In reading over Ki Tisa, I feel drawn to a piece of commentary that, it seems to me, every year, I come back to again.
In the episode of the golden calf, in Shmot 32:1 it says:
“Arise and make for us elohim that they will go before us, since this man Moshe who brought us out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
The Chasidic commentator R. Meir Simcha says that Israel didn’t really want to make an idol. Rather, Israel thought that Moshe was so far above them that when he disappeared, they thought God would no longer come to dwell among them. As Hirsch also comments, the people didn’t believe that God came to them, but that Moshe brought God to them.
The Torah tells us that Israel said that Moshe was “the man who brought us out of Egypt.” That means that Israel did know that it was God who brought them out. Israel didn’t confuse Moshe and God – they knew that Moshe was doing God’s work, and they heard and saw all the miracles that God did for them.
– So, after Israel made the calf, they said (32:5)
“Tomorrow shall be a festival for God!” and in 32:4, just the verse before, they announced, “This is your God, Israel, that brought you out of Egypt.”
They didn’t think that the calf was a god, they were trying to make a place for God to dwell, or perhaps a footstool, a statue of precious metals that would be sort of like the cherubim that were on the ark, which was “God’s footstool,” so that God would dwell there. Israel had the idea that Moshe was the path to God. You see, with Moshe gone, they just knew that no mortal person was good enough for the shechinah to hover over. God was not with them, God was brought by Moshe.
This should give us pause. It is so very close to the idea of God requiring a mediator in Christianity (or even multiple mediators, first, their Xristos, and secondly in some sects, the priests) – or closer to home, the idea that Rabbi Schneerson is the messiah, who will be revived from the dead. Perhaps it is a natural human feeling to want a person who is better than us to serve as a channel to the divine, perhaps it is natural to feel that we are not good enough to bring God amongst ourselves. But this is contrary to what Judaism tells us. We do not know the place of Moshe’s burial because God was concerned about this sort of idolatry.
And make no mistake: it was not the calf which was the idolatry. We don’t have to worship something as God or as a god for it to become idolatrous. It is the act of removing responsibility from ourselves to connect with God that is the essential act of idolatry. Believing that only Moshe can bring God to us, that’s idolatry, because God is not at the beck and call of a person. Any person. Our connection to God is part of an ongoing relationship that we have to build both as individuals and also as a people.
Shmot Rabbah 44:1 says:
Another explanation of ’Thou didst pluck up a vine out of Egypt’. …Thou wilt also verify the explanation: ‘Just as the living vine is supported by dead stalks, so Israel, alive and eternal, lean upon their patriarchs who are dead.’ You will thus find that Elijah offered up many supplications on Mount Carmel for the fire to descend, as it says, Hear me, O Lord, hear me (I Kings 18:37), but the Lord did not hearken unto him. As soon, however, as he mentioned the dead, and said: O Lord, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel (ib. 36), he was immediately answered; ... Moses, likewise, after Israel had committed that act [the Calf], stood for forty days and nights pleading n their behalf, but he was not answered; but as soon as he made mention of the dead he was immediately answered, as it says, REMEMBER ABRAHAM, ISAAC, AND ISRAEL, THY SERVANTS. What follows?--AND THE LORD REPENTED OF THE EVIL WHICH HE SAID HE WOULD DO UNTO HIS PEOPLE. A proof that just as the vine that lives receives its support from dead stalks, so do living Israel find support in their patriarchs long dead;- hence REMEMBER ABRAHAM, ISAAC, AND ISRAEL.
Israel does honor those who came before, and we depend upon the merit of our ancestors. But this is a world away from considering them the saints through whom God comes to us. The reason that the image is of a vine is that the vine appears dead, but it lives, and that is why the vine can continue to be fruitful. But that doesn’t mean that our ancestors are literally alive, nor chas v’shalom, that we should expect their resurrection to bring moshiach. To the contrary, it is because the vine that is green is part of the vine, just as the part that appears dead is part of the vine. It is only that the core of the vine is alive throughout the vine. Without that green sap and core, none of the vine will exist or bear: and what is that vine? It is God and Torah within all of us. When we depend upon the merit of our ancestors, it means that we recognize the Torah within them, and let it flow through us as well. But what happens if you think that the older part of the vine will be revived, and the green, new parts doesn’t have to bear new fruit? Well, nothing. That part of the vine is no longer the part that bears.
The problem is when we become emotionally attached to the fallacies of the idolatry. When there is comfort in an imagined past in which everyone knew their place and were rewarded for it, in which we view with sentimentality the way people lived, and disregard that which is before our eyes as sin and wrong, we are already setting ourselves up for failure. There is no one who should come between us and God. God does not require a footstool, Moshe is a leader, not a channeler, and certainly not a magician making the spirits do his will. To excuse oneself from the duty of bringing moshiach because someone else is there to do it, or be it, that's idolatry.