Aviva Zornberg discusses the fact that the two sides of the coin that is the Golden Calf may seem to be contradictory, yet are in reality complimentary, or perhaps even symbiotic. A main reason for the building of the Golden Calf is the people panicked once Moses had been on Mt. Sinai longer than they expected. This panic prompted them to command Aaron "Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him (32:1)."
This verse implies that idolatry began long before the Calf. However, the idol was Moses, himself. For the people associated Moses with the one who redeemed them from slavery and not God. It has been said that idolatry is when one worships a part and imagine to be the whole. If God is the whole – the One of the Universe – then any human being, or any object for that matter, can only be a small part of the whole. But Moses, a mere human, becomes almost deified. According to midrashic tradition (rabbinic legends), Satan (the one who challenges God, and not an evil power as in other traditions) shows an image to the people of Moses either dead or suspended somewhere between heaven and earth.
In this mass hallucination, as Aviva Zornberg calls it (in her book the Particulars of Rapture), the people come to see "this man" Moses as no longer with them, and so they must create a new "god" to provide them with a physical representation of that which has no physical representation. They must substitute a new part to worship as a proxy for the whole. The people are unable to face God without Moses. This is similar to what occurred when they refused to hear God's voice at Sinai, but instead relied on Moses to relay the message to them. The people forget God and God's oneness and instead search for a new god to worship (even though this new god was still, in reality, a representation of the One God).
As Zornberg puts it, this ultimate infidelity co-exists with an extreme form of fidelity found in the phrase "stiff-necked people" that we read for the first time in this narrative. According to Rashi (12th cent. France) and others, "stiff necked" referred to turning one's back on the present and future and maintaining an unexpected "fidelity" to old ideals. In the face of their belief that Moses was gone for good they revert to the old ideas of Egypt which they are unable to leave behind. In essence they are simultaneously unwilling to leave their attachment to the past and also quite willing to create a new object to replace God. The ultimate climax is when the people proclaim of the Golden Calf "this is your god, O Israel." In doing so they are not denying that it is the One God who redeemed them from Egypt, but they are content to conceptualize and represent the unlimited God in a limited and idolatrous way.
This idea that human beings are unwilling to leave behind the past, yet all-too-ready to embrace new ideas because they provide comfort (even when they are antithetical to their beliefs) is at the heart of much of humanity's struggles. We can certainly apply these ideas to our lives at various times. For we are all suspended between these two poles, much as Moses is described in the midrash as suspended between heaven and earth.
Even if we look at the political situation in the world today it is easy to see how we get caught in the middle and in particular how human beings are inclined to confuse the part with the whole. Without discussing politics per se, I think we can all think of ways in which politicians (and those of us who elect them) are simultaneously holding on to old ideas while also trying to embrace new ones, without realizing that the are contradictory.
But the analogy of the idolatry of the Golden Calf also works for our view of justice and goodness in the world as well. As the only remaining “superpower” in the world many Americans view our country as the whole of the universe, rather than simply one part. We are the saviors. We are the source of righteousness and liberty for all. Yet, in reality, if we wish to create a world that is free for all humanity we must realize that we are connected to so many other countries and peoples as well. We are a part of the whole, albeit a rather large and powerful one.
Our powerful standing in the world does not give us the right to make unilateral decisions that can affect the entire world, nor to ignore suffering elsewhere because we believe it doesn't directly affect us. Rather, I believe that it gives us the responsibility and the imperative to act in concert with the other nations of the world that are dedicated to the same or similar values. For if we set ourselves apart and isolate, as we have at other times in our past, we set ourselves up as the idol du jour and ultimately bring about negative consequences for ourselves.
This paradigm can just as easily apply to communities, families and individuals. We must all see ourselves as part of the whole, and not the whole itself, as our ego would like us to believe. As the idiom says, the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts, let alone one part – even if it is the largest part. I hope and pray that each of us and our leaders find a way to remember the lesson of the Golden Calf and focus on acknowledging the oneness of humanity, the oneness of God and not the ones, or perhaps alone-ness, of the United States. In this way we can hopefully work together with the others dedicated to freedom, justice and equality in order to heal our world.