In a recent Torah Portion, the tragic episode of the golden calf occurs, while Moshe is up on Mount Sinai receiving divine laws, which were initially inscribed into stone by the very finger of G-d. When Moshe comes down the mountain and sees the golden calf the people have made, he smashes the divine tablets. I believe Moshe had a sudden epiphany, realizing the gravity of all forms of idol worship. Our sages say that Moshe wasn’t punished for smashing the tablets, rather, he was congratulated by G-d. How could that be? The Torah had previously described the first set of tablets as “ma-Aseh Elohim” and “mictav Elohim,” the very work and writing of G-d.
My favorite explanation is that Moshe realized that anything, even divine law itself, could be turned into an idol, and worshipped indiscriminately in the face of anxiety and fear. The people desired to see G-d so desperately that they made a static, molten object to worship instead. Moshe realized the same thing could happen with any legal system that was perceived to be unchangeable merely because of its divine origins. No human would ever be able to challenge or change the laws to meet the ongoing needs of the people. So Moshe goes back up the mountain, and he and G-d together create a second set of tablets, part human and part divine. The broken tablets are stored in the ark itself along with the new ones, perhaps as a reminder against making an idol of objects or legal rulings.
Even Moshe, later in the story, suffers from a burning desire to truly “see” the face of G-d, the same desire that consumed the people earlier in the story. But G-d tells Moshe that it isn’t possible to see Divinity, only to sense Its presence and experience Its after-effects. All attempts and forms of idol worship mimic the people’s earlier covering up or masking of their truest selves and their deepest desires. Our purest aspirations sometimes become hardened by objectification and covering up, and we sometimes even objectify our perceptions of law itself. Even the name of the golden calf is suggestive against such obfuscation – the Hebrew doesn’t call the idol an “eygel zahav,” “golden calf” but rather “eygel masecha” a calf of covering, or a disguised calf.
As we approach Purim and read the story of Esther, we recognize that all of us too are wearing masks and disguises of our own making. Our words and actions sometimes belie our true feelings and intentions. The Purim story also is full of hiding and masked desires. Esther, Mordecai, Haman, and the king all wear masks, and G-d’s name isn’t found anywhere in the story. Perhaps that is the whole point. Until we unmask ourselves and honestly acknowledge our true needs, desires, and aspirations, G-d’s presence cannot become optimally manifest in the world. Only afterwards, when we remove the mask, acknowledge our own vulnerability, and look directly at the face of the other do we attain the purest vision of the Divine.
Rabbi Jama Purser