This week we read a very complicated Parsha. The complication is not so much in the translation of the words and the basic incident of the Golden Calf. Rather, the entire concept of the Golden Calf is difficult to comprehend.
It seems to be totally puzzling to our minds how the Jewish people could institute a foreign worship after witnessing the greatest miracles in history – miracles that we still talk about today and celebrate an entire week of holiday on account of them – the Exodus from Egypt for which we have Pesach. And that was followed by the splitting of the Red Sea, bitter water turning sweet, water coming from a rock, manna and quails falling from Heaven, a completely inexperienced army of Jewish people defeating the seasoned army of Amalek and finally, the giving of the Torah in the pomp and circumstance of Mount Sinai. It was one unbelievable miracle after another. How then – after all that - could the Jewish people go ahead and turn away from G-d? It is incomprehensible! What were they thinking? Were they not inspired by the miracles? Shouldn’t the amazing wonders they saw have inspired them to new heights?
It seems somehow that the temptation for idolatry was just too much for most people to withstand. It was the prevailing culture of the time and the Jewish people were swept up in its storm. Even the greatest of people was unable to prevent the masses from going astray. The incident of the Golden Calf was not the only time this happened. We read about this throughout the Tanach. In the Haftara that we read for this week’s Parsha, the Prophet Eliyahu faces the same challenge with the Jewish people – fighting the prevailing culture of idolatry that infected the Jewish nation. Most of the people of his time worshipped the Ba’al. So, there was a contest between Eliyahu and the Prophets of Ba’al on Har HaCarmel – the area of modern Haifa. The prophets of Ba’al attempted again and again to light a fire so their sacrifice would be consumed. Of course, they were unsuccessful. Eliyahu prepared his sacrifice. He poured water over the wood and called out to G-d. A great fire came down from Heaven and consumed his sacrifice. The people were so inspired and overwhelmed by the moment that they shouted as one “The L-rd is G-d . . .” Immediately afterwards, the Tanach tells us that the idolatry continued and Eliyahu was forced to run for his life from Queen Jezebel. So, one day the nation chanted as one to G-d and the next day it was back to serving the same idols, as though the miracle on Mt. Carmel had no effect at all.
We are all products of our environment and the world around us no matter how sheltered we might be. Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid said that the customs of the Jews – even the best of them – is like the custom of the non-Jews amongst whom they live.
We are affected by the world that surrounds us – for better or for worse. The Jews in the desert were products of their environment. They came from Egypt – the leading idolatrous nation in the world. So, the world the Jews knew – that was ingrained in them for hundreds of years – was the culture of idolatry. The society and mores of Egypt were a part of who they were. No miracle – not the splitting of the sea or the Revelation at Mount Sinai – could break that culture that was ingrained within them.
They were certainly wrong but we should not look at the generation of the desert and think that they were crazy because - who knows - maybe if we had lived then, we have run to the Golden Calf faster than they did.
They - as we – respond to their environments. The Torah tells the story of the Golden Calf to emphasize that the great challenge of being a Jew – whether in 2448 from Creation or in 5778 – is to be the world’s iconoclast – in a certain sense be above the fray – and ultimately not to live by the world’s values, but rather by Jewish values. Every generation is faced with challenges. Our generation is no different. Do we go with the fads and tides and get swept out to sea or do we hang on for dear life to the Torah and its way of life?
The world is filled with definitions. But, we are not Republicans nor are we Democrats . . . we are neither liberals or conservatives . . . we are Jews – both in our personal and public lives. That means we treat people properly and behave morally. We build families. Those are always and forever will be Jewish values. We follow the Torah because the Torah has always been and always will be relevant to our survival.
That is one lesson from today’s Parsha – a portion that looks simple from afar, but is far from simple.