As human beings, we are constantly carrying stories with us of who we are, what we have done, and how we should be in the world. On top of those stories, we build edifices: whole structures and personalities to serve those narratives. But, when those structures are forced to face up to reality, they can come crumbling down completely. And then we are left with only our stories, and we have to reconsider whether they were ever true.
That is what happened to the Israelites when they built the Golden Calf.
Moses went up Mount Sinai and spent time with God. There, on the precipice, God’s finger inscribed in stone the two tablets of the Law, as Moses watched in awe.
Meanwhile, down below, the Israelites grew restless. They didn’t know where Moses was or when he would be back. Under Aaron’s instruction, they built for themselves a Golden Calf, which would serve as their God. Now they could have something to worship.
When Moses returned, he found the people prostrating themselves before the calf, singing praise to the idol that it had brought them out of Egypt. Immediately, in a fit of rage, Moses threw the tablets on the ground and shattered them.
Those stone slabs were not the only thing destroyed that day. Moses also took the calf the people had made and burned it in fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.
This is perhaps one of the strangest things that happens in the whole Torah. Two questions have really animated commentators on this passage. The first is: how is this possible? Can gold really be ground to dust and consumed with water? What sort of process would enable Moses to break the idol down so fine and feed it to the Israelites? Is such a thing actually potable? Wouldn’t it injure or kill the Israelites to drink it?
The second question is why? Why would Moses do such a thing? What is the value?
Rashi, following the Talmud, suggests that this was similar to the Sotah ritual. Elsewhere in Torah, we read of a custom for wives suspected of being unfaithful to their husbands. They are required to drink soot mixed with water. If they are guilty, they will miscarry. If not, they will survive.
There are obvious parallels in terms of procedure: both involve drinking water mixed with soot. It is also true that, in much of biblical theology, the Israelites are understood to be God’s faithless wife. Whenever the Israelites worship other gods, they are described as philanderers who have rejected their loyal husband. Here, then, the ritual would be testing the adulterous people to see whether they had broken their marriage vows. Based on this, says Rashi, God would determine what punishments were appropriate for their misconduct.
While I like the elegance of the solution, it doesn’t quite sit right. It’s not just because of the obviously misogynistic undertones. It’s also because it doesn’t make sense. The Sotah ritual is for wives suspected of adultery. A Sotah ritual might find its victim guilty, but, more likely, it would clear them of wrongdoing. Here, there is no doubt. They have been caught in the act. You don’t need to check whether something has happened if you saw it happening and talked about it.
Nachmanides was obviously also perturbed by this explanation. He offers an alternative suggestion: Moses was trying to humiliate the Israelites. He was turning their god into something loathsome and disgusting, that they would be forced to excrete. Once the Golden Calf had come out of them as dung, they would surely recognise that it wasn’t really God.
This is actually an argument that Nachmanides had used in the infamous Barcelona Disputation. Nachmanides was brought to the Spanish palace and ordered to defend Judaism against the Christian official, Friar Pablo Christiani. He said that the eucharist, the bread given at Catholic masses as a body of Jesus, could not possibly be God, because the Christians disgraced it by excreting it. Nachmanides’ interpretation, then, seems more motivated by his theological proofs against Christianity than by the matter of the text itself.
But Nachmanides has a point. The Israelites really needed to understand that the Golden Calf was not God. It was not enough for them to know that idolatry is a sin. They had to really feel, emotionally and physically, that what they had been worshipping amounted to nought.
Thus, the question of how the Israelites could drink the calcined Golden Calf is intimately bound up with why. Sure, it is possible to reduce and grind up gold, but there is no way of consuming it without getting sick. No matter how diluted, oxidised metal is a dangerous concoction.
Moses is saying to the Israelites: if you really think this is God, see how it tastes. Drink it. Is it alive? Is it helping you? Can it really do anything for you?
As the Israelites drank their mixture, they were forced to reckon with the reality that they had built themselves a structure that did not serve them.
They had told themselves a story. We need a God we can see to worship. We need physical things to feel secure. If we make something magnificent, we can tell ourselves that this is what saves us. When those stories were confronted by the hard truth of fire and water, it was evident they weren’t true.
So, they had to rebuild, this time with new stories. The Golden Calf could not be recreated, and nor could their narrative that idols would serve them.
The only thing left to do was to return up the mountain and rebuild the other thing that was broken: the Two Tablets of the Law. They had to tell a new story: of an invisible God, whose proof was in deliverance. They had to build a new structure: the moral laws that would build a harmonious society.
I feel like this is part of the human condition. So often, I have caught myself telling internal stories that keep me on guard and afraid. If I allow such narratives to take hold, I will build up edifices that I imagine will defend me, like anger, resentment, and a victim mindset. I will build up walls so others cannot get in.
But, like the Golden Calf, are serving these structures more than they are serving us. When the walls we build are tested by the fire and water of real life, they amount to nothing. They are just toxic substances that will destroy us. And, when they crumble, all we can do is go back and rebuild the structures that are actually secure: the moral laws that bind us to each other in obligation.
So, this is the challenge. When you find yourself building up a defensive story, pause and ask yourself how it tastes. If you were to drink what you are telling yourself, would it taste like the freshwater of a living God, or would you be imbibing the toxins of an idol?
The stories we tell ourselves are no different to anything else we allow in our bodies. They can either keep us alive, or they can destroy us.
Choose life. Shabbat shalom.