Ki Tisa: Shabbat, the Golden Calf, and Rest

Worshiping_the_golden_calfHere’s the d’var Torah I offered yesterday at CBI. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)


This week’s Torah portion begins with Moshe atop Mount Sinai, communing with God. The last thing God says to Moshe is a set of verses we now know as V’shamru, commanding us to keep Shabbat throughout the ages as a sign of covenant with God. Then God gives Moshe the two tablets, inscribed by God’s own hand.

Meanwhile, the people are anxious. Moshe has been gone for a long time. They implore Aaron, his brother, to “make them a god.” They donate their gold jewelry, and from that jewelry is fashioned a calf which they begin to worship.

When Moshe comes down the mountain, he shatters the tablets in his fury.

Many commentators have seen this incident as a kind of spiritual “adultery.” Here is God reminding us of the Shabbat which serves as the sign of our eternal relationship, and meanwhile we’re off giving ourselves over to something which is not God. The Torah frequently compares our relationship with God to a marriage…and here we are, “cheating on” God when the ink on our ketubah is barely dry.

As punishment, Moshe grinds up the calf and makes the people drink it — which is strikingly similar to the punishment for a woman accused of adultery, as described later in Torah. I’m always struck by the symbolism of making the people confront their own misdeeds in this way. They have to literally swallow what they have done. They have to take ownership of the damage they have done to their relationship with God.

Seen in this light, Moshe’s shattering of the tablets is a sign of the spiritual brokenness in that relationship. But what becomes of those broken stones?

We read in Talmud:

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said to his sons: Have care for an old person who has forgotten his/her learning. For we say: Both the whole tablets and the shattered tablets lie in the Ark. (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 8b)

In the ark of the covenant, which will be kept inside the mishkan / dwelling-place for God, our ancestors carried both the second set of tablets (which are whole) and that first set of tablets (which are broken).

For Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, this holds a message about how to treat our elders. Just as we cherished both sets of tablets, so we should cherish both those who are whole, and those whose wholeness has been broken by sickness or by age.

Perhaps when Moshe broke the tablets, he was demonstrating his own brokenness. His wholeness was broken when his people demonstrated their lack of commitment and faith. Just as our ancestors kept the broken tablets along with the whole ones, we cherish the memory not only of Moshe’s beautiful moments, but also his times of imperfection and anger.

Each of us is like Moshe. Each of us carries her own history in the ark of her own heart. In our own holy of holies, we hold our sweetest memories — and also the times when we have felt shattered. Without both, we wouldn’t be who we are.

How does all of this relate to Shabbat and to v’shamru?

The verses of v’shamru, from this week’s portion, charge us with keeping Shabbat as an eternal covenant. It is a sign, God says, between us for all time. A reminder that on the seventh day God rested and so do we.

Shabbat is a covenant between us and God. When we keep Shabbat — whatever that means to us; as liberal Jews we shape our Shabbat observance in accordance with a variety of values — but when we keep Shabbat, however we keep Shabbat, we re-enact the covenant.

Every week, we renew our wedding vows with the Holy One. We reprise the central act of our relationship, an act of pausing to notice the sacredness of creation.

Every Shabbat is the antidote to the sin of the Golden Calf. Then we were anxious and we put our faith in something gleaming, something we could see and touch. Now we remind ourselves that relationship exists even when we can’t see it. That when we make Shabbat, we emulate the ineffable force behind the cosmos in rhythms of creation and rest.

Image source: wikimedia commons.

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