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Parshat Ki Tisa: The Holy Source of Idolatry

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One of the most perplexing things in the Jewish People’s story takes place in Parshat Ki Tisa. As Moshe Rabbeinu is receiving the luchot from Hashem on Har Sinai, the people grow anxious. Unsure when, or if, Moshe will return, Bnei Yisroel take a strange course of action: They collaborate among themselves to create a golden calf to be worshipped as a god. If this were a movie, that would seem ridiculous.

How could a people so connected with God, so close to divinity, so quickly wreck the entire thing? They saw Hashem perform wondrous miracles in Egypt, they felt Hashem liberating them from slavery, and they experienced Divine revelation at Har Sinai. And still, the single, most important thing for them to avoid, they could not; they had to serve an idol: Hashem told Moshe, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely. They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying: ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt’” (Shemot 32:7-8).  From sheer logic alone, this chain of events is senseless. The abrupt and unprecedented move on the Bnei Yisrael’s part cannot have emerged in this way, as is normally understood. To grasp this scene, we must begin by suggesting a new understanding of what transpired, starting with idolatry.

Idolatry is difficult to fathom. Sure, we can empathize with the struggles of celebrating Shabbat, keeping kosher, and the like, but what draws someone to bow down to a tree or, in our case, a golden cow? The appeal is nonexistent. Naturally, we conclude that this is due to our religious superiority to our ancestors — they continuously struggled with idolatry while we do not. In fact, however, it may suggest the exact opposite.

Masechet Yoma 69b describes the evil inclination for idolatry as a “fiery lion cub” that came from the Holy of Holies. The Gra says that when the desire of idolatry weakened, the ability of prophecy diminished. Rabbi David Aaron explains that idolatry and prophecy are two sides of the same coin. Both are born from intense spirituality and God-consciousness, planes of being we can hardly fathom. The difference between them, though, begins with how they manifest. While idolatry comes from extraordinary God-consciousness, it takes a destructive form.

In Shemonah Kevatzim, Rav Kook helps us understand this. “Connecting to Hashem is humanity’s most natural inclination,” he writes. “The yearning for absolute connection to Hashem, with the Endless One’s light, cannot have anything that is able to substitute for the nature of existence. Just as we must live, be nourished, and grow, so we need connection to Hashem.” Soon after, he adds: “And this life is a necessity for him; it is the essence of his nature and being. And behold comes human weakness and makes silent idols, gluttonous and coarse material gods, limited and lacking, and closes all the cracks” (1:102).

We all serve idols in our own ways — wealth, popularity, approval, people. But like Bnei Yisrael, that drive comes from a holy place; it comes from the search for Hashem, the natural human yearning for Divine connection. This, then, explains the people’s behavior. In their search for Infinitude, they fell to idolatry. The solution begins with returning to the holy source from which this desire came, and then, we will return to Hashem, the Holy Source of ourselves.

About the Author
Sruli Fruchter is a senior at Yeshiva University studying International and Global Affairs. He is passionate about Torah, self-growth, and bringing Hashem into every aspect of our lives. Sruli has vast experience in international relations, is the Editor in Chief of The Commentator, and the Host of the Soul Life Podcast, which can be found on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
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