The Thin Jew Line: The Danger of Crossing Into Avodah Zarah
In our sedra, as Moshe concludes his conference with Hashem on Mt. Sinai, the Jewish People sense that their leader had “delayed” in returning. They decide to build a golden calf, to be an “אלהים” for them.
At this point, let’s pause and make a few observations. First off, according to Rashi, the idea of building a calf which the entire nation would serve originated with a small group of Jews- the ערב רב. These were Egyptian converts who joined the Jewish people at the exodus, but the pesukim‘s heavy emphasis on their separate departure with בני ישראל hints towards their ongoing failed assimilation into Jewish values. Now, at the first major challenge to Moshe’s leadership, they step in to offer an alternative.
This leads us to the second point which was that, according to most commentators, the עגל הזהב was not an idol- it was an אלהים in the less literal sense, a leader. When the Jews noticed that their main conduit of contacting G-d, Moshe, was no longer with them, they wanted to replace “משה האיש” with another “in-between,” what they believed to be a more reliable and more open way of communicating with Hashem. They built the golden calf to replace Moshe as their physical connection to their creator.
Even though this was not idol worship, it was certainly עבודה זרה in the most literal sense (serving Hashem in an unusual way), and it is clear from the continuation of the story that our faith does not allow for this type of עבודה זרה. The lesson from this is obvious: sometimes, when avodat Hashem feels restrictive and not accessible to all, there is an inclination to try to circumvent the inaccessibility, whether it be a leader who is stuck on Mt. Sinai, or a well-accepted Rabbinic decree restricting certain genders from wearing tefilin. At times like this, it is extremely important to stick to our mesorah, because even a small group who augments their performance of mitzvot can ultimately cause an entire to nation to perform avoda zarah, and, G-d forbid, be punished accordingly.
Returning to Parshat Ki Tisa, the Jewish People insist on trying to build their golden calf. Aharon, the acting leader in his brother’s absence, tried every delaying tactic, but could not crack the growing group of rebels’ persistence. Am Yisrael woke up the next day (the 17th of Tammuz, incidentally), and they declared the day a “חג לה’,” bringing korbanot to Hashem via the עגל. Then, they celebrated the holiday in the most Jewish way- by eating and drinking (Ramban adds that they ate to be full and drank to become drunk, so their intentions were not ideal, but still… nothing so exciting here).
So far, their service of Hashem, though augmented by the addition of a golden calf, is still very similar to what they had done in the past- surely nothing was wrong with bringing the same korbanot and having the same se’udot that they’d had in the past, albeit in this slightly changed way?!
But, the passuk adds one last part of their holiday observance:
And they got up to jest. (שמות לב:ו)
Call it a natural result of their avoda zarah, call it the expected outcome of an entire nation getting drunk (according to Ramban), call it human nature, but this is clearly when things began to go seriously downhill. Furthermore, Ramban adds that this is the point in time when Hashem sent down Moshe to intervene. He did not when they were trying to improve their connection to Hashem, albeit wrongly; He did not even when they were bringing korbanot and celebrating incorrectly. Hashem only told Moshe that ” כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ- your nation is destroying itself” (לב:ז), after they had begun to “jest,” which, on the basic level, would mean they were lightheartedly dancing around Mt. Sinai (it could also mean immorality, but this is not suggested in any of the commentaries). Why was it only at this point that מעמד הר סיני had to be put on pause; that the nation were considered to be destroying themselves?
I believe that the reason that Hashem did not intervene until the “jesting” stage of the new holiday was because until that point, every type of behavior that the ערב רב-influenced עגל הזהב offset of Judaism had created was fixable. Only once they began to dance around it, which was the collective result of the influence of their korbanot and their feast was it clear that the time had come for Moshe to break up the party- at this point, the עגל worshipers were beyond fixing. (It also would not be a stretch to say that on 17th of Tammuz, the day of “וַיָּקֻמוּ לְצַחֵק” and a date which has become known in Jewish history as one of the most sad, many of the tragedies may have been put into motion as punishment for the ערב רב’s grave sin at the base of Mt. Sinai).
The lesson here is very clear, I believe. When a small group of Jews believe that service of Hashem is not accessible enough for them, and they seek out other ways of connecting to Him which would certainly qualify as unusual service, עבודה זרה, intervention is not always necessary. However, it is quite important to keep an eye on their growth, and, if they manage to take advantage of a difficult emunah situation to attract enough followers to challenge the strict Judaism that our forefathers correctly observed, then the time has come to intervene.
We know that their endgame is “וַיָּקֻמוּ לְצַחֵק,” but, in the meantime, they are only at the stage of ” וַיַּגִּשׁוּ שְׁלָמִים וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם לֶאֱכֹל וְשָׁתוֹ.” They only demand the rights to do what we would interpret as recognizable avodat Hashem, albeit augmented- for women to wear talit and tefilin, to read from the Torah in a mixed “minyan.” But, as soon as they stop getting their way, they will return to doing exactly what they did nearly every month in previous years- “וַיָּקֻמוּ לְצַחֵק,” causing disturbances, singing and dancing loudly at the Kotel. And, if Hashem took offense at the Erev Rav behaving inappropriately at the base of Mt. Sinai, a small mountain that His shechina occupied for a manner of days for the giving of the Torah, imagine how He feels about our Erev Rav “jesting” around the base of Har Habayit, His shechina‘s eternal home, even in the absence of our Bet Hamikdash!
A few weeks ago, the Women of the Wall had a symbolic victory which had very little practical difference to the rules on the ground, by having the Knesset order the opening of an unrestricted passage between the Kotel plaza and the existing egalitarian prayer section on the southwest corner of Har Habayit (previously, there was a separate entrance). However, supporters of this media attention-hogging yet nevertheless failing sect of Judaism have made it clear that they have much bigger goals for their organization, and it is clear to those of us who are correctly Torah-observant that their goals are very opposite the mesorah that two thousand years of exiled Jews observed.
We must learn from the story of the sin of the golden calf and stop the Erev Rav from turning our entire nation to sin, before Hashem Himself causes a more extreme intervention. Right now, the Women of the Wall are at the “וַיַּגִּשׁוּ שְׁלָמִים וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם לֶאֱכֹל וְשָׁתוֹ” stage- their avoda zarah still bears a passing resemblance to our true avodat Hashem. Let us work together to stop them, via media, financial, legal and political pressure, before they reach the next stage of “וַיָּקֻמוּ לְצַחֵק,” and are beyond saving. Let us try to save ourselves before Hashem decides that “שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ,” that a large percentage of the Jewish population are no longer savable.