False Idols and False Prophets
Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
This week’s Torah portion tells one of the best known Biblical stories: the rise and fall of the golden calf.
The story begins with the prolonged stay of Moses on Mount Sinai. Fearing abandonment, the Jewish people turn to Aaron. “Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don’t know what has become of him.” (32:1)
And so came the golden calf.
This doesn’t go well with God. He plans to destroy the Jewish people, “Now leave Me alone, and my anger will be kindled against them so that I will annihilate them.” (32:10) But Moses stays His hand.
False idols and false prophets are repeatedly addressed throughout the Torah, but the message is pretty simple: don’t have them, don’t follow them.
How applicable is this? I would imagine that if granted an extra hour every day I would probably sleep more, eat more frozen yogurt, or do more crossword puzzles — I can’t foresee wanting to construct a golden calf. And since leaving Utah, I haven’t been under active pressure to follow derivative prophets.
But false idols and messiahs appear in many forms, not just as potential usurpers of God’s throne. Anything that tries to quickly undermine proven wisdom — in this case, the wisdom of God — can be seen as a false idol. That Judaism promotes significant respect for the tried-and-true should come as no shock; the Fifth Commandment tells us to honor our parents — the embodiments of grayed wisdom — and Fiddler On The Roof sings about the importance of tradition. The current state works for a reason; years and years of learning-our approximation of God-like wisdom-should not be readily abandoned.
In this sense, the portion warns against events such as the French Revolution, the Soviet Revolution, or other instances where established wisdom, models of government, or economic systems are abandoned wholesale in favor of an enticing new ideology.
These false idols and prophets are most appealing in times of duress. The Jewish people felt despair in the absence of Moses; the Russian people felt despair as a result of a struggling economy and a crippling 1918 treaty with Germany. The Jews departed from God’s wisdom by creating the golden calf as a quick panacea; the Russians turned from history’s established wisdom to a utopian dream.
The portion teaches that even in extreme times we should not reach out to false prophets. We can perhaps look to make minor adjustments in Moses’ absence — maybe invent a dreidel or a bagel to keep us occupied — but we should be wary of directly abandoning the wisdom of God and Moses. After all, it was they who took us out of Egypt.
The Jewish people are old. Very old. Our years burden us with a lachrymose history — 586 B.C.E., 70 C.E., 1492, 1933, etc. all stand out in pain — but our age also gives us a perspective on the world. New fangled religions, new political ideologies, and new prophets (religious or otherwise) come and go, but the Jewish people are here to stay. We must be doing something right, so while some alterations to Judaism and existing wisdom might be desirable or even advisable, we should think twice before abandoning all established wisdom and creating a golden calf.
1) The use of the third person masculine pronoun is not intended to preclude other interpretations of God.