How do we bring God into our lives? How do we retain a sense of awe and wonder at the world around us, what Rabbi Heschel called “radical amazement” amid the stress of everyday life? These sections of Exodus, with their detailed passages of how to build the Mishkan, the Sanctuary, the dwelling place for God among the people, all seem to be addressing the same question. What do we do now?
And crucially, this week, in Ki Tissa, we discover how easy it is to mistake the outer covering for the thing itself. The Sanctuary is a dwelling-place for God, but it is only a container. The prayers we say in synagogue may be a way of getting close to God, but they are only a means, not an end in itself. Even the word “God” is a Germanic term, probably from a root, meaning “that which is invoked”. It’s a description, a metaphor, but it is not the thing itself.
The Israelites of the Torah are keen on symbols. They have just left Egypt which was full of them. I don’t really think they’ve turned from God as such – it’s just that they haven’t found a cultural expression of faith that works for them yet. They have just had the terrifying Revelation at Sinai with thunder and a smoking mountain. They have asked Moses to be their intermediary and he has given them some basic laws – including the one about not having any other gods. And then he disappears. What are they supposed to do? They are in the middle of the most powerful, sacred scenario ever, they have just agreed to enter a Covenant without being entirely clear of the terms, they have a strong sense of transcendence, but no way of expressing it. The cloud of smoke and the pillar of fire that accompanied them have disappeared. They feel abandoned.
And when they feel abandoned, the gold that six chapters before was being donated to the Sanctuary, now gets donated to make a graven image – not, I think, an alternative god, but an attempt to create an image of the God of Israel – because they need something physical to hold onto.
It is when we feel abandoned that we are most likely to need something physical to fill the gap – comfort eating, retail therapy, for example. But the text suggests something more fundamental than secular diversions. Sometimes the things we construct to help us get close to God can actually get in the way. The beauty of the liturgy, the wonderful synagogue architecture, amazing books … any of these might be a conduit to God but they are not the thing itself. Fasting on Yom Kippur, searching your house for chametz at Pesach, are all metaphors and symbols – conduits one hopes for something else.
Idols are everywhere and they’re not all made from melted gold – many of them are inside our heads. We live in a world where consumerism and celebrity have created a whole series of idols for a secular age to worship. And idolatry can lie a lot closer to our Jewish home. Feminist theologians have suggested that religious language, that sees God exclusively in male terms – God the Father, God the King, God the male husband marrying the bride of Israel – is in itself idolatrous, in the sense of turning God into a static flattened image. If we want truly to avoid worshipping idols, we need to acknowledge how inadequate our language is, and that there is no end to the multiplicity of ways to experience God. No end, ein sof. And because we are made in the image of God, and because there is no end to the metaphors that can be used, we too can be our fullest selves, without the deadening, idolatrous effect of needing to look a certain way, or wear certain clothes, or be a particular gender in order to have a voice, in order to be holy.
Just before the story of the Golden Calf, the law of Shabbat is elaborated. It includes the passage that we read for Shabbat morning Kiddush. It has a nice tune – everyone likes singing it. I had forgotten that three times during this section God points out that if you don’t keep Shabbat, you will die. It’s quite emphatic and it includes the phrase “whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his/her people”. Working non-stop is literally soul-destroying. If you don’t take time out, a day off once a week, it will kill you. Shabbat is all about being, rather than doing. Taking that deep breath, making space for the extra Shabbat soul, gaining some perspective. Too often we feel we need to fill the gap with activity. The Israelites couldn’t stop – they needed to get busy offering sacrifices, making images. Perhaps they forgot they were in the wilderness and that they needed to stop and make some space in order to transition from being slaves to being partners with God. Perhaps the real idol they were creating was non-stop activity? Perhaps that’s the idol we need to break?
But even keeping Shabbat can be a kind of idolatry if one mistakes the form for the thing itself. It’s not about how whether you turn lights on or not – not really. It’s not about warning others that if they don’t keep it properly they’re profaning God’s name and might die. It’s not, in fact, about being Super-Jew. It’s about taking time out to face the emptiness, to have that conversation with one’s inner self, and perhaps, if one is lucky, getting a glimmer of transcendence. It’s about going into the garden and noticing whether the buds are opening yet. It’s about noticing each other, not as consumers or colleagues, but as people with whom a holy connection might be made. Shabbat-consciousness is an answer to the question, how do we do this? How do we keep a connection going, after our teacher has disappeared, after the fire has gone out, when our gold is weighing on us?
Shabbat is our counter-balance to our tendency to idolatry. “For it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations that you may know that I am God who makes you holy”. It’s a promise that can still hold true.
Student Rabbi Naomi Goldman
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.