In considering the episode of the golden calf, we are ever and again faced with the same difficult question: how are we to understand such a descent from the loftiest heights to the lowest depths? How could it be that the generation of the exodus from Egypt, who but forty days earlier had witnessed the revelation at Mount Sinai, turned to a golden calf, exclaiming, “This is your G-d, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 32:4)?
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, in his work the Kuzari, tackles this question that has plagued us for thousands of years. To introduce his answer, the Kuzariestablishes an important psychological and philosophical principle; man, who is physical and earthly, finds it straining to relate to G-d, who is spiritual and above this world. It is only natural for us to seek some physical representation to help us connect with G-d. The idea of a physical symbol for the Divine is not completely foreign to the Jewish religion. The Kruvim (cherubs) in the Holy of Holies were also figures made of gold. Today, we regard the synagogue and the ark contained within as a place and an object with which we connect to G-d. According to the Kuzari, the Bnei Yisrael, never intended to create a molten idol to replace G-d but rather sought a substitute mediator to help them connect with G-d in the absence of their primary mediator Moshe.
The Kuzari poses the following interesting question. What if instead of the golden calf, the Bnei Yisrael decided to build a tabernacle? In fact, what if they built the very same tabernacle that we have been reading about in the Torah portions for the past few weeks, complete with all the vessels that are listed? Would that have been considered O.K.? The answer is no. Had they built the tabernacle complete to the very last item, it would still have been tantamount to the sin of the golden calf. Why?
The Kuzari answers that the source of idolatry is not based on the object we intend to worship but rather from where the intent to worship stems. It is perhaps the greatest arrogance of man that he claims to know the desired form of worship with which to please G-d, by using his limited intellect. It is almost as if we equate our knowledge and understanding with that of the Supreme Being and therefore have no need to be instructed by Him. The fundamental difference between the golden Kruvim (and the synagogue for that matter) and the golden calf is that one was commanded by G-d and the other was not. Idolatry is when we think we now better; service of G-d is when we acknowledge we do not.
On most years, this parasha is read close to Purim. Our sages tell us that there exists an intrinsic connection between Purim and Yom Kippur. The Arizal explains this connection in the following manner: Purim is in fact on a higher level than Yom Kippurim, which in turn should be translated as “a day like Purim”.
We may describe this relationship as follows: On Yom Kippur, Moshe descended Mount Sinaiwith the second set of tablets. Bnei Yisrael finally accepted the Torah and were forgiven for the sin of the golden calf. On this day, we do not eat, drink nor involve ourselves in other physical pleasures in order to rectify the sin of the golden calf and the “festivities” that followed. Forgiveness on Yom Kippur is brought about by total abstention.
On the other hand, the Gemara tells us that the Jews did not fully accept the Torah until after the miracle of Purim, almost a thousand years after the Torah was given (Shabbat 88a). The problems during the time of the Purim story began when the Jews partook of the festivities of King Achashverosh, an inappropriate party, which echoes the festivities connected to the golden calf. But it is in Shushan, years later, that the Jews finally accept the Torah completely. Only then could an attempt be made to elevate eating and drinking into a holy context. This is why we are commanded to drink and partake in a festive meal on Purim.
On Yom Kippur, we rectify the sin of the golden calf and rid ourselves of our arrogance by abstaining from eating and drinking. While on Purim, we elevate eating and drinking. On Purim, we attempt to elevate our physical experiences into the context of proper service of G-d and Torah, which is accepted anew.