“Smashing the Golden Calves”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Virtually all of the holidays and festivals of the Jewish calendar revolve around important events in Jewish history. Passover commemorates the exodus from Egypt, Shavuot marks the day–the 6th of Sivan–when the Torah was given at Sinai, Chanukah and Purim celebrate the salvation of our People from the Syrian Greeks and from Haman, Rosh Hashana marks the creation of the world. But what historical event is associated with Yom Kippur, the 10th of Tishrei?

Our rabbis connect the observance of Yom Kippur with the sin of the Golden Calf. As you may recall, when G-d appeared at Mt. Sinai the Jewish people in unison roared the historic statement of commitment (Exodus 24:7): “Na’aseh v’nishmah,” We will do and we will understand. Unfortunately, while Moses was yet on the mountaintop preparing to deliver the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Jewish people forgot their pledge, and fashioned for themselves a Golden Calf before which they sang and danced wantonly, calling out (Exodus 32:8): “Ay’leh eh’lo’heh’chah Yisrael,” This is your g-d, O Israel. On his way down from the mountain, Moses sees what the people have done, and, with great disappointment and anger, casts the tablets to the ground and smashes them. Our rabbis maintain that the text implies that G-d even complimented Moses for that act (Talmud Shabbat 87a): “Y’yasher kochacha asher shee’bartah,” Congratulations for breaking the tablets, said the Al-mighty to Moses, because they have no value to a nation that worships a Golden Calf.

According to tradition, the sin of the Golden Calf was recalled once again when the people of Israel sinned with the scouts who returned with the evil report about the land of Israel. There the narrative in the Torah tells of G-d informing Moses of His desire to once-and-for-all “finish off” the Jewish people. Moses, however, pleads successfully before the Al-mighty on the people’s behalf using the special formula of the “13 attributes of G-d’s mercy,” to which G-d responds (Numbers 4:20): “Sah’lach’tee kid’var’eh’cha,” I have forgiven as you have requested. Tradition maintains that when G-d had finally yielded to the pleas of Moses and forgiven the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf, He instructed that this day (the tenth of Tishrei) be designated as a day of atonement for all future generations (Midrash Tanchuma, Kee Tee’sah 31), and the formula for forgiveness used for the Golden Calf be the formula used for all generations.

Of all the sins of the Jewish people, the sin of the Golden Calf is universally considered the most heinous in G-d’s eyes, a sin that will always be remembered. If that’s the case, what was the decisive argument that Moses used to persuade G-d to forgive the people? Our rabbis in tractate Yoma 86b state that Moses in part blamed G-d for the peoples’ sin, claiming that the Al-mighty had given the Jewish people too much gold and silver, even after the people had said “enough.” This midrash is based on the odd name of a location in the wilderness where the people encamped. The rabbis maintain that the exact place where the Golden Calf was built was called “Dee Zahav” (Deuteronomy 1:1), which is a play on the word “dai”–enough–enough gold, that is.

It is quite unusual that in Exodus 20, immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments is recorded, G-d tells Moses to warn the Jewish people (Exodus 20:20): “Lo tah’ah’soon ee’tee, eh’loh’hay chesef vay’loh’hay zahav, lo tah’ah’soo lah’chem,” You shall not make with me, gods of silver and gold, you shall not make for yourself. It seems as if the Al-mighty knows only too well that He must warn the Jewish people not to be seduced by the gold and silver for which they, like many people, have a great propensity.

Unfortunately, we are well aware of the many formerly religious Jews who were simply unable to resist the seductive powers of the marketplace, and the desire for gold and silver. They consequently abandoned their observance of Shabbat and Jewish rituals in order to make the extra buck. For them, that was their Golden Calf.

Of course, a Golden Calf need not be gold–it can assume the form of any attraction or distraction from the path of Torah. A Golden Calf can be an “ism” such as communism, socialism, capitalism, or feminism. A Golden Calf may be anything that diverts us from our goal to be (Exodus 19:6) “Mam’lech’et kohanim v’goy kadosh,” a kingdom of priests and a holy people. Golden calves can even be cloaked in the guise of activities and efforts for achieving universal good or universal redemption. Unfortunately, even these idealistic causes may turn out to be distractions from achieving our sanctified goals.

It was in response to Moses pronouncing the 13 attributes of G-d’s mercy that the Al-mighty answered “Sah’lach’tee kid’var’ehcha,” I have forgiven them, as you [Moses] have requested. And so it is entirely appropriate that on Yom Kippur we take stock of those “Golden Calves” that regularly lure us away from our ultimate goal of living righteous lives–lives dedicated to the values of Torah and loving-kindness, lives that radiate love of G-d and love of humanity, lives that will lead us individually to achieve ultimate goodness and peace, and to collectively achieve world peace and tranquility.

Shanah Tovah.

May you be blessed.