Divine Intermediaries: the Holy and the Forbidden

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Alex Zaloum

At the giving of the Torah, the entire Jewish nation stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard the Divine command: “I am the Lord your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me” (Shemos 20:2-3).

Just forty days later, upon seeing that Moses had delayed in descending the mountain, the people demanded of Aaron: “Rise up, make for us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt – we do not know what became of him” (Shemos 32:1).

The question is simple: what were the Jewish people thinking?

According to Rashi, the people sought a substitute for Moses to lead them into the the land of Canaan. As a shepherd of faith, Moses had provided the people with a concrete connection to the Almighty. Without him, the people feared their conquest of the land would be unsuccessful.

But if they were looking to replace a prophet, why did they make an idol? As revered as Moses was, the Jewish people never worshiped him like a god. Why jump to idolatry? For what purpose was the golden calf intended?

On the surface, a prophet and an idol serve similar functions. Both are, in theory, intermediaries between the people and the Divine, bridging the gap between heaven and earth. However, there is a fundamental distinction between the two: while a prophet connects the people to the Divine, an idol interposes between them.

A prophet strives to uplift the people to spiritual heights from which they can develop a deeper connection to G-d on their own. By imparting their wisdom, the prophet seeks to make the people spiritually independent. An idol, on the other hand, never empowers its worshipers. Instead, it makes them perpetually dependent upon a physical object for what feels like spiritual sustenance. Whereas a prophet serves as a spiritual guide, an idol is merely a spiritual crutch. The people built the golden calf because they failed to recognize the difference between the two.

Though we may not desire to worship idols like the golden calf in our day and age, the concept of idolatry remains very much alive. For, in essence, an idol is simply anything to which we ascribe power besides G-d Himself. Today, perhaps more than ever, we experience an incessant flow of vanities vying for our attention. But often those people, possessions and experiences which advertise themselves as offering the greatest fulfillment leave us feeling the deepest emptiness.

How can we determine if we are being offered something of true value or just ephemeral satisfaction? A simple test: when something in this world seems to say, “Look at me,” it is like an “idol,” with nothing real to offer us. On the other hand, when something calls to us as if to say, “Look beyond me,” it is like a “prophet,” pointing us towards the One who cannot be encapsulated in any form or experience. Whenever we encounter something or someone that captivates our attention, we can ask: to what is this pointing towards? Itself? Or something greater?

May we each find the clarity in our own lives to distinguish between the “idols” which lead us astray, and the “prophets” which bring us closer to the one true Source of all there is.

Alex Zaloum (Men’s Winter Beit Midrash 2016) is a senior at Harvard, where he serves as one of the gabbaim of the Harvard Hillel Orthodox minyan and co-President of the orthodox student group on campus.

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