My portion begins with God speaking to Moses at Mount Sinai. God tells him to take a census of the Jews. And gives Moses the tablets with the 10 commandments. Moses then comes down to find the Jews worshiping the golden calf; he then smashes the tablets in anger. The golden calf is the primary example of idolatry in this portion. As you will see the Jews were treated very harshly for it. God’s issue with idols was not the fact that they existed, but the fact that people thought that they were a tangible representation of God. In my opinion, God thought the Jews put too much power into the idols.
This portion talks about how strongly God and Moses reacted to idolatry. For example, God tells them to tear down the altars, smash the pillars, and cut down the sacred posts of the other religions. Also God tells the Jews to “Put sword on thigh and go from gate to gate slaying sibling, neighbor and kin.” 3000 of the Jews died.
What caught my attention was how harshly idolaters were treated. Seeing how bad idolatry was back then made me wonder why it was so bad. The second commandment is clear that you are not to worship any other god. However fear drove them to do otherwise. Many commentators have said that after Moses did not return from Mount Sinai the Jews got scared and created the golden calf and worshiped it. Since the Jews were so new, they did not have anyone to follow after Moses left so they turned to the golden calf.
I did some digging and came to the conclusion that since Judaism was a relatively new religion. And with the people having just come out of slavery, their faith and identity was not as strong as the faith of the other people’s religions which had been there for a while. The Jews were scared that other religions would put their sense of identity in jeopardy.
The Jews had just come out of Egypt so God and Moses were trying to organize 600,000 Jews in a desert who had never organized, governed, or led themselves before. Watching my parents try to organize 200 Jews in a synagogue was bad enough. Now imagine trying to organize 600,000 in the desert.
As you can imagine throwing different beliefs and ideas into the mix would just make things more chaotic and would not help. But now-a-days, in a modern congregation like ours, we don’t judge other religions, even those who celebrate idols.
All of this made me wonder about idolatry today. Webster’s New World dictionary says idolatry is “excessive devotion to or reverence for some person or thing.” What we saw in this reading was that this excessive devotion or reverence, when based on fear, caused the Jews to do things that were quite extreme.
Imagine this, You swerve your car because somebody is driving recklessly, This made you do something extreme and out of the ordinary because of fear, in this case the fear of getting hit. Your extreme action is justified because you are trying to save yourself. In this portion the Jews are scared because Moses is gone for a long time which makes them do something radical and out of the ordinary, that being building the golden calf.
God and Moses try to protect the identity of the Jews by acting extreme — at least by today’s standards — toward idolaters.
I have been thinking about this relative to things happening in America today. As America becomes more diverse in terms of race, religion and sexual orientation, some people are afraid of losing their identity. This fear, and an “ excessive devotion and reverence ” of a less diverse America is causing these people to take extreme actions. Closing the borders and shutting out other races and religions are an example of extreme actions driven by fear. But what are they scared of?
They’re scared of a more diverse America. What I mean by this is the fact that our government is building a wall, detaining refugees seeking asylum, and even separating children from their families are all part of to trying to keep America less diverse.
This is almost exactly what happened with the Jews in the desert, because God was scared of the people losing their identity as Jews by worshiping idols. I believe the Jews put too much power into the golden calf while our government is putting too much power into a vision of America. Now that all of these terrible things are happening, you must be wondering how we can help. One thing you can do is help the people getting released from detention by donating to the welcome wagon at Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest, or AID Northwest , which helps people getting released from the Tacoma Detention Center get a good start.
Writing this d’var Torah, learning my Torah portion and the prayers, putting together my Tikkun Olan project, and the many other parts of becoming Bar Mitzvah has been a lot of work. At first I really did not think it was something I wanted to do or that would be important to me. However, I can say now that this has been really fun, and having done all this work makes me feel really good about the whole project as I have never worked this hard to accomplish something before. There are many people who helped me and I’d like to mention a few:
- Mom for helping me with my Hebrew and getting me going along the way
- Dad for being such a great help with my d’var
- My sister for being there along the way
- All my Hebrew teachers for teaching me how to read Hebrew
- Rabbi for meeting with me, teaching me, and working with me as I figured out whether I wanted to have a bar mitzvah
- All my friends and family who are joining us from far and near
- And the congregation for being a place that isn’t scared of a less diverse America. One that even embraces it.