Most of us know the story well: Moses follows God’s commands and ascends Mt. Sinai amid smoke and thunder, to receive the Ten Commandments, to be carved out of solid stone by God, using a fingertip of lightning. Moses appoints Aaron, his brother and the High Priest, to supervise the Israelites during his absence. But Aaron is a poor classroom monitor, as I like to say, and he gives the fearful, misbehaving Israelites free rein to do as they wish—and they disobey God’s express command, using a large amount of their Egyptian gold and silver to build a Golden Calf, despite being expressly forbidden to perform idol worship.
Warned by God that “his people” are behaving licentiously, Moses descends the mount, carrying the Tablets, but, upon seeing their supreme sin, he smashes them to bits, grinds the Calf to powder, and mixes it with river water, forcing the people to drink of it—the Biblical equivalent of eating crow. Next, Moses entreats the Almighty to allow him to return to the top of Sinai and receive yet another pair of Tablets, despite God fulminating and wishing to destroy the people, and to make of Moses a second, greater nation.
The question stands: why did God forbid the building of the Golden Calf, which the Israelites to honor Him, and yet commanded the people to construct a pair of cherubim to place atop the Mishkan, the Tabernacle from which God communicated with the people? Both were meant to be symbolic “thrones” for the Invisible God. Why was one permitted, and the other forbidden?
First, in Judaism, we must distinguish between doing that which is commanded, and that which is not. God expressly ordered the Israelites to build the cherubim—either angels with outspread wings and downturned faces who did not look at one another, or sphinxlike creatures with lion’s bodies, the wings and claws of eagles, and the faces of women. In ancient times, people believed that these beings carried their prayers to God. On the other hand, God most certainly did not order the people to build the calf, which was a popular part of the Baal cult, in which the Babylonian thunder god rode a bull, probably to symbolize his virility.
The cherubim, on the other hand, regardless of their being either chimeric sphinxes or angels, were divinely ordained. What was the difference between the cherubim and the Calf?
Because the cherubim were angels, they were intended to inspire the people to turn their hearts heavenward: “The cherubim’s wings were spread facing upward” (Exodus 37:9)—that is, toward heaven, and God. The Calf, on the other hand, was a symbol of the Land the Israelites were promised—not its spiritual aspect, but the materialistic wealth they were to enjoy: “The ox will lick up grass” (Psalms 106:20)—and furthermore, the ox would be looking downward while doing so. It would be focusing on the earth and its bounty, rather than upward to God, who gave it.
This lesson still applies, today. So much in our lives combines to turn us to the pursuit of money only, and not to our heavenly concerns, such as prayer, Torah study, and attendance at temple. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with making a parnosseh, a living, but it should not be the sole purpose of our existence. As the weeks go on, try to make time to attend services, either during the week, or on Shabbat. We will do our best to make it gainful, both spiritually and socially, and you will enjoy the experience. Promise.
Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.