The Haggadah (the Passover book that we use at the seder) tells of our people’s journey from the suffering of slavery to our wild, sea-splitting-open redemption. Around the seder table last Wednesday evening, our observance of the holiday began with a question: “How is this night different from all other nights?” As we discuss and unfurl into our newfound freedom, our questions about the particular night of Passover blossom into new and potent questions about the days and nights that lie ahead.
Liberated from bondage, we now begin the arduous task of designing, creating, and sustaining a society of our own. We remember slavery; we came to know that system well. But what do we know of freedom?
After generations of oppression, we lack any frame of reference for what a liberated nation looks or feels like. Shaking that Sea of Reeds water off our clothes, we regroup on dry land. Surrounded by the vastness of the wilderness, we yearn to maintain contact with the powerful force that liberated us. God took us out of Egypt, the Torah teaches, in order to be our God. We were freed in order to serve the Source of Freedom. But how?
Wandering through the open desert expanse, we fumble our way towards a relationship with the God of liberation. We attempt connection in two ways that are at once strikingly similar and profoundly different: the building of the mishkan, the portable Tabernacle, and the construction of the Golden Calf.
The stories of these two creative endeavors are woven together in the text—the Golden Calf is made below, while the instructions for how to build the mishkan are being given on high. This juxtaposition allows us to probe the common nature of these two entities. Both the Golden Calf and the mishkan are artistic creations; both are made as ways to try to connect to God; both are formed from objects offered up by the people. Why, then, is one condemned as idolatry, while the other is commanded as our new system for spiritual connection as a free people?
As we probe the creative processes that yielded the Calf and the mishkan, stark differences become clear. The calf is created out of fear, perhaps even desperation. While Moses is up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people grow wary. Unsure if or when Moses will return, they gather against Aaron saying, “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.”
Aaron then instructs the men to take the jewelry from their family members to bring as raw material. He casts a mold, pours the molten gold and, showing the calf to the people, proclaims, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” There is no nuanced mention here of the calf as a way to connect to God; it is the inability to tolerate ambiguity that prompts its creation. Aaron makes the calf as a way to end the questions and cease the people’s struggle.
Though they bring their objects as raw material, the calf is created by one artist—Aaron. It is made from a mold—an unchanging design that attempts to replicate the same form many times over, rather than yielding something unique each time. As an object, the calf is compact and dense, something to fixate on. The calf reproduces many of the aspects of oppression: attempts to control the unknown and to extinguish difference, top-down leadership, appropriation of what people hold dear.
In contrast, the mishkan is built to sustain the soul of freedom. In Exodus 35, Moses instructs the Israelites to contribute raw materials for construction of the Tabernacle: “This is what God has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Divine; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them…And let all among you who are wise-hearted come and make all that God has commanded.” The people bring of what they have abundantly and offer it as “nadav libam”—freewill offerings to God. Everyone—from community leaders to common folk—is involved in the artistic process, from the women who spin the goats’ hair for the linen cloths, to the chieftains who bring lapis lazuli stones to adorn the sacred objects for the mishkan.
From the very outset, the mishkan is created to invite God to “dwell among us” (Exodus 25:8). Its very purpose is to foster a relationship between ourselves and the Divine. Through sacrificial rites, it is where we cleave to a God we cannot touch and cannot see. It is a place for remaining connected despite the ambiguity of our relationship to the Divine.
The mishkan is formed through an artistic endeavor in which process and product are intimately linked. Its altar is a place for our korbanot – our sacred gifts to God, literally our “drawing near”—while its structure is made of gifts offered freely from the heart. Though certain artisans take leadership roles, the whole community of Israel is involved in its construction, and therefore has a stake in it.
Though in our regular weekly cycle of Torah reading we are already in the book of Leviticus, it is fitting that the special Torah reading for Shabbat Chol haMoed Pesach (the Sabbath of the intermediary days of Passover – Exodus 33:12-34:26) takes us back to the book of Exodus, to those early days post-redemption, days we are reliving as we celebrate Passover this week. “You shall not make molten Gods for yourself,” the portion reads (34:17). The text is decidedly clear on what does and does not serve our formation as a free people.
Each year on Passover, through readings and ritual, symbolic foods and song, we recount and reenact this journey, reliving the story, as the Mishnah commands, as though we ourselves are the ones breaking free. We’ve come through the seders and emerged on dry ground. As the pyramids recede in the distance we reach towards one another under the twinkly stars of the desert sky and begin, collectively, our attempt to create anew, we are reminded of these two attempts at sacred connection. As we struggle to create a world in which all people are free, may we claim the value and the power of the art of liberation.