The Allure of the Golden Calf (text & audio)

Where were you when you first felt it, that plaintive tug of alluring, almost painful pleasure? Something that grabbed you like nothing had grabbed you before, that filled you with longing and got your heart pumping like crazy.

Debussy’s “Syrinx,” it seems to me, captures that feeling about as well as any piece of music does – thank you, Bradford. That haunting series of chromatic cascades that begins it invites us out of the conventional world where we live into a seductive place of mystery and possibility.

The piece evokes the Greek myth of the satyr Pan who was smitten by the wood nymph Syrinx and pursued her into the woods. The story goes that Syrinx, wanted nothing to do with Pan’s advances and fled. Eventually, though, she was trapped at the edge of a river and implored her sister wood nymphs to help her escape. They obliged by turning Syrinx into a reed – a waterside plant – so that when Pan reached out to grab her he found himself hugging an armful of rushes.

Defeated, Pan gave such a deep sigh that it resonated through the reeds and created a melody. Pan was intrigued by this sound and so cut some reeds and made the first set of pan pipes. He played them wherever he went and their haunting sound was said to have delighted the gods. Debussy’s piece, which he wrote in 1912, became famous as the first piece for solo flute by a European composer in about 300 years.

Beyond its cleverness as a kind of “just so” story, this myth also offers some illumination for our topic today – an old word we don’t bandy about much these days – idolatry.

Pan is hardly the first to have had a monomania around an alluring figure he chased through the woods. I’d venture that most of us have had the experience at some time in our lives of falling hard for some unobtainable person somewhere. The “chasing” we do may involve direct contact with that person, but more often I think it’s likely to be something like watching his TV show or buying her album.

It’s fun, but in time most of us recognize it as the pleasant little diversion that it was. We move on. Reality sets in. We get our priorities straight, get a life and make a way in the world. For those who can’t let go, they, like Pan, eventually discover an armful of rushes where they had thought to find the object of their affection.

That image on your order of service harkens back to one of the great moments of crisis for the early Hebrews described in the Book of Exodus in the Bible. The story is that while the people are camped at Mt. Sinai, after Moses has delivered the 10 Commandments, God calls Moses back up the mountain for another 40 days to give him further instructions.

After he is gone for some time, the Israelites get nervous and urge Moses’ brother, Aaron, the high priest, “Come, make Gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

So, Aaron directs the people to take off all their gold rings and bring them to him, and from them he crafts the image of a calf. The people declare, “These are your gods,” and Aaron calls for a festival to be held.

Meanwhile, up on the mountain God is enraged. He urges Moses to return to his people, and vows to destroy them all. Moses dissuades God from doing that, but on returning to the camp he angrily smashes tablets he brought down, onto which God had written his covenant with the Israelites, and destroys the golden calf. He rallies supporters to his side who move through the camp killing several thousand people who had reveled before the golden calf.

A grim episode, right? And it’s one regarded among Jewish scholars as the greatest scandal during the Israelites’ passage through the wilderness. There are debates over what the calf really represented, whether this text represents some kind of internecine conflict in later times. And the fact that it is not Aaron, but the people who demanded the calf who suffer, tends to support that take.

Still, it is fascinating to find this event appearing in the text where it does, just a short time after God was said to have pronounced the 10 commandments, an event accompanied, so we are told, with thunder and lightning. Pretty impressive!

And yet, no sooner is Moses out of sight than the people are ready toss these commandments aside, beginning with the first: “you shall have no other gods before me.”

It’s telling that this prohibition against false images for the divine runs across religious traditions. In Islam it is one of the greatest sins a person can perform. This explains why Muslim art permits no images of any living thing, lest believers mistakenly worship it as an image of Allah. And in Buddhism, a famous Zen story warns against mistaking a finger point at the moon for the moon.

A caution against idolatry also led our Puritan forebears to build plain meetinghouses without images, icons, even stained glass. Nothing, they felt, should distract the worshipper from the contemplation of God. And, of course, that takes us to the heart of the question, a puzzle that resides with every religious tradition. How does one come to know the holy?

Texts are written, disciplines are taught, teachers are recognized, prophets are honored. But in the end, religion, if it is to mean anything, must connect with us, must touch some place deep inside. It must evoke from us an affirmation that is life-giving, that lifts us out of our personal worries and awakens us to how deeply we are connected to each other and all life, how blessed we are simply to be.

But, as we’ve already established, there are so many things that can get our blood racing, that can give us, at least for a time, a sensation of fulfillment. How, then, are we to distinguish this feeling of deep connection from other feelings that can lead us to paths that are unfulfilling, even destructive?

One way we can read J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth is as an extended reflection on idolatry. The ring of power that Bilbo chances on in Gollum’s cave, in the passage Bob read earlier, is at the center of the tale, a character in itself really. Created, so the story goes, by a powerful figure in a craven attempt to dominate the world, it seeks to enthrall anyone it comes into contact with to the same vain end. So, in a kind of reversal of the holy grail myth, the point of the journey that the Lord of the Rings books tell is not to find an icon that will bring great spiritual power, but to destroy an evil idol and so release all beings from its curse.

For two decades Chris Hedges, author of our first reading, was a distinguished foreign correspondent for the New York Times, covering wars in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia. He writes, though, that when he returned to New York City at the end of his tours he was exhausted and unsure of where he was headed. The experience of war in all its confusion and depravity had wrung him dry.

Before entering newspaper work Hedges had studied in seminary but in the end concluded that the work wasn’t for him. Returning to the states, though, he found himself revisiting the themes of his religious studies that now put his experience in sharp relief.

And so in one of his books in the years following he used the prism of the 10 commandments, words he first learned growing up the son of a Presbyterian minister, to put his experience into focus and also help find a measure of peace.

I say that Hedges explored all 10 of the commandments, but throughout his book, Losing Moses on the Highway, it is really the first that seems to weigh most heavily on his mind. And I think that’s because, as he sees it, our human inclination at times to hitch our wagons to unworthy stars can loosen whatever other mores may guide us and open the door to some of the worst mischief of which humankind is capable.

Still, this is tricky. Remember that the error, the problem at the heart of idolatry is confusing something of small value with something of large value. This sounds like it ought to be easy to spot, but it isn’t necessarily.

How does one come to know the holy? As Chris Hedges points out, in traditional religious terms the holy is ineffable, hidden. Its mystery, he says, “frustrates and defies us.” We are left with no certainty or security. What do we do?

Well, we seek out comfort, but we find treacherous ground. There is an allure to a way of living that assures us of convenience and ease, complete with pre-packaged judgments and confident trajectories. There are, of course, compromises we make to get there, but we accept them for the security they seem to bring.

It is only when we chafe against them, or find ourselves pricked by their consequences that we learn their limits and the hollowness of the conformity that they demand. In that light, we can see them as the idols they are – images, ideas that we adopted or affirmed to protect and calm ourselves.

As Chris Hedges points out, the fundamental flaw with idols is that they “are always about self-worship.” We’re taking care of number one here, and if the messy world can’t see fit to make that happen, well, I’m going to organize my life to make sure it does.

Really?

Hedges says that one of the chief lessons he learned on his tours through war-torn countries was that the idols we humans create have no mercy. They may, for a time, bring us pleasure; they may bring us consolation, but in the end they simply consume us.

So, how to escape? We begin, he suggests, by exiting the bubble of self-affirmation and self-approval that we live in. We begin listening to the prickling of our conscience, the voice of a deeper wisdom in our hearts, and begin paying attention to and extending ourselves to others with humility and compassion.

There is no point in grandiose gestures, Hedges says. “Only the small, mundane acts of life save us,” he said. “They hold at bay the crippling power of death and despair. They allow us to live, allow us to be human, allow us to affirm others and ourselves.”

How does one come to know the holy? In such acts: in acts of compassion and sacrifice that reach beyond our narrow circle, in acts that affirm the abundance of this world, this life, and don’t feed on the fear of scarcity.

We come to know the holy through love, and love, as Chris Hedges points out, “means living for others.” Many parents, he says, “know this sacrifice, not the temporary sacrifice made to assist another, but the daily sacrifice to create life at the expense of our pleasure, career and dreams.”

“There is drudgery and difficulty in this self-denial,” he says, and yet it is in this self-giving that we create and preserve life: Life on life and ever greater life, and in this life we find a peace that goes with us even as we move through darkness and confront our greatest fears.

You may recall that last fall I introduced you to a chant by Rabbi Shefa Gold that was centered on the Hebrew phrase in a verse from the 23rd Psalm that expresses this sense of abundance, of life on life and ever greater life. The passage usually translated as “my cup runneth over” or “my cup overflows.” This image invites us to imagine the blessings of our lives as an unending flood pouring over us, so great they exceed even our boundless need.

I’d like to invite you to sing it with me again, and in your singing, as you can, unburden yourself of the fears that clutch at you, that might incline you to build idols in your heart. You yourself are enough, and the beauty, the wonder, the joy of this life is so great, and the love you hold is so powerful as to overflow all bounds.

The phrase is, “Kosi r’vaya.”

Photo credit: the Providence Lithograph Company / Foter / Public domain