In Parashat Ki Tissah, Moshe comes down from the height of Mount Sinai after forty days and nights, and meets his big brother, Aharon, at the bottom.
Moshe is holding the Divinely inscribed Tablets, Aharon is with the Golden Calf, made of Bnei Yisrael’s finest gold jewelry, and molded by Aharon himself.
On the one hand, “The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, incised upon the tablets.” (Sh’mot 32:16), and on the other, “…and [Aharon] cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf.” (32:4)
The result of the meeting between the Tablets and the Calf is that both objects do not survive. Moshe throws the Tablets on the ground and they shatter into tiny pieces, and the Golden Calf is burned in a fire, the ashes are ground to dust, then mixed with water, and given to all of Bnei Yisrael to drink.
Everything crashes, breaks, burns, and disintegrates.
God tells Moshe that from now on, an angel will guide the People on their way and not God. He does not plan on dwelling among Bnei Yisrael any longer. He has had enough.
The People hear this and are crushed.
So is Moshe. He takes his tent and pitches it outside of the encampment, far from Bnei Yisrael. He does not want to dwell in their midst any longer either.
But after a crisis, a crash, or a fire, something new grows.
Out of the great crisis emerges one of the most intimate moments in the entire Torah. Moshe tells God that His unilateral announcement of distancing Himself from Am Yisrael is unacceptable! Divine proximity is the essence of the covenant between Am Yisrael and their God, he says.
God, it seems, was just waiting for someone to say this, and he immediately concedes to Moshe’s demand.
And then Moshe makes another request: God, appear before me! “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” (33:18) God gives him a deep but disappointing answer: I will pass my goodness before you, but you can never see Me… “for a human being may not see Me and live.” (33:20)
You will just have to know or believe that I am within you and within all of the goodness that is around you.
Why am I within you? Because you, Moshe, invited me in, because you wanted Me more than anything else! Yes, I will reside within anyone who seeks Me and does not make do with a messenger, an angel, or a golden calf, as it says in the Passover Haggadah: “Not by an angel, not by a seraph, not be a messenger, but the Blessed One in person.”
Everyone desires God (they might just not know it). Even the greatest atheist wants God, but not the image that was drawn for him in childhood or suggested by various agents of religion. Idol worshippers too – both ancient and modern – want God, perhaps more than anyone else.
Underneath all of our desires – the desire for money, security, love, visibility (not necessarily in this order) – there is a longing for God.
This is why the episode of the Golden Calf, made by Aharon (against the background of the Divine Tablets) is one of the greatest and most amazing stories in all of human literature throughout the ages. It is the story of the human longing for God.
Yet, the only one in this parasha to understand this is Aharon!
Moshe and the People – two seemingly opposites – share the same longing for God:
The People say to Aharon: “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” (32:1) We’re lost! We have left the security and the certainty of Egypt, and we are wandering in the wilderness of life. We need God to show us the way, to give us a sense of confidence and security.
Moshe desires God no less than they do. It is not enough for him to believe or to hear God talking to him. He smashes the Divine Tablets not only out of anger with the People. Perhaps he suddenly understands that he is actually looking in the mirror; that he, too, is holding a golden calf in hands. Afterall, he specifically says to God: “Let me see Your presence!” (33:18). Despite being the person closest to God, Moshe still experiences longing, still yearns, still needs an image.
Let’s return to the People. Aharon has created the Calf out of the gold the People have brought him, and they think the Calf is God. Aharon understands the People’s confusion, he understands that it is easy to confuse money, security, youth, religion, tablets, etc., with happiness and with God. He understands well the People’s need for God, but he also understands that they cannot truly know God. He understands that they need something tangible to look at. He tells them, “You see this calf? Good! There will be a celebration for God tomorrow, not for the calf! The calf is a transitional object (as I wrote about two weeks ago) towards that which you truly want.
Because what you truly want is God.
We all want God. Yet, it is a desire that can never be fulfilled. This is the magical nature of desire: Every desire we have ever had or will have is never for the object we think we want, whether it is the Ten Commandments with the Divine inscription or the Golden Calf; whether it is a lot of money in the bank, or the perfect body; the dream house, honor, or fame. Every desire, always, is the desire to “behold Your presence.” Behind every desire there is another desire and so on, ad infinitum – until we reach God.
Aharon, as I said, understands this, and he is the only one who does – certainly more so than his younger, famous brother – and this is why he is not punished for creating the Calf and why he is given eternal priesthood. It is he and not Moshe who understands what the People truly want, and even what Moshe truly wants! This is why he is not upset when Bnei Yisrael see the Golden Calf and say happily, “[Wow], this is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (32:4)
The people here appear in all of their human glory: they want God!
Moshe appears here in all of his spiritual glory: he wants to see God!
But Aharon is the wisest – humanly wise; he understands that everyone wants the same thing – Moshe and us – everyone wants God, everyone needs God – but he also understands that this is a desire that can never be satisfied. He understands that it is NOT possible to see or hold God, nor to attribute the value of gold to Him.
Aharon also understands that this human need must be respected; He apparently understands that a person who represses their desires will never find God, but also that he or she who thinks that the object they so desire is the God they are looking for will be quickly disappointed and desire the next thing.
Aharon understands that this is how the Divine operates in the world: within everything longing and yearning is imbued, and that these appear in our consciousness as desire.
As long as we understand that every desire is actually a longing for a living God and not for the object we think we long for, and that the desire itself – not the objects we have projected our desire onto – is a Divine mechanism for growth and development, and that as long as we understand that the celebration of life is always a celebration of God and not of the objects we have managed to attain – then nothing needs to be broken. Even the Golden Calf can be a wonderful tool for our development.