This piece is based on my podcast posting for the week of March 1. You can hear the podcast at wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com
The story of the Golden Calf, which we read in this week’s Torah portion of Ki Tissa is a fascinating story. The easiest way to understand the story is that the Hebrew people ignored all the warnings against idolatry, expressed a lack of faith in and a lack of gratitude for God who had brought them out of Egypt and deserved to be punished severely for their actions.
There may be some truth to that. But, it is also possible to read the story differently by looking carefully at the words of the Torah.
The people approach Aaron with the concern that “this man Moses” has disappeared. The Torah says Moses was “delayed” in coming down the mountain and the people panic. They have lost the physical focus that proved to them that God is still with them. There was no thunder from Sinai and no Moses that could help them sense the presence of an unseen God. So, we perhaps can understand their panic.
So Aaron fashioned this calf from their gold jewelry.
Being satisfied with seeing the calf and believing that it represented the fact that God was still with them would have been wrong but could have been justified. But, they turned this symbol into an idol by dancing in front of it and celebrating it. That is what made Moses so angry that he slammed the Tablets of the law to the ground, shattering them. And that is what turned the calf into an idol.
There is a fine line between a symbol and an idol and it is a line that the Torah and even later Jewish tradition didn’t always appreciate when it lashed out against idol worship. But, when a symbol crosses that fine line and becomes an object of worship, it becomes a rejection of a belief in one unseen God.
Several years ago, I delivered a Rosh Hashana sermon about idolatry and raised several examples in Jewish life today of objects or ideals which were perilously close to become objects of our worship. The first object that I considered was the Torah scroll.
The Torah scroll is the most important symbol in the synagogue. Its words define our mission as a people and our responsibilities as human beings. And, that is precisely the point. The words of the Torah, not the scroll, are the essential.
So, while we should respect the Torah scroll and follow the guidelines of our tradition as to its proper use, we shouldn’t raise the Torah to the status of an object to be revered for its physical form.
And that brings up the issue of kissing the Torah when it is paraded around the Congregation. How close is this to “idolatry”?
I would argue that a simple show of respect for the Torah, standing as it is brought around the sanctuary is sufficient. But, for so many generations, our people have engaged in the tradition of kissing the Torah with the fringe of a Tallit or a siddur or, in some cases, physically kissing the scroll directly.
One could argue that kissing the Torah is not idol worship and in principle, I agree. But, watching people push other aside to rush to the aisle to kiss the Torah or seeing the disappointment and anger if the Torah hasn’t been brought close enough to them to kiss it has always been disturbing to me and I find myself thinking of the Golden Calf as people celebrated it not as a symbol but as an object of worship.
So, in that sermon on idolatry, while I didn’t urge people not to kiss the Torah, I asked to them to make it less critical: to kiss the Torah simply when it was easy to do so but to do so with care and to understand the ultimate importance of the words it contains. I chastised people for kissing the Torah and then ignoring the reading and for dancing with the Torah at Simchat Torah and then not showing up at the synagogue for Shavuot, the holiday dedicated to Torah study.
I minimized the importance of kissing the Torah.
I stand by those words.
But, speaking from the perspective of 2021, I think I overstated my case.
I have to admit it. I deeply miss kissing the Torah.
I love our services on “zoom” and am so grateful for the opportunity to pray with a community on Shabbat morning when it is not safe to gather together.
But, there are things that I miss.
I miss the handshakes and Shabbat hugs.
I miss kibitzing at the kiddush over special Shabbat treats.
I miss walking home from Shul (walking closely without masks).
And, I miss kissing the Torah.
I don’t feel abandoned like our ancestors did. I have plenty of proof of God’s presence in the world around me.
But, I do feel like I have lost one of the focus points of my faith. Seeing the Torah scroll and, more importantly for me, reading from the Torah scroll is a physical connection with Sinai that I miss terribly. I can not wait until it is safe to hold the yad, the Torah pointer, on the scroll during the symbolic recreation of the giving of the Torah that we engage in each Shabbat morning when we take the Torah from the Ark and read it publicly before the congregation.
I never thought I could miss such a simple (and borderline idolatrous) ritual as much as I do.
But, I miss that kiss.