ISSUES OF FAITH: Don't be lured by the golden calf

When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl fluttered, no ox lowed, the angels ... did not sing, the sea did not roar, the creatures did not speak; the universe was silent and mute. And the voice came forth, “I am Adonai, Your God” (Talmud: Shemot Rabbah 29:7).

ONE OF THE most dramatic events in the Torah occurs in the portion Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35) when God gives the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Two other crucial events in this portion are when Moses brings down the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed on them and his fury at seeing the people worshipping the golden calf, the idol they had created.

The Israelites were terrified God had abandoned them when Moses took so long to return from the top of the mountain, so they demanded that Aaron, Moses’ brother, make them “a god who shall go before us.”

When Hur, an Israelite leader, chastised the people for forgetting all that God had done for them in their escape from Egyptian slavery and sustaining them in the desert, the people killed him.

Apparently fearing the same fate, Aaron gathered the Israelites’ golden earrings and ornaments, melted them and constructed a Golden Calf, declaring, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:1-4).

It is shocking not that Aaron would bow to the people’s demands to create an idol, but to then claim it was their god.

How could the leader and spokesperson for Moses, and therefore God, have betrayed his principles?

Maybe he saw the need for the Israelites to have a physical God to worship.

Possibly he hoped to prevent a mass psychology-fueled panic from over 600,000 Israelites who feared Moses would never return.

There is a lesson in this story for us today. People often forget their blessings when things get difficult.

Fueled by fear, they look for easy answers offered by someone who stokes their fears, attributes their suffering to others and claims they alone can fix everything.

They tell the people it’s not their fault for their difficulties, but rather they blame others.

The bond between people and a charismatic leader, be they religious, familial or political, is strengthened when the people are told they are victims of those they believe to be corrupt, evil and even dangerous.

The leader is always right, the only source of truth, and everyone else is lying.

Fear is the driving force keeping them loyal.

Following a person who says they can “fix” things or a faith tradition which claims it can solve all one’s problems is dangerous.

Sadly, we can see this happening throughout our country and world today.

Just as it was stunning to see Aaron, who was devoted to God, turn to an idol, likewise it is baffling to see otherwise logical, thoughtful people give in to fear, disavow their previous views and principles, and turn to a “strong” leader to solve their troubles.

Had Moses not angrily thrown down the tablets containing the Ten Commandments when seeing the people worshipping an idol, and punished those who had participated, who knows what path the Israelites would have taken? Would we have Judaism as we know it today? Or the foundation of the two other Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Islam? Blindly following any kind of idol can have devastating consequences.

We must not let our fears overwhelm us so that we abandon our principles. We need to follow the values in the Torah, including the Ten Commandments. Our fears will ease when we know that the Divine Presence is always with us, helping us to live a life of kindness and love.

“As I receive the Torah so may I, through what I am and what I do, be a revelation of Torah to those around me. Make me a scroll for truth as You will inscribe on my heart” (Rabbi Chaim Stern).

Kein yehi ratzon ... may it be God’s will. Shalom.


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is

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