What do you do when your people have just made a golden calf, fallen into gross immorality and lost their sense of identity? How do you restore moral order – not just then in the days of Moses, but even now?
This week’s Torah portion gives us direction.
What did Moses have to do after the golden calf? He had to transform the Israelites from a crowd into a community.
When Moses came down the mountain and saw the calf, the Torah says the people were peruah, meaning “wild, disorderly, chaotic, unruly, tumultuous.” He “saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies.” They were not a community but a crowd, a mob.
So – Moses began by reviewing for the people the importance of Shabbat because he knew a secret: when people will set aside that one day to focus on their personal relationship with the Holy One of Israel through prayer and study of His Word, they are drawn to love and serve their God with greater understanding and devotion. Of course, we need to feed our spiritual nature every day of the week, but setting aside Shabbat for greater and more sustained attention to spiritual matters is vital.
Secondly, Moses instructed them to build the Tabernacle as a symbolic home for God.
Why these two commandments rather than any others? Because the weekly Sabbath and the gathering in a sanctuary to worship with others of like faith are the two most powerful ways of building community. Moses understood that the best way to turn a crowd into a community was to have them build something together. And he also understood that strengthening relationships within that community requires setting aside dedicated time when we focus not on our own self interests but on the things we share by praying together, studying God’s Word together, and celebrating together. Simply put, uniting the commandment of Shabbat with the commandment to build the Tabernacle became the force by which that unruly crowd morphed gradually into a community.
The principle holds true to this very day for the golden calf was not a one-time event. Every generation has its opportunity to ‘build a golden calf’ – an attitude, a conviction, a persuasion that begins to permeate the population’s consciousness to turn away from God and seek some other ‘god’. The result is always deterioration of the society, conflict, violence and moral decay.
Developing community is essential if a nation or society will emerge from their own ‘golden calf crisis.’ We find God in community. We develop virtue, strength of character, and a commitment to the common good. Community is local. It is society with a human face. It is not far-off government. It is not the people we pay to look after the welfare of others. Community is the work we do ourselves, together.
Community is at once the antidote to self-centeredness as well as deliverance from over-reliance on government. A sense of community causes human beings to flourish, protects freedom and sustains the common good.
And it all began in a desert at the foot of a mountain when Moses took action to bring God’s people out of a deadly crisis. As we look around our world today, nations are in crisis. A crippling economy, massive unemployment, unruly mobs in the streets, increased violence – these are all ‘fruits’ of the breakdown of the biblical concept of community. America’s founding fathers warned that the republic they established would only survive if peopled by individuals with a firm moral compass derived from their Judeo- Christian values.
Every nation worldwide that finds itself in crisis in our day would do well to emulate the principles in this week’s Torah reading. Every local synagogue and church troubled with divisive tensions would as well. Revived attention to the Person and Words of the Holy One of Israel, along with rebuilding the sense of community is by far the most effective long-term means of restoring a broken nation or group.
In Tune with Torah this week = it begins with you and me. How conscious are we of seeking the good of our local community, of our religious community whether synagogue or church? Do we make decisions more often on our own self-centered attitudes than on what is best for the community? And – as individuals within the community, how are we doing with regard to spending personal as well as communal time in the presence of God on our ‘day off’?
The survival and flourishing of our local and national identity, whatever our home nation might be, is more dependent on these two principles than on any political or governmental effort.