The Torah reading this week consists of three segments-One, matters concerning the sanctuary, two, the observance of the Sabbath and three, the well-known Golden Calf episode.
The position of the Sabbath between these divisions has been commented upon in regards to the relationship of the Sabbath to the Sanctuary. That is, its proximity suggests the source for the activities prohibited on the Sabbath, namely all those forms of work that were necessary for the construction of the Sanctuary. Moreover, this juxtaposition of Sabbath and Sanctuary has been interpreted to mean that the sanctity of time is of greater spiritual significance than the sanctity of space.
I would like to comment on the gift of the Sabbath as a prologue to the incident of the Golden Calf.
Many are the interpretations explaining the puzzlement associated with the primal violation of idolatry by a community of Israelites in the aftermath of personally witnessing God’s miracles. How do we understand such a psychological development? What factors contributed to this act of utter disregard and betrayal?
The opening words of the incident provide a clue.” And the people saw that Moses was delayed in returning from the mount, they gathered before Aaron and said: make for us a god, for this man Moses.. We don’t know what has happened to him…”(Exodus32: 1)
Gripped by fear and panic, the people descend into idolatry, into the desperate clutching at some object of reassurance and security, a tangible object that will quell their fears. Similar to a child who holds on to a transitional object as a source of security in the absence of a parent or guardian, so too did Israel, in their spiritual immaturity and childhood, grasp on to a “transitional object,” unable to withstand the anxiety often associated with an inner abstract sense of faith and commitment.
Fear leads to faithlessness, to ingratitude, to murmuring and complaint. Trust vanishes; in its place is fearful rage.
The Sabbath is conveyed to Israel as an expression of God’s hope that Israel will learn gratefulness, trust and self-reliance. When the text enjoins the observance of the Sabbath, it declares:”Ach et Shabbtotai tishmoroo-” You shall only keep (Exodus 31:13.) Why the word “ach”, only? The Torah commentary of the Sefat Emet, the Gerer Rebbe, comments as follows:” Have no desire or longing for anything else in this world-only for God, who is the root of human life.” Sabbath is a time of gratefulness, the very antithesis of fear. All is provided, there is no care, worry or concern for one’s well-being, only utter faith in God and unconditional gratefulness for the fullness of life and its endless blessings. The burden of worldly concerns is removed from our shoulders and minds. If we observe the Sabbath with the appropriate frame of mind then fear disappears, all possibilities of idolatry are removed and we find ourselves in intimate relationship with the divine source of the universe.
Israel in its fear was incapable of celebrating Shabbat. Therefore, in the hysteria of the moment even Aaron the High Priest in his fear and vulnerability, declared-“Tomorrow is a “chag”, a festival unto the Lord,”(Exodus 32:5), the god they fashioned out of fear, not the God of Israel.
According to my calculation, the day on which Aaron proclaimed a “Festival unto God” could have been Shabbat. We are informed “ On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud…Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain …he remained on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.”(Exodus 24:16,18).
Moses is delayed in his return. One could assume that the forty days passed without Moses’ return, leading to Israel’s anxiety, so that on the forty first day they demanded: “Come, make us a god.. “(Exodus 32:1). Following the willingness of Aaron and the people to fashion a golden calf, Aaron announces:” Tomorrow shall bee a feast of the Lord.”(Exodus 32:5). The next day, the forty-second day, six weeks following Moses ascent, which began on the seventh day, was in fact Shabbat. What the people transform into a festival of fear is the Sabbath day, a day of faith and gratefulness, whose injunction and meaning were stipulated immediately prior to this egregious incident.
Thus, Israel not only commits idolatry but also compounds the violation by desecrating the meaning and purpose of the Shabbat as a sign between Israel and God of a relationship based on an act of giving and love on the part of God and the anticipated reciprocal response of Israel in the form of grateful praise and thanksgiving.