“All the people took off the golden rings in their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made a molten calf. Then they said, ‘Israel, this is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt’.” [1]

This is the “sin of the golden calf” — arguably the outstanding example of Israel’s temptation to worship the “seen,” in the form of an idol, rather than the “Unseen.”

In the haftarah, too, Israel succumbs to the same preference.

“And Elijah drew near to all the people and said,
‘How long will you vacillate between two opinions?
If the Lord is God, follow Him,
and if Ba’al [is god], follow him’.”
[2]

“[Maimonides] attributes the origin of idolatry to the fact that the creative energy by which G‑d sustains the universe is channeled through natural forces — the stars and the planets. Idolatry begins when these intermediaries are worshipped in themselves, as the rulers of human destiny; whereas in actuality they are only the instruments of G‑d, of no power in themselves. They are like ‘an ax in the hand of the hewer’.” [3]

The ChaBaD website includes this in discussing haftarah Ki Tisa, in which Eliyahu ha-Navi (the prophet Elijah) challenges Israelites who were worshipping Ba’al, thereby practicing idol-worship, to choose between Ba’al and God.

Why do people worship at all?

At the beginning, at least, for protection and providence by a power greater than our own.

In a culture like ours, so imbued with Humanist confidence that there is no power greater than our own, even a preliminary belief in a “higher power” can be admirable.

Yet, without recognizing it, our culture does have idolatry at its heart:

When we believe that we depend for our material well-being on the companies that employ us, we have in that same moment made them “idols.”

What they have, they have been given. What they think is theirs, is only loaned to them. It is meant to be shared. The sun is made no less the sun by sharing its light.

Allen Ginsberg took this even a step further, decrying that veneration of material well-being at all is idolatry:

“What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!

Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!” [4]

He uses “sphinx” as a synonym or metaphor for the more typically biblical term “idol.” “Moloch” was, like Ba’al, an idol worshipped by Israelites in an era of ignorance centuries after the “Golden Calf.” “Moloch the loveless” — unloving, uncaring. “Moloch,” he is saying, is the god worshipped by a culture that venerates wealth and material excess: If you accumulate riches, regardless of how you do it or whom you hurt in the process, you are blessed to enjoy the reward. Fail to accumulate: you’re damned and doomed. All the while, “Moloch” looks down with a detached air of amusement — like a Roman emperor at an arena.

How much Ginsberg sounds like Eliyahu (Elijah) or Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah)!

60 years later, Pope Francis has pronounced precisely the same critique of modern  culture, especially European/Western, using very similar language:

“We have created new idols…The worship of the golden calf [1] of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.” [5]

Do Ginsberg and the Pope mean that we should have no concern for our material welfare? No. If at some point in their lives they might have thought so, experience causes us all to temper idealism with pragmatism.

But we need not base our self-esteem on the amount or kind of our accumulation. We need not base our spiritual sense of security on it. Most of all, we must not use material goals as excuses to ignore or deny humane ones.

Does “Am I my brother’s keeper?” even require a response?

Those from whom we earn our bread are not “gods,” even if they think so; more — even if we think so.

They are tools of God, not “the rulers of human destiny.”

It is in this context that I support not only the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders, but his platform, too. To me, it reflects a fundamental concern with the needs of “ordinary” people. “Ordinary people”: Those not possessed of the wealth and power to bend the democratic process for their own good. 

He speaks with conviction about the need to have a system that does not deny the wealthy their wealth, but doesn’t build that wealth at the expense of everyone else. He has demonstrated a life-long commitment to social and economic justice while displaying experience and skill working within our system to accomplish those goals.

I actually started this campaign season as a Clinton supporter. I felt that she was treated badly in 2008 by the Democratic Party establishment and by many influential people. I assumed without question that I’d be supporting her in 2016. But the more I saw (mostly online) of Bernie Sanders, the more I felt that he was saying what I always want the Democrats to say but which I rarely if ever hear.

A few years ago, I remarked to a friend: “We have the Republican-Republicans, and the Democrat-Republicans.” Bernie Sanders is, to me, the first “Democrat-Democrat” I’ve heard in my lifetime. He gives a voice to “working people,” which includes the middle class.

I thought I didn’t hear much about economic justice from Democrats because it was something they couldn’t address. From Bernie, I came to realize that they don’t want to address it.

The hostility of the DNC and the refusal of the mainstream media to accurately report his progress and impact have only convinced me more that he is representing those whom the powers-that-be do not want represented.

I hope that he becomes the Democratic nominee.

But if he doesn’t, I hope that he parlays his following into an influential position within the Democratic Party that can help push it to once again represent the poor, working- and middle-classes against the power/money-grabbing of the rich and powerful (even those who are registered Democrats).

However, whatever the outcome, whatever the future, we must also individually examine ourselves.

Is this only about some people getting a few dollars more and others getting a few dollars less?

No.

This is about cultural change.

This is about us again placing humane concerns over self-concern; spiritual concerns over material ones.

It is about rejecting the worship of Ba’al or Moloch in others — and in ourselves as well.

Ultimately, I believe that it’s about having a grateful attitude towards the true Source of All and the responsibility for each other that comes with that recognition.

___________________________________________________________

[1] Sh’mot/Ex. 32:3-4; the entire episode is recounted in 32:1-35

[2] I Kings 18:21, also appearing in this week’s haftarah Ki Tisa

[3] Hilchot Akum 1:1, cited at:
http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/2524364/jewish/Torah-Studies-Ki-Tisa.htm

[4] Ginsberg, Allen; “Howl” from Collected Poems, 1947-1980. © 1984 by Allen Ginsberg
(“Howl” was dated 1955-6)

[5] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/17/pope-francis-attacks-cult-money