their confusion, anxiety and despair, the Israelites implored Aaron to do something. “Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses. . .we do not know what happened to him.” (Ex. 32:1) Upon Aaron’s instruction, they took their gold jewelry, melted it down, placed in into a mold and created a golden calf. “This is your god, o Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” (32:4)
Remember what happened shortly thereafter? Moses came down from the mountain, saw the Israelites dancing around the calf and in his anger, hurled the tablets at the calf and destroyed it. Moses then returned to the mountain to get a new set of tablets and through the wandering in the desert the broken and the whole were carried together in the ark.
Why did the Israelites resort to idol worship so quickly? Why did their faith falter? After all that they had witnessed-the plagues, the splitting of the sea and more, why did they think that God and Moses had abandoned them?
Because they didn’t see Moses or feel God’s presence. This was a moment when they felt distant from God. This was a moment when they felt that their relationship with God had faltered. It is in many ways a human response. They had grown accustomed to God’s presence, and even though they were encamped at the base of God’s mountain, they still felt distant.
Rabbi Sarah Bassin explores this idea of being in relationship with God in this week’s ReformJudaism.org Torah study.
Many of us struggle at times with the role that God plays in our lives. We are expert, perhaps, in describing the God that we don’t believe in, but find it harder to describe the God we do believe in. Our deep encounters with God are fleeting. As Rabbi Bassin writes:
“God is in the world. But we can easily miss seeing God in the world. We can momentarily know our purpose. But a sustained experience of it is beyond our ability. That fleeting nature of experiencing God is why our ancestors created the Golden Calf after living through the Exodus. It is why Moses begged to know God even after all of his encounters with God.”
My hope and prayer for us all is that despite our difficulties in getting to know and experience God, we can still recognize those beautiful and sacred moments when indeed, God is fully present and manifest in our lives.