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On theologies of catastrophe

The story of the Golden Calf, which Adrien has read so beautifully this morning, is one of the most striking and fascinating episodes in the Hebrew Bible. It takes some surprising twists and turns. On the one hand, it presents the irreparable damage done to Israel’s relationship with God, as symbolised by the broken tablets of stone. Nevertheless, on the other hand it demonstrates the astounding capacity of divine forgiveness, showing that Israel’s relationship with God can be restored even after the gravest of sins.

The Golden Calf story negotiates a theology of catastrophe. When things go wrong, how do we respond? Do we drop everything and give up? Or do we piece together every fragment and every shard? In the famous aphorism “There’s no use crying over spilt milk”, do we submit ourselves to the blame game and searching self-examination, or do we sweep up the smashed bottle, stem our tears, and find the wherewithal within ourselves to go out and purchase another bottle?

Whose fault is it anyway? Should we blame the Israelite people, so recently rescued by God from Egypt, witnesses to so many miracles, who seem suddenly to go astray and demand a new god? Or Moses, running on Jewish time, late, tarrying with God on Sinai, delayed in his trek up the mountain? And what about Aaron? After all, he is the one who fashioned this golden calf, why in the Bible, both here and in other tellings of this episode, does he seem to get off, as it were, scot-free?

To understand the intricacies of the Torah portion, one has to delve deep. A bar mitzvah can scratch the surface, but Biblical understanding and research is a life-long endeavour. Scholars tackling this text have shed some light on some of its layers, and today I would like to expose a little more of the tip of this iceberg. The most important text in the reading of the Golden Calf comes from the books of the Prophets, 1 Kings chapter 12. It’s the story of the golden calves that Jeroboam erected in Bethel and Dan, two cities in the northern kingdom of Israel. This provides support to one theory given by Adrien, that the calf was intended as a pedestal or a mount for God, in the mould of the golden cherubs, angels not idols. The similarities between Aaron and Jeroboam do not stop there. Two of Aaron’s sons were called Nadab and Abihu, whilst Jeroboam had two sons called Nadab and Abijah. It has been argued that the telling of the Golden Calf has been remodelled or edited in the sixth century BCE, perhaps to identify Jeroboam with Aaron, and play up the former’s Aaronide priestly roots.

Such a reading brings into question the role of the golden calf, again lending support to the idea that it was not simply an idol, but that it played some role in the nascent priestly cult. Over time the people got the wrong idea, leading to the prophet Hosea’s grumbling about the habit in his time of “kissing calves”. And it has been noted that such a development would parallel the nahash nehoshet, the copper serpent of Numbers 21, which Moses fashioned as a c. By the time of King Hezekiah, people started worshipping it, and it had to be destroyed. Hence for the golden calf – originally it may not have been such a terrible thing for Aaron to fashion, yet over history it came to be remembered with disapproval.

And yet…the episode of the golden calf, coming where it does in between architectural descriptions of the Mishkan, and the construction of said Tabernacle, its position in the book of Exodus shows us the power of the interlude to rupture the very fabric of the Temple, God’s home on earth. And that disruption, that breakage of the tablets, foreshadows the later destructions of the Temple stones, again offering a theology of broken hopes and relations, or underpinning the possibility of their renewal amid the ruins.

Adrien, it is wonderful that you are here surrounded by your family and your friends, your two grandparents on your mother’s side, and that you know everyone within this room. But we all know that one person is missing here today, and that is your grandmother, Viviane, who is recovering in New York and was not able to fly here.

And I wanted to share with you some of her words, some words from your grandmother, that she has contributed for this morning.

I quote:

"Through space and time, faithfulness to our Jewish tradition and the power of family, love and friendship have been major factors in giving us the strength to overcome the burdens of emigration, loss and separation. I am very proud and happy that Adrien is continuing to embrace our tradition with his love for studying the Torah, doing the mitzvot and being a kind and compassionate young man"

Adrien – your personal story combines both Jewish and non-Jewish elements, and within the Jewish both Ashkenazi and Sephardi elements. You are connected not only to the Biblical story of Passover and Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, but also through your grandmother to the twentieth century Jewish Exodus from Egypt and through your late grandfather, to the Holocaust in Europe and specifically in Hungary. Your own family have, in the words of your grandmother, overcome the burdens of emigration, loss and separation. And that you are able to stand here today, and assume your place as an adult member of the Jewish community, is nothing short of miraculous. It has taken much love and friendship from your parents, to put you first whilst acknowledging and bearing their own feelings of loss and separation. It has taken the power of family to pull together and follow your wishes and your pride in becoming a bar mitzvah today. And you know that this is just the beginning, that Torah study, that Bible study is an endless, ceaseless process, not for kids but for adults, for all of us, and that by adhering to it in the future, by embracing its commandments you can fulfil your promise as a kind and compassionate young man.

Adrien, you told me a few lessons ago that you were a bit sad that your bar mitzvah was coming so soon – because, as you said, “afterwards there is nothing to look forward to”. I know what you mean. But what I hope becomes clear is that you are laying the foundations for your own budding adult identity, that traditions are there for you to claim, and that as you increasingly make your own decisions, you will choose for yourself the path that has set out for you.

Shabbat shalom and mazel tov to you Adrien, and your family.

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