When Fear Happens: The Golden Calf and Coronavirus


As a pulpit rabbi, part of my job is to take our ancient, sacred texts, like the Torah, and make them relevant for who we are and how we live today. Sometimes it feels like a stretch, but as has been said, “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan)

Coronavirus isn’t in the Torah as far as I know, but fear of the unknown, and the disastrous consequences it can have, certainly are. In this week’s Torah reading, Ki Tissa, Moses has ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah from God. After he had been up there quite a while, the people became concerned.

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” (Ex. 32:1)

In order–I think–to prevent a possible mutiny and save his skin, Aaron complies with the people’s request, telling them to “take the gold rings out of your wives’ ears” and bring them to him. He fashioned the egel ha-zahav, the Golden Calf, and told the people that the next day would be one of worship and rejoicing.

There’s no question in my mind that the people were truly concerned about Moses, and more so about themselves. Who would lead them? What would happen to them? Who would talk to God for them, and let them know what the Divine One expected of them?

The world-wide outbreak of COVID-19, a coronavirus, has engendered similar fears, and fear of the unknown is more likely trumping the fear of illness and death. There’s so much we don’t know about this virus, and we see a lot of conflicting information.

P’kuach nefesh, Preserving health and life, is one of the highest Jewish ideals, and a commandment which supersedes all commandments except for murder, idolatry and improper sexual relationships. Yes, many of us may be confined to our homes for longer than we’d like, but the panicking won’t make us any safer. Store shelves look like they do when we’re expecting snow!

I’m doing my best to stay safe; washing my hands while singing a couple of verses of “Siman tov u’mazel tov,” trying to keep a little more distance from others, and watching reliable sources for information.

When the Israelites asked for a god to worship, Ado-nai our God realized that perhaps the people, barely out of slavery in an idol-worshipping society, weren’t ready for a transcendent God, and forgave them, allowing us to moving on, and helping God learn how to be God.

I believe this pandemic will help to bring some positives into our lives; it will require us to call upon our inner resources to be creative, to help others, to slow down from our fast-paced lives, and to think about the things that matter.

May those who have been affected have a speedy and complete recovery. May those who are quarantined find ways to keep busy and stay sane, and may those who care for all who are in need of healing be strengthened and blessed.

Shabbat Shalom.

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