18 February 2011

Those Accursed Regenerating Golden Calves

 I suppose it makes sense, given how messed up things seem to be, that collective bargaining as a constitutionally guaranteed supported right since the National Labor Relations Act and the Railway Act--both either written or modified in varieties of forms before, during, and after the Great Depression--is being called into question by the exceptionally partisan new governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker.  It's heady times all over the world as systems seem to be toppling and the chaos and mayhem ensues--sometimes in the form of a big progressive party like the one taking place in the Capitol Building in Madison all week or sometimes in the form of the horrifying bloodshed of Bahrain, Libya, Egypt and Iran.

A few words of Torah may be moderately instructive, if reasonable people are willing to listen.

This week we read about the Golden Calf "incident," a word-choice I ironically put in quotes because, human nature being what it is, we certainly ought to have seen it coming--both in the time of the Israelites and in our own day as well.

In the time of the Israelites, there were many foreshadowings of the propensity for idolatrous behavior--the fact that Abraham himself came from and broke away from a deeply idolatrous culture; his own son Isaac's distancing from his father at various points along the way; Jacob's playfulness with Laban's idols and his almost naive, ongoing "rediscovery" of God on his own spiritual journey; Joseph's radical self-absorption, his dream-divining, and own story of personal suffering and triumph in order to understand that the dreams he thought were about himself were really about Someone greater.  It's that lineage that Moses is born into--and in coming of age himself in another deeply idolatrous culture, seeks to liberate a people not only from political but spiritual repression.  Those forty years spent wandering in the desert--the exact prescription necessary to cleanse the people of their wayward thoughts.  (Of course, dip your toe into any of the post-Pentateuchal narratives and you will discover that a non-idolater is hard to find.)

The Golden Calf is but a dramatic representation, writ large, of one such cleansing.  It's the heady, messy, ham-handed, momentary expression of power that, in the final analysis, is nothing but a dangerous vanity.

The Torah's Divine Author knows it's going to happen.  That's why the portion for this week begins not with the "incident" but with the run up to the incident--a carefully crafted delineation of how material objects and material wealth are meant to be accumulated for the purposes of building sacred space.  There is taxation; and the obligation of contribution to a greater whole.  And it is meant to effectuate a communal atonement of the people, to recognize our inherent humility before the collective, before God.  The rich and the poor are equalized by this service.

Called to assist God in this service is Betzalel, an all around good guy and pretty handy with the tools.  He is credited with being filled with the "spirit of God, with wisdom, with insight and with knowledge."  Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that Betzalel inherently had what it takes--he was not a quick fix.  Rather, his "wisdom, insight and knowledge" were expressions of a steady soul guiding a steady hand--characteristics we lack significantly in this old world today.  They connote reflection, patience, and the careful, plodding craftsmanship required to create holiness in our vessels of engagement with the Divine and with one another.

The Golden Calf--the polar opposite of this.  It's immediate, hastily accumulated, hastily rendered, and, as we may know based on Moses and God's speedy, decisively violent reaction, hastily destroyed.

A greater metaphor for our own day could not be found.

We seem somehow to have lost our way--casting blame for budget deficits upon the backs of those most vulnerable while cutting taxes for the wealthiest accumulators of financial and material gain.  There seems no moral core to our nation at the present time but rather a desperate lashing out at social and economic advances fought in the trenches no less heroically two or three generations ago than the very battles being fought and won and lost and won and lost in the streets throughout the world today.

People seemed so relieved last week to cogitate on Rihanna's dress, to fill their shopping bags with their own, like puppets on a string to businesses that have wrung taxation concessions from government more generous than any entitlement program being currently eviscerated that it's drown out the cries from the least capable of defending themselves against the hell-fire of greed that is afoot in the land.

Woe unto us and our forever regenerating Golden Calves.

Must we make the mistake again and again and again?  Does not drinking the ashes of our own penitence ever get old?

 Atop the Capitol in Madison is a golden statue--Forward, she's called.  That's where we need to go.  I for one swell with the pride that the first state in the land to fill its halls of governments with its citizens to say that the draconian cuts we are facing must be shared by all is the greatest living example of what we mean when we talk about "a government of the people, by the people, for the people."

Forward--toward the golden contributions of shared giving and shared destiny, not the selfish seeking of those lost in the desert, blinded by the temporal dusts of immediacy and self-satisfaction.

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