Dear Friends,

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