Deep Pockets Need Long Arms
And Moshe returned to Hashem and he said: I beseech You! This nation has committed a terrible sin. They have created for themselves a god of gold. (Sefer Shemot 32:31)
Hashem shares responsibility for the golden calf
This week's parasha describes the sin of the egel ha’zahav – the golden calf. Moshe ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. He remained there for forty days and nights. The people feared that their leader had perished upon the mountain. They were seized by panic. In their state of dismay, a movement arose to create a new, more durable leader – an idol that would lead them. The product of this initiative was the golden calf. It was created by Aharon and then worshiped by a segment of the nation.
Hashem threatened to destroy Bnai Yisrael in response to this infidelity. Moshe interceded and succeeded in postponing Hashem's immediate punishment of his people. Moshe descended from the mountain, destroyed the egel, rebuked the nation, and punished the most egregious of the sinners. Then, Moshe again ascended the mountain to seek Hashem's forgiveness for the nation. In the above passage, Moshe acknowledges and recounts the sin. The people made a god of gold. Why did Moshe note that their idol was made of gold?
In his comments on this passage, Rashi explains that Moshe was communicating an implicit message to Hashem. The idol the people fashioned was made of gold. From where did a company of escaped slaves secure this gold? Moshe is reminding Hashem that He had commanded the people to take with them the wealth of Egypt as they emerged from bondage. Their possession of the great wealth He provided led them to create the golden calf.
Rashi's comments are difficult to understand. He seems to contend that the wealth with which Hashem blessed Bnai Yisrael was responsible for their retreat into idolatry. How did their wealth lead to, or moderate, their responsibility for creating and worshiping an idol? It is true that the gold that they used was provided by Hashem. But is Moshe suggesting that if the people had not had this gold they would not have made their idol? This is not a credible contention. Certainly, they would have used some other material that was at hand to create their idol! In order to understand Moshe’s argument, we must consider the capacities and limitations of human imagination.
And Hashem commanded us to observe all of these laws in order to fear Hashem our L-rd for our benefit all of the days and to give us life as on this day. (Sefer Devarim 6:24)
The impossibility of envisioning the afterlife
According to our Torah, the ultimate reward for observance of the Torah is olam ha’bah – the afterlife. This is eternal existence of the immortal human soul after the demise of the mortal body. Remarkably, the afterlife is not clearly discussed in the Torah. When it is noted in the Torah, it is referred to vaguely, as in the above passage. In the passage, Moshe tells the people that their observance of the commandments will be rewarded “all of the days.” Commenting on the passage, Chizkuni suggests that this phrase refers to our reward in the afterlife. Instead of explicitly discussing the afterlife, the Torah promises us reward in the material world for our faithful observance of the Torah. Why is the afterlife not clearly discussed and identified as the ultimate reward for observance?
Maimonides explains in the introduction to his commentary on the tenth chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin that we do not have the capacity to grasp or appreciate the afterlife. It is beyond the capacity of our imaginations. He explains that because we are material creatures our physicality prevents us from conceiving and imagining the nature of an existence divorced from physical expression. He provides a wonderful analogy to the obstacle we encounter when we attempt to imagine the afterlife. Consider a person who was born sightless. Can one explain to this person the meaning of color? It is impossible! We describe to a person something he or she has not experienced by comparing the new object to others that the person has experienced. But something that is unlike anything else in a person's inventory of experiences cannot be explained to that person. Just as the sightless person cannot conceive color, we cannot truly imagine a completely non-material existence.
Chizkuni and others draw upon Miamonindes' comments to explain the Torah's relative neglect of the topic of olam ha’bah. Chizkuni continues his comments on the above passage and notes that the Torah focuses on those rewards that are the most powerful motivators. It selects rewards which appeal to our imaginations and inspire us to observe the commandments. Olam ha’bah presented truthfully and frankly will not be a motivator for most individuals. It cannot be imagined and appreciated. Therefore, it is given little attention in the Torah.
This discussion of the Torah's treatment of olam ha’bah illustrates that the imagination is not boundless. It has absolute limits. These limits constitute boundaries that cannot be passed through. In addition to this absolute limitation, imagination sometimes struggles to grasp concepts that are at the edges of these boundaries. These concepts are accessible but not readily, and not at all times.
