One of my favorite parts about travel (when we could travel) was collecting Judaica from different corners of the world. Rachel Bloom, a Jewish comedian, has a parody song about how buying Judaica often turns into the main activity of Jews when they travel. She writes: “London, Paris or Milan, shopping for Judaica. Plane to Venice, off to Rome, to buy some more Judaica… Sailing the coast of Monte Carlo, shopping for Judaica. Dancing all night at the club, waiting for the Judaica store to open.” Her message resonates with me. A trip — no matter how exciting the destination — doesn’t feel complete until I have some Judaica in my suitcase. It almost makes me feel like I have found a little piece of myself to bring home with me.
The Jews’ obsession with Judaica, though, has old roots. In fact, in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, God instructs the Israelites on how to build the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle, where God will dwell as the Israelites wander through the desert. First, everyone is instructed to contribute funds — a half shekel to be exact — to build the Mishkan. God then appoints artisans to create all of the furnishings and materials for the structure, including lavers (basins), tables, lampstands, and altars. For all of these objects and items, God gives specific instructions for their precise construction, measurement, and content. No detail is too small when creating objects that will be used for worship. It is from these instructions that we learn about the commandment of hiddur mitzvah, adding beauty to our fulfillment of mitzvot.
Given the emphasis on material culture, perhaps we should not be so surprised when, later in the Torah portion, the Israelites decide to build an idol in the form of a Golden Calf. At this point in the story, Moses is off communing with God, and the Israelites start to wonder when — and if — he plans to return. In their impatience, they “gather against” Moses’ brother Aaron and say to him: “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses — the leader who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him” (Exodus 34:1). So Aaron instructs everyone to donate their gold jewelry. He melts it down and forms it into a calf. When Aaron reveals the calf to the people, they shout: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 34:4). When God sees this act of idolatry, God is so enraged that Moses has to convince God not to destroy them all in an act of divine anger.
Why does God approve of one valuable object (the Mishkan) and denounce another (the Golden Calf)? The authors of the Women’s Torah Commentary, a contemporary anthology of insights into the Torah, highlight the similarities between these two ritual objects. They write: “In both instances, the people are invited to donate gold for the construction and do so willingly. The gold is then used to manufacture the ritual object and, upon its completion, the people offer sacrifices and celebrate” (p. 501).
There’s a fine line between using our resources for the sake of worship and worshipping our resources. When they build the Mishkan, the Israelites contribute their gold to a structure that will ultimately help them experience God’s presence. Their half-shekel contribution will be used to remind them that their own wealth means nothing without God’s sustenance. The Mishkan, though made of physical materials, will allow the Israelites to transcend their earthly experience.
When they build the Golden Calf, the Israelites cross that delicate line and no longer use their gold for the purpose of accessing God. Instead, they confuse their gold with God. The Golden Calf, though made of the same materials as the Mishkan, represents an attempt not to transcend themselves, but rather to glorify themselves and their physical wealth. When they worship the Golden Calf, God is nowhere to be found. This is why, though the Mishkan and the Golden Calf are so similar, God instructs the Israelites to build one, but condemns them for building the other.
Next time we use our Judaica, each piece with its own story, memory, and beauty, let’s remember that no matter how stunning they are, they are there to help us access and connect to something beyond themselves, something even more beautiful.