This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, (Ex. 30:11 – 34:35) brings us to the end of God’s instructions to Moses on the building of the Tabernacle. At the end of those instructions, “When He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18) We then learn what the Israelites are doing in Moses’ absence. When they see how long he is gone, they assume that he will not return, and ask Aaron to build a golden calf for them to worship.
Only forty days earlier, these Israelites heard the voice of God intoning the second of the Ten Commandments, which forbade idolatry. Now, thinking that Moses is gone and they have lost their conduit to God, they revert to their former behavior and build a sculptured image which they can worship and thank for their freedom from Egyptian bondage.
Jewish law and tradition ranks idolatry among the greatest of sins against God. But what is the actual definition of idolatry? The Beit Yaacov, a Chassidic commentary by Rabbi Yaacov Leiner, as quoted by Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg in her work The Particulars of Rapture, writes:
“You shall not make for yourself any graven figure nor image” includes even God’s Commandments, if the form becomes more important than the vitality it expresses. The relation to all objects, even the ritual forms of the spiritual life, can become fossilized, and therefore idolatrous.
We think that we are past the age of idolatry. Who do we know who prays to idols of stone or wood or metal, and worships them as gods? But according to Beit Yaacov’s definition, even the act of worship of the One God can become idolatrous if we focus on the trappings rather than on the essence. This commentary calls on us to bring our whole selves, heart, mind and soul, to our relationship with God.