And Hashem spoke to you from within the conflagration. You heard the sound of words but you did not see any image– only a voice. (Sefer Devarim 4:12)
The struggle to relate to Hashem as a non-corporeal being
In the above passage Moshe reminds Bnai Yisrael of their experience at Sinai. He describes their encounter with Hashem. They heard a voice; they saw no form or image. Moshe understands that our concept of Hashem challenges our imagination. We conceive of Hashem as a non-material being. He is divorced from any material aspect. Yet, we know Him through our encounter with His actions in our material world. He redeemed us from bondage, destroyed our oppressors; we heard His commandments. One’s imagination, challenged by the demand of conceiving of such a being, stretched to its limits, may seek to retreat from the challenge. One may anthropomorphize Hashem – give Him physical form or attributes so that one can more easily imagine Him. Moshe warns the people to not surrender or this temptation, to recall the words that they heard at Sinai – disembodied from any material form.
To this point, we have discovered that imagination has absolute limits. We have also recognized that even concepts within these limits can be difficult to grasp and integrate into our personal reality. Let's take one more step in our exploration of the imagination.
The impact of lifestyle on the capacity to imagine the non-corporeal
In essence, imagination gives us the capacity to envision that which we cannot observe or may not even be observable. It requires one to embrace that which is not here and now – that which is not concrete. Because imagination is a capacity to grasp, manipulate, and integrate abstractions, the vitality of one's imagination is sensitive to one's attachment to material possessions and endeavors. Why is this so? Imagination requires one to rise above the material, concrete reality. If one's whole being is devoted to living in that concrete reality, the challenge of imagining abstractions that are not part of that reality is daunting. In other words, our capacity to imagine and to embrace abstractions is proportionate to our capacity to rise above the concrete reality that surrounds us. The more one is immersed in the corporeal, the more difficult it is to rise above it.
Wealth stunted Bnai Yisrael’s capacity to relate to Hashem
Now that we have studied the workings of imagination, we can return to Rashi's comments. He remarked that the great wealth and the gold that the Jewish people brought with them into the wilderness contributed to creating and worshiping the egel. Hashem gave them this wealth. Therefore, He shares responsibility for the sins engendered by these riches. We can now understand how wealth undermined Bnai Yisrael and encouraged Bnai Yisrael’s retreat into idolatry.
Moshe does not mean that without this gold Bnai Yisrael would not have had the materials to create an idol. As noted above, they could easily have created some other idol. They could have carved an idol from stone hewn from the mountain. Moshe is saying that Bnai Yisrael responded to their crisis with an idol because of the destructive impact of their wealth. How did wealth corrupt Bnai Yisrael?
In order to answer this question, let us consider Bnai Yisrael’s behavior. Why was Bnai Yisrael overcome with panic when they believed Moshe had been taken? Moshe was flesh and blood. He was corporeal. One did not need to stretch one’s imagination to relate to Moshe and to integrate him into perceptual reality. But when the people concluded that Moshe had perished on the mountain, they were suddenly deprived of this corporeal manifestation of Hashem's presence and influence. They replaced Moshe with an idol.
Rashi is explaining that the decision to resort to an idol as a replacement for Moshe represents a failure of the imagination. Seeking a representation of the Divine presence through the fabrication of a golden calf evidences a weakness in the people's capacity to relate to a non-corporeal reality. Rashi is explaining that this stunting of the imagination and the people's incapacity to embrace the non-corporeal was a result of their newfound wealth.
The people were enraptured by their riches. They had been transformed from destitute slaves into individuals of great wealth and stature. But this joy represented an immersion in the concrete, corporeal world. And this world became their only reality. Wealth became an emotional and intellectual entrapment from which they could not escape. Their fascination with their wealth drew then into and tied them to the material reality. And as a result, their capacity to imagine and embrace the reality of the non-corporeal was undermined. They could not relate to a Divine presence without a material representation. They replaced Moshe with the egel.
We think of sharing our wealth as an act of self-sacrifice. We sacrifice in response to our compassion for others. Rashi's comments challenge this perspective. Our attachment to our wealth expresses a self-deception. Our true self – our spiritual souls – only pass through this material world on the journey to eternity. More real than the concrete reality with which we interact with our senses, is the spiritual values and ideals that we embrace with our minds and souls. What’s more real; the gold coin on the table or the ideals of the Torah? Frankly, the coin is much easier to embrace as real. Appreciating that the coin is far less significant or real than the spiritual ideal of the Torah takes imagination. Developing and maintaining that imagination requires moderating our attitude toward the corporeal reality. We practice this moderation when we give of our wealth – when we use it to support spiritual goals.
Our decision to give charity and to share our blessings is an expression of compassion toward others. It is also an act of compassion toward our own souls – toward our true selves. We should feel profound sadness for those who cannot give. These individuals are trapped by their possessions. They believe in a delusion – that they are the master of these possessions. But they are manipulated by their riches. Their souls are entrapped; they live only in the temporal.
We do not want to be one of these woeful individuals. Our participation in charity saves us; it transforms us. It provides us with the opportunity to rise above the reality of the corporeal and to embrace values that are eternal and truly real!