The most important event in Jewish history – indeed, human history — is the revelation of God on Sinai.
At the same time, Moses is the most outstanding figure in Jewish history. There never arose anyone like Moses whom God made known face to face (Deuteronomy 34:11). Moses’ perception of God was not just different in degree but in kind. Therefore, it is difficult to assess him simply because we have no basis to compare him to anyone else.
And yet, as great as he was, the Jewish people did not accept the Torah because of the force of his personality. Rather they accepted it because for a brief moment they too were prophets like him.
And God spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of the words…. Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and live?…From heaven He made you hear His voice, that He might instruct you; and upon earth He showed you His great fire; and you heard His words out of the midst of the fire. (Deuteronomy 4:12, 33, 36)
This is in sharp contrast to the claims of other religions – be they those who based themselves on Judaism or not — which invariably rely upon the revelation of a single person who then relayed his prophecy, vision and/or message to others. The revelation at Sinai was categorically different. It was not experienced by a mere individual. Rather all the people – the millions who stood at Sinai — received a direct, simultaneous prophecy from God.
This is why the Revelation at Sinai is the single most important event in history. It set the foundation of Judaism on an edifice of authenticity unparalleled in human history.
The Tension in Moses’ Life
After the millions standing at Sinai heard the word of God directly, Moses ascended to heaven and was taught the Torah by God (Exodus 24:12) for 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 24:18, 34:28).
He was caught here in the dichotomy, which always exists in Jewish leadership. He was a man of the other world. However, one cannot lead the Jewish people if one is completely a man of the other world. The Jewish people want to know why their cow does not give milk. They want to bring their neighbor to court because his fence is not high enough or because it is too high. The leader has to be able to deal with mundane matters even while he is a man not truly of this world.
Therefore, God told Moses, “Go down” — to the people (Exodus 19:21, 32:7). That is really the tension we see throughout the life of Moses. Half of him is in heaven and the other half of him is on Earth.
The Jewish people are a tough people. They complain about many things. He saves them from the taskmaster’s whip, yet they complain about the menu: “We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic” (Numbers 11:5).
Moses is talking to them about God and spirituality while they are talking to him about cucumbers. It is one thing for a person to say, “I do not believe.” But it is another thing to say, “I know all about eternity, but I want to talk about pickles.”
The more materialistic a culture the more pronounced the chasm. It is very hard to speak about noble ideas when the most important thing to a person in life is his automobile, carpet or chandelier. That was Moses’ problem.
The Golden Calf
The Jewish people accepted the Torah on Sinai and sinned immediately. The obvious question is, how could people on such a high level fall so far so fast? Had they not just experienced hearing the voice of God directly without any intermediary like the greatest of prophets?
However, precisely because the people were on such a high level did they need to find a spiritual outlet of equal potency. It was not enough just to be free, with nothing to do. There had to be a purpose to their freedom.
The idea of “freedom for a purpose” is burned into the collective Jewish soul. Historically, whenever Jews achieved some sort of freedom they had to do something with it. They were not satisfied to be like the rest of the population, to assume a role of passive enjoyment of their freedom.
The Jewish people are basically a religious people. If they do not have Judaism they need a substitute. Even irreligious Jews have to have something. Whether the “religion” is liberalism, socialism, communism or atheism — there is no one as ritualistically involved as a dedicated atheist — there must be a cause. Otherwise there is an emptiness that gnaws and gives no rest. There must be some reason for the fact that I am here and I am free.
God did not take out the Jewish people from Egypt just for the sake of freedom alone, as noble an idea as freedom is. They were taken out to be given a great responsibility, to be a unique people, a kingdom of holy people, carrying the burden of civilization.
The sin of the Golden Calf was so grievous because it involved using that innate drive-for-meaning for something other than God. The yearning for God was funneled into the wrong outlet. Coming as it did at the inception of nationhood it represented a fatal flaw potentially capable of wiping out the nation before it even began.
That is why Moses had to react with such uncompromising vigor. In effect he had to call for a civil war, killing thousands to put down the rebellion of paganism (Exodus 32:28).
Breaking the Tablets
He also took the Tablets of Stone “etched with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18) and shattered them. The Oral Tradition teaches that Moses did that on his own, and that God, so to speak, congratulated him for doing so.
If nothing else, the episode of the Golden Calf teaches that the difference between faith and idolatry is as thin as a hairsbreadth. It does not take long to lose.
The great sage Hillel said that a person can study for 20 years consecutively and become the greatest scholar but forget it in a short period of time as if it never was. The sages word it: “Torah and goodness are as difficult to acquire as items of gold, and yet are as easy to break as the finest crystal.” You just look at it funny and it is gone.
Little illustrates that more than the sin of the Golden Calf.
The Weakness of Miracles
The Golden Calf also punctuates the idea that miracles, no matter how spectacular, are not long lasting. Human nature is such that last week’s miracle, no matter how impressive, does not help this week. That is why the foundation of faith has to be based on more than miracles. Miracles alone will not do it.
People harbor the naïve belief that if God will perform miracles then everyone would become believers and all problems would disappear. All of history tells us that that is not true. Miracles do not make a lasting impression… certainly not on the Jewish people, a stiff-necked and stubborn people, i.e. a people who are not easily influenced by outside phenomena.
In the desert, bread rained down from heaven. It could taste like anything they wanted – even bagels, which were no doubt first discovered in the desert. Their water supply in the desert was miraculous, the “Well of Miriam.” They were led by a miraculous “Pillar of Fire” by night and “Pillar of Cloud” by day. And yet the people said, “Where is God? What does He have to do with this?”
This teaches us an important lesson that this is not how the Jewish people are going to be built. In reality, thousands of years of Jewish history reinforce this point. Jews not easily impressed. They are driven by an inner conviction, by a belief not dependent upon external events or miraculous occurrences.
Miracles are great but not the basis of religion. Rather, true religion requires an inner commitment and inner strength not built on miracles. Study, education, loyalty and family are the keys to faith. At times miracles are necessary for the physical survival of the Jewish people. However, the spiritual survival of Jews is wholly dependent upon Jews themselves.