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THE GOLD STANDARD

by Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"Behold! My angel shall go before you, and on the day that I make My account, I shall recall this sin." (Exodus 32:34).

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"Behold! My angel shall go before you, and on the day that I make My account, I shall recall this sin." (Exodus 32:34).

Rashi, the classic Biblical commentator, interprets this verse as a promise that whenever tragedy will befall the Jewish people, it will contain an element of payback for the disastrous affair with the golden calf. Instead of having to bear the brunt of an instantaneous punishment, it will be meted out slowly throughout the generations. This is difficult to understand in light of a well-known Talmudic dictum. The Torah is very clear with regard to accountability, noting that children are not to be held responsible for the sins of their progenitors. However, the Talmud explains that there is a distinction in cases when the children continue the misdeeds of their ancestors. In such instances, the descendants may also be taken to task for having perpetuated a legacy of sin. How, then, are we to understand our shouldering the burden of the sin of the golden calf? Surely we do not bow down to idols nor have we the faintest desire to involve ourselves in such pagan activities.

In his magnificent work, the Kuzari, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, one of the most beloved poets and thinkers of the Medieval age, tackles the thorny question which has gnawed at the consciousness of casual readers of the Bible for thousands of years. How could it be that this glorious people who had, just some forty days before, witnessed the splendor of Hashem and experienced first-hand His miraculous providence, how could they stoop so low as to humble themselves before a molten image and declare: "These are your gods, Israel, which took you out of Egypt"? (ibid. 32:4). To introduce his answer, the Kuzari establishes an important psychological and philosophical principle. Human beings are finite creatures. We interact and function in a dimension called space and are controlled by a concept known as time. Everything we know and interpret comes to us through one of our five senses. How, then, does this creature of incredible limitation relate to a Creator who is neither found within space nor governed by time?

It is only natural for us to seek some physical representation, some object of focus for us to gaze at and sense the presence of the Eternal Being. Do we not find within our own framework of thought the concept of "holy" places? Isn't the synagogue, or in the very least, the ark contained within, an object in which we connect to Hashem as evidenced by the fact that we stand up respectfully every time the ark is opened? Idolatry is only a corrupted form wherein the object becomes the end of our service instead of the means to sense Hashem. The people never intended that this molten image would serve as a replacement for Hashem. As the Ramban, one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, puts it: ". . .there is not a fool in the world who thinks that what was moments ago a lump of gold in one's ear has been transformed into the god of the exodus!" Rather the golden calf was intended to be a spiritual sanctuary wherein the presence of Hashem would reside and He could be served by His people.

This may cause you to pause and wonder what the whole problem with the golden calf was to begin with. The Kuzari responds with the following question: What would you think if, instead of a calf, the people had chosen to build a Tabernacle? In fact, what if they had decided to build the very same Tabernacle which we have been reading about the past two weeks, complete with the ark of the covenant, menorah, incense altar, and the table for the show-bread; would that have been okay? In other words, to the casual reader, our bone of contention with the people of Israel is their selection of an insignificant, pagan icon to serve as their vehicle for connecting to Hashem. However, the reality is that had they built a beautiful edifice like the Tabernacle, complete to the last item, it would have amounted to the exact same sin as the golden calf - no more no less! How can this be?

The Kuzari explains that the root of all idolatry is not to be found in the object of one's attention; rather it is from where the intent to worship stems. It is, perhaps, the greatest arrogance of all that Man claims that he, through his rational intellect, can arrive at the desired form of service which will please Hashem, without having to be instructed by the Master Himself. It is almost as if we equate our knowledge and understanding with that of the Eternal Being and claim to "read His mind", to know what are the absolute truths of the universe as if we ourselves could author them. The only difference between the Tabernacle (and for that matter any synagogue) and the golden calf is that one was commanded and the other was not! Idolatry is when we think we know better; service of Hashem is when we acknowledge that we don't.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that we are held accountable for this long lost sin. Has there ever been a generation that has been free of this arrogance? Our 20th century alone is so loaded with "-isms", all of which sought and seek to replace the Divine standard of absolute ethics with man-made ersatz substitutes. Instead of confronting the reality of our own limitations, we shelter ourselves behind the causes which we erect, justifying them as the "true will of Hashem" and patting ourselves on the back for a job well done.

"Save the whales"; "Save the Great Horned Owl"; "Save the Symphony". Personally, let's save ourselves.

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Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein, who grew up in Atlanta and is a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a member of the Kollel at the Talmudic University of Florida in Miami Beach.

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