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When I was in rabbinical school, I officiated at a Bat Mitzvah for Beatrice, a young girl who was reading from this week’s parashah, Ki Tissa. As we studied the famous story of the golden calf, she asked me an excellent question: “What is wrong with idol worship, anyway?” After all, she pointed out, the synagogue was filled with beautiful holy objects, like an intricate stained-glass window, a filigreed eternal light, and the ornately dressed Torah scroll itself.
I carefully explained to Beatrice that the problem with idols is that instead of serving as symbols of holiness, they replace holiness. Jewish sacred symbols, I claimed, are just tools to remember the central teachings of the Torah. They remind us that we should be kind to each other and pursue justice. An idol is something that is worshiped as an end in and of itself.
Beatrice listened carefully to my explanation for quite some time before responding: “I have one more question. If the Torah scroll is just a symbol that is supposed to remind us to be nice to each other, then why did you snap at me when we were practicing and I almost dropped it?”
There’s nothing like solid to’he’kha (timely rebuke) from a 13-year-old to give a new rabbi perspective. Idol worship is hard to avoid.
In this week’s parashah, while Moses is receiving the tablets of the Torah from God, the people get restless. “Come make us a god…” they say to Aaron. He melts down their jewelry and forms a glittering golden calf. The people see it and exclaim (Exodus 32:1-5), “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt!”
This incident is the primary example of idolatry in Jewish tradition. The people replace the worship of an ineffable, omnipotent God with a human-made, hastily constructed, showy chotch’ke.
When Moses comes down the mountain and sees the people reveling in idolatry, he becomes enraged and smashes the tablets. Ironically, in that moment, Moses makes the same mistake as the people. Instead of seeing the tablets as symbols of holiness that can help heal the community, he sees them through the eyes of idolatry.
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