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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister,Kosher Incest?, How They Met, Male-Female Intercourse, The First Kiss, The Power to Transform, Onanism, Daughters-in-Law and Moshiach, Issues with the In-Laws?, The Undoing of Captivity, Shift Beds – Part II, Pharaoh’s Assimilation Policy, Passion vs. Pleasure, Loving in Reverse, Music is Female, Fecund Fluids and Revelation, Sexism in the Commandments, Divine Lust, and Name Calling.
Are we and G-d lovers?
It is true that we are finite, while G-d is infinite.
It is true that we are puny and limited and G-d is omnipotent.
It is true that there is none of the equality that is typical of two parties to a romantic relationship. We are not of equal strength. We are not of equal wisdom. We are not even of equal commitment, as this Parsha, Ki Tisa bears out. However, even though our relationship with G-d is not equal, it is nevertheless mutual. G-d loves us, romantically, and encourages us to love back, also romantically. And G-d is hurt by our infidelity.
This week’s Torah portion relates the most infamous example of our infidelity: the woeful tale of the golden calf. After the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai and the giving the of the Ten Commandments (including the commandment against worshiping other idols or gods), Moses ascends Mount Sinai where he remains for 40 days. While he is still on the mountain, G-d alerts him to the fact that down below, his people have made a golden calf, and are worshiping it. “And the Lord said to Moses: ‘I have seen this people and behold! they are a stiff necked people. Now leave Me alone, and My anger will be kindled against them so that I will annihilate them, and I will make you into a great nation.'” Moses ultimately diffuses G-d’s anger, and the Jewish people are ultimately forgiven their crime.
However, the story is chock full of all of the love, hurt and scorn that accompanies a romantic and lustful relationship. And there really is no other way of characterizing G-d’s reaction to the worshiping the golden calf.
Would a father or mother react that way to a child’s transgression? Doubtful. Parents know that disciplining their children is part of their job, They expect their children to screw up sometimes. Would they be driven to infanticide by their children’s mistakes?
Would a king react that way to his subjects? Probably not. A king also expects his subjects to seek their indiscretions where they can find them. As the Talmud says (Gittin, 13a): “Avda b’hefkeira nicha leih” – “a servant prefers lawlessness,” That’s why a king has laws and law enforcement — to curb his subjects’ innate natures. And when they transgress a law? He doesn’t kill his subjects (at least not all of them); without them he is not king.
This is especially true in areas in which the children or the subjects have a known weakness, or perhaps an addiction. Idol-worship in those days was very much like that. For hundreds of years, the Hebrews had been exposed to idol-worship in Egypt. Now, they have been freed for all of three months; is that enough time to be cured a two hundred-year-old habit?
(As a side note, halachically, if a court of Jewish law issues a decree, thinking that the majority of the community could uphold it, and after the decree was issued, the practice did not spread throughout the majority of the community, the decree is nullified. See Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Mamrim, 2:6. Many years later, after the Temple’s destruction, G-d would finally agree with the Jewish leadership that the temptation for idol-worship was too strong to withstand, and removed the evil inclination for idol worship, as we discussed here.)
And this wasn’t a premeditated or flippant return to idol worship. It’s pretty clear that the odds were stacked against them. Consider the following:
Moses said he’d be gone for 40 days.
The last they had seen of him, “Moses went up to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.” Then, “the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai…And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire atop the mountain, before the eyes of the children of Israel.” Exodus, 24:15-17. Perhaps many already concluded at that point that they had seen the last of their erstwhile leader, who was by now surely burned to a crisp. Forty days pass – still no Moses. Now, however, they are taunted by a vision of a dead Moses, being carried off in the sky. See Rashi, Exodus, 32:1.
They take their fears to Aaron, Moses’s brother, and the man that Moses left in charge. “Make us a leader,” they ask, “for this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don’t know what has become of him.”
A comedy of errors and mishaps occur as a result of this request, resulting in a dancing golden calf, emerging from the fire – a calf which the Israelites had very little role in creating.
Would a father be driven to kill his child for such an error? Would a king be driven to kill his subjects?
It is difficult to see G-d’s reaction to the transgression as anything other than the hurt of a spurned lover. There is a reason that one who kills another man whom he discovers in bed with his wife gets a reduced sentence, due to his crime having been committed “in the heat of passion.” G-d Himself said it best when He prohibited idol worship, “for I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God.” Exodus, 20:5.
And, like a true lover, He doesn’t truly wish to harm His beloved. So He says to Moses: “Now leave Me alone and My anger will be kindled against them.” Moses, who had not yet said a word, understood that this was G-d’s way of inviting him to intervene; that G-d was telling him that, if Moses didn’t leave Him alone, His anger might not be kindled against the Jewish people. See Rashi, Exodus, 32:10. (This calls to mind one of my favorite lines in Hook, in which Captain Hook holds a gun to his head and warns his first mate Smee that he plans to commit suicide, saying “Don’t try and stop me, Smee, don’t try and stop me, don’t even think about trying to stop me! Stop me, Smee! Stop me! Why aren’t you trying to stop me, Smee?”)
Moses immediately seized upon this opportunity to plead for G-d’s forgiveness on behalf of the Jewish people, and his pleas fell on fertile soil.
The result, as we discussed here, was an even closer and more intimate bond: the construction of the Tabernacle, via which G-d descended onto us, to dwell in our midst, in our center, to be with us on our level always.