The Torah teaches us about journeys and even though it was written many centuries ago, the journey of our ancestors can still illumine our own lives. Our circumstances may be different but the nature of human beings remains the same. In this week´s parashah we see how the Israelites struggled with the absence of Moses and their reaction of making a new deity.
As a result of the delay in Moses coming down from Mt Sinai, the Israelites asked Aaron to make a god “for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t know what is become of him” (Ex 32:1). The Rabbis explain that the people expected Moses to return on the fortieth day, inclusive of the day of his ascent; but he remained forty clear days on Mount Sinai. The people concluded that he was dead. Their solution? to make a god. No doubts about the religious character of these people; no doubts about their need of something to believe in. Note that the Torah uses the verb asah, to do, to make, in the context of the creation of the golden calf. In the story of Creation it uses Barah, to create. We cannot create God but we can make a god. However the Rabbis struggle with the fact that the Israelites were making a new god and leaving the God of Israel. Ramban (Moses Nachmanides) points out that Scripture indicates only that they wanted a leader in place of Moses but not gods. Let’s agree with him and say that they just wanted to get a new leader, but the reality is that they ended up offering sacrifices to the golden calf. If their initial idea was not to worship other gods they still ended up doing it.
The Spanish poet Garcia Lorca, quoting the French philosopher Voltaire, used to say “God is necessary and if he did not exist we would had to create him”. We see how since prehistoric times human beings have demonstrated religious behaviour. There is inconclusive evidence that Homo neanderthalensis may have buried their dead which is evidence of the use of ritual. The use of burial rituals is evidence of religious activity. Since that time, human beings have followed all sorts of religions and there is hardly one philosopher who has not dedicated part of his work to thinking about religion. God is searching for us and if not we go and look for Him, and on the search for an answer to the great existential questions humanity has created all kind of divine tales.
In this week’s Torah portion we see how the Israelites feel lost without the religious leadership of Moses. They do not know where he is after forty days and they need to find an answer for the miracles they experienced going out from Egypt. Without Moses they cannot understand their liberation from the house of Pharaoh. Maybe what they try to do by asking Aaron to make a god for them is to push him into leadership. They need someone who answers their question and an interlocutor with the divinity. They did not want to make a god, but they needed an answer to the unbelievable historical moment they just lived through, getting out from slavery in Egypt. They are good representatives of the human desire for religion. Yet this is also the problem, their religious inclination takes them into idolatry.
And this is the key thing about religion and idolatry. When we confuse religion with God, and we take religion as the end of our journey, it becomes idolatry. A religious person is never satisfied but is always striving intellectually and spiritually, on the behalf of other people, nature and in our relation with God. Religion should guide us in our journey but it is not the end of the journey. Judaism and its heritage must illuminate a life of commitment to make of this world a better place where all can live in peace and harmony with all creatures. To glorify God is by working for the goodness of His children and the preservation of His creation. A Religion must be a living, and be present in our life like a sweet and soft perfume. People may not know where it comes from, how it is made but they feel it and it makes their life better. Your friends and neighbours will wonder where your happiness and joy come from, why you are always able to help, why you care for nature by eating sustainable food or recycling. A religious person wonders about and feels embarrassed for being created in the likeness of God and yet to be unable to recognise him. Abraham Joshua Heschel says that religion becomes sinful when it begins to advocate the segregation of God, to forget that the true sanctuary has no walls. I think this could give us a definition of Idolatry. Idolatry is when we want to keep God inside walls…in our little box. When we do not make of our daily life a sanctuary where we worship God by the honesty of our life and love for our family, friends and neighbours.
There is a decrease in religiousness and church attendance in Western Europe. According the Eurobarometer in 2010, 37% of British people confess “I believe in God” while 33% say “There is some sort of spirit or life force” and 25 % “I do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God or life force”. Religious leaders may be worried about these statistics but we can take it as an opportunity for going deeper into a more meaningful way of living our religiosity and to consider whether after centuries we have ended up, like the Israelites, worshipping idols. Let me give you one last example. Have you ever bought a super kosher lettuce? These lettuces are grown using all sorts of pesticides in order to keep insects away. Most of these pesticides are very harmful to the environment. You may eat kosher when you eat this lettuce but you are not preserving God’s creation. This is what I call religion as an end…this is what I call idolatry. The idolatry of kashrut. As Heschel wrote:
“Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant,
dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by
discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the
splendour of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain;
when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than the voice of
compassion- its message becomes meaningless.”
It is also true that while this crisis of religions in western countries deepens, humanity is also making new gods. If the Torah was given to us nowadays, this episode of the Golden Calf could be the episode of the Golden Iphone. But we still need answers for our deepest questions and we know that that an Iphone even with all its hundreds of applications cannot download the answer. We wonder and we search for God. Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. Behind this crisis of religions there is a crisis of values and I believe it is a great opportunity for rediscovering the huge heritage of Judaism.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.