Gold has an extremely long lineage as a much-prized precious metal. The account of the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness, makes it clear that gold was reserved for the most sacred of the sacred objects – for example, the Ark, the Ark cover, the Table, and the M’norah, the Seven-branched lampstand (T’rumah, Exodus 25:10ff.). Moreover, the lists of the precious materials used, always begins with gold: ‘and these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper…’ (Ex. 25:3. See also: Ex. 31:4).
But the Torah also makes it clear that gold is not sacred in itself. Right in the middle of the account of the building of the Mishkan, the narrative turns to the construction of an utterly profane idol out of gold (Ki Tissa, Ex. 32). During Moses’ absence on the mountain, Aaron managed the fears of the people and staved off rebellion, by telling them to bring their gold jewellery, which he melded into a ‘molten calf’ – eigel masseichah. Most English translations of the story, say, ‘Golden Calf’. By contrast, the Hebrew original points to the process by which the idol was made: when heated, gold is a malleable substance; from the perspective of the Torah, it’s what you do with it that counts.
Perhaps, one of the reasons why gold has always captured the human imagination is because it mirrors that golden orb in the sky, the Sun. From time immemorial, human beings have understood that the Sun is essential to life, bringing warmth and enabling vegetation to flourish. And from the moment the first human beings created fire, we became aware of our power to mimic the Sun and create light and heat – even in the midst of darkness. But there’s a catch: Fire has the power to destroy, raging out of control – as forest fires in the intense dry heat regularly testify. One of the messages of the juxtaposition presented in the Torah between the accounts of the building of the Mishkan and the building of the eigel masseichah is not simply that gold may be put to very different purposes. My dad was a mining engineer in South Africa in the 1940s and told me about the dangers and ingenuity involved in extracting gold. As miners of this planet’s rich resources, we are challenged to take responsibility for how we use and abuse, both, our fellow human beings and the gifts of the Earth.
As usual, the Torah provides us with object lessons. But summer is the time when schools shut up shop and we have the opportunity to stop being students for a while and enjoy the warmer weather. So, may we be blessed with sunny days