Parashah Yitro: Law versus the Worship of the Golden Calf

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg is his commentary on this week’s Torah portion asked, “What happened at Sinai?” No wonder! For we are about half-way through the year’s readings of the entire Torah and we have arrived at the centre piece of the whole narrative that takes place at the base Mount Sinai – the receipt of the tablets of the law and the building of a golden calf. The climactic events are even more dramatic than God’s punishment of the Egyptians with the ten plagues and even the parting of the Reed Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army as they pursued the Israelites.

Some might argue this scene is not as cinematic as its predecessors. But what is at stake is certainly more important. For we no longer have the power of God in contention with the whole system of beliefs of the Egyptians and the power of that empire, but the way that conflict has evolved into the rule of law versus idolatry. The uprising in The Capitol in Washington on 6 January echoed what went on at Sinai. The same values were at stake. God instructed Moses to turn his attention away from Egypt to the House of Jacob and address the children of Israel directly.

ד  אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם, אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי לְמִצְרָיִם; וָאֶשָּׂא אֶתְכֶם עַל-כַּנְפֵי נְשָׁרִים, וָאָבִא אֶתְכֶם אֵלָי.4 Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto Myself.

The national symbol of America is a bald eagle, And it is the image of a bald eagle that repeats itself in Outlander when the Scottish heroine and hero are at sea and an eagle sweeps down and then rises again with a fish in its claws. And when they get to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, it is as if they are guided there by an eagle which flies above and then perches on the top branch of a very tall tree. The eagle is a symbol of flight and the strength of immigrants arriving in America. It is also a symbol of sturm and drang, of the Nazi regime that carried out the Holocaust. It is no accident that the portrayal of the German immigrants in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina is in such contrast with that of our heroic couple. For instead of being led by compassion and respect, by integrity and deep love, Herr German settler is in great fear of the indigenous Cherokee, misreads their actions and is haunted by fears and suspicions when his daughter and newborn grandchild are taken away by the measles.

President-elect Joe Biden quoted the hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings,” in his 7 November victory speech. While Herr German immigrant in the face of death in Outlander raged at the world and blamed others for the horror that befell his family, composer Father Jan Michael Joncas wrote a song and poem in Minnesota that was both prayerful and comforting. And it first became famous when, following the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City by a white supremacist, Cathy Keating, the wife of the governor of Oklahoma, asked that “On Eagle’s Wings” be played at the memorial service for those killed. It was the song chosen to be sung, in an Italian version, at Luciano Pavarotti’s funeral.

Here are the lyrics.


Michael Joncas

You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord,

who abide in His shadow for life,

say to the Lord: “My refuge, my rock in whom I trust!”

        Refrain:  And He will raise you up on eagles’ wings,

                      bear you on the breath of dawn,

                      make you to shine like the sun,

                      and hold you in the palm of His hand.

The snare of the fowler will never capture you,

and famine will bring you no fear:

under His wings your refuge, His faithfulness your shield.

        Refrain:  And He will raise you up on eagles’ wings,

                      bear you on the breath of dawn,

                      make you to shine like the sun,

                      and hold you in the palm of His hand.

You need not fear the terror of the night,

nor the arrow that flies by day;

though thousands fall about you, near you it shall not come.

        Refrain:  And He will raise you up on eagles’ wings,

                      bear you on the breath of dawn,

                      make you to shine like the sun,

                      and hold you in the palm of His hand.

For to His angels He’s given a command

to guard you in all of your ways;

upon their hands they will bear you up,

lest you dash your foot against a stone.

Refrain:  And He will raise you up on eagles’ wings,

                      bear you on the breath of dawn,

                      make you to shine like the sun,

                      and hold you in the palm of His hand.

In Exodus, after referring to how he brought the Israelites out from Egypt unto Himself, God says,

ה  וְעַתָּה, אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי–וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי-לִי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ.5 Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine;
ו  וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ-לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ:  אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.6 and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.’

We are told to hearken to God’s voice, not the cacophony of liars and mythmakers and haters and rabble-rousers.  To do what? To keep the Covenant. To uphold the Constitution. To be a law-abiding people. To be an exceptional people, not just in America, not just to fulfill a dream of nationalism, but to be a witness for the whole world and to the whole world. Not to be an idolatrous nation that will turn a liar into an idol but so that the people themselves shall become a kingdom of priests, a kingdom in which everyone studies, knows and exemplifies the rule of law.

That way, you will not be captured by “the snare of the fowler,” Neither the terrors of the night nor the arrows of misfortune and hatred that fly by day will hurt you. You will go forth unafraid.  

He will raise you up on eagles’ wings,

                      bear you on the breath of dawn,

                      make you to shine like the sun,

                      and hold you in the palm of His hand.

What was God’s final instruction in chapter 19 of Exodus?

“Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish.” (19:21) “Let not the priests and the people break through to come up unto the LORD, lest He break forth upon them.” (19:24) The Capitol is a sacred place. It is not a place for roving mobs seeking revenge. There is a clash of civilizations over the soul of America, between those who uphold the rule of law, those who uphold standards and methods for determining the truth, those who in reality do threaten the way of life and the existential beliefs of the undesirables, the fear-mongers for whom Trump had become the idolatrous embodiment.

While a nation of priests witnesses the dawn of a new day, the first phase of the new moon, the haters, the bigots, the white supremacists, the antisemites, only look forward to an apocalypse, only anticipate the end of time. Instead of hope, they are driven by conspiracy theories. They are haunted by the ghosts of the Egyptians still pursuing them. The belief in the rule of law itself must be overthrown in favour of putting in place a leader who is an autocrat by temperament and conviction. Whether accelerationists, followers of Q’Anon or Proud Boys, they are driven by an existential fear rather than a life inspiring hope.

Whether in Oklahoma City or in Pittsburgh, whether in Charleston or in El Paso, they are driven by resentment and revenge, not hope and aspirations. They view laws and regulations as mechanisms of oppression rather than as the means by which peace is established among the people. In a world of sharp beak and even sharper claws, they use hate and fear and envy to recruit others into the worship of the golden calf.

It should be no surprise that Trump in his apartment in Trump Tower has toilets and faucets plated in gold. For the golden calf is the idol which unites the alt-right. A living cow is a symbol of fertility and renew, but one cast in gold is a symbol where accumulated wealth becomes the object of worship. It is no wonder that we associate “bovine” with stupidity, with being dull, with being stolid and inert, sluggish and prone to following a leader. A bull is then a symbol of rage and resentment, anger and destruction. White supremacists may have achieved educational levels and incomes above the average (contrary to popular belief that they are the lumpen proletariat), but they need violent reference points to engage them, to recruit others and to spread their message.

Elections, legislators, leaders who follow the rule of law become their targets.  Hence the hatred of the Jews as the symbols of that legal character of a polity. Hence the hatred and fear of Blacks who have escaped slavery to seek freedom and equality in the promised land. One would never believe this when we listen to supporters of Trump from Kansas and Oregon, from hard working citizens of small towns throughout rural America, but what they most fear is the machinations of urbanites and cosmopolitans, of liberals and believers in the Constitution, a constitution that has not been held hostage by the National Rifle Association.

Most of all, these insurrectionists, in the end, refuse to be accountable to the rule of law in fear of being attuned to the feelings of others. They trust in their own feelings and beliefs that, upon examination, reveal themselves to be the false preaching of a liar and autocrat, of someone who is not only or simply a serial liar, but someone who refuses to recognize truth when it smacks him in the face. He and his followers live in echo chambers where they continually listen only to their own voices rather than the words of God. They believe in secrecy rather than transparency and then project that conviction onto the rest of the world as a conspiratorial network that targets them.

And it does. They are not paranoid. Their enemies are the rule of law and the rule of law must and can be used to track and trap them. They are a true menace and a current and immanent danger. They must be captured and prosecuted rather than persecuted by the very law that they despise and reject. Their organizations must be dismantled, their silos and echo chambers must be opened up. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in the U.S. has a H.E.A.T. map focused on hate crimes, extremism, antisemitism and terrorism. Rational thought and strategies can quash the irrationality of the alt-right. The golden cow can be turned on its back, the underbelly of America exposed, and the idol smashed to smithereens by applying the rule of law.

Instead of the ephemeral rule of a man and an autocrat, the choice is adherence to a Covenant for all time that entails a rejection of idolatry and an embrace of the rule of law. Instead of destruction, we marry tikkun olam, the obligation to repair and improve the world – not just our own lives. We need a continuous revelation to give new meanings and realistic appraisals of what can be done to make those improvements. We need rituals like the inauguration rather than the rites of cults. We need to re-enact continuously what happened at Sinai rather than engaging in acting out. The Covenant must remain a living force and not retire to become the dead letter of the law.

A respect for the accumulated inspiring figurines from the past is not idolatrous worship.  Making a figure into an idol is. Humans fear hearing the word of God directly. They prefer to listen to a man, especially if that man revels in fear, cultivates and nurtures it. This was true at Sinai. This was true in Washington. Though humans have heard the voice of God out of the fire and still live, in fact, thrive in life because we once heard that voice, we fear hearing that voice again for we then shall surely die. That means we must build upon what was once revealed, on the Covenant made at Sinai, on the constitution that men forged as the foundation for the United States of America. It is a living covenant that must be interpreted to answer the challenges of the day. This is the route we must choose rather than surrender to the voice of a man who preys on that fear.  

Even if we are Canadians. Especially if we are Canadians. For when we are in love, the whole world is Jewish.


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