an antique drawing of israelites praying to the golden calf
From "Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us" by Charles Foster, 1897

Golden Calf helps put imperfections in perspective

Ki Tisa
Exodus 30:11-34:35
Ezekiel 36:22-36

It was one of those mornings. I managed to get the kids and myself out of the house just in time to be only five minutes late to my son’s 9 a.m. appointment. Of course, then, the low fuel light came on. I swung into the nearest gas station, now 10 minutes late. I finally got to the parking lot, only to find cars waiting to enter lined up in a complete standstill; the gate was broken. I backed carefully into a spot on the street.

But I had no change for the meter.

I considered asking a stranger on the street for change. I thought about loading both kids back into their car seats and trying to find a new spot. I thought about sitting down on the ground and having a good old-fashioned cry.

I quickly ripped a sheet out of my son’s coloring book, pulled a crayon out of the diaper bag and scrawled, “I couldn’t get into the lot and had no change. Please don’t ticket me! I’m so sorry.” I left the note on the windshield and hustled inside. Now 20 minutes late, I was worried how much parking ticket would cost.

When I finally made it back to the car, I said a quick prayer and looked at the windshield. No ticket! Either the parking officer came, saw my pitiful note and let me off the hook, or this was my first lucky moment of the morning.

I’m generally a rule-follower. But in the moment, these seemed to be unusual circumstances. Out of character, I made the choice to skirt the rules: There I was, late, and with an unpaid meter to boot.

In this week’s parashah, Ki Tisa, the Israelites break a really big rule. They build an idol — a golden calf. This infuriates Moses so much that he destroys the tablets, the record of the rules the Israelites have just broken.

The Israelites are new to freedom, and even newer to God’s commandments. In fact, they’ve only just met God a few weeks ago. At that time, at the foot of a mountain, they first heard God’s words. But they have yet to understand.

You see, the rules have not yet been clarified. Moses hasn’t even come down the mountain yet. The Israelites are in the care of Moses’ brother, Aaron, trying to figure out freedom for themselves. As the days without Moses turn to weeks, the Israelites turn to what they know: worship of an idol they can see, touch and understand. They build a golden calf, and Aaron doesn’t even try to stop them.

American nonfiction writer Rich Cohen weaves a midrash (commentary) about this story. With equal parts creativity, intellect and humor, he imagines the Golden Calf incident from Aaron’s perspective in “Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah.

“[It] was a symbol, a way of concentrating the brain, giving the people something to look at as they worshipped the pillar of smoke or fire they followed in the desert … They needed it … I reject the notion that we were worshipping a foreign god. We were worshipping the One God via One Calf.”

The retelling is a bit snarky, but there is wisdom here, too. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we are unable to fit the bumpy edges of our lives into the straight corners of our written rules.

Perhaps what we can do when we find our lives becoming ever more complex is to focus on the rules that we impose on ourselves: never be late, call back now, always be right. We can be a bit gentler with ourselves in our chronic pursuit of perfection.

This might mean that an email, though urgent, won’t get read immediately. Or that Shabbat dinner will be pizza delivery. Perhaps Aaron knew that while it wouldn’t be great for his reputation, what his people needed in a stressful time was a bit of nostalgic comfort. Some rules, sometimes, can bend just a little.

Let us not let perfection become our idol, our golden calf. Over and over again in Torah, we see the Israelites making mistakes, trying again, and still not quite getting it right. If God can forgive us for our clumsy, mistake-making, humanity, then surely we can forgive ourselves, too.

Let’s be kind to ourselves as we strive to do our best, and sometimes let’s let our best be good enough.

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is an associate rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at [email protected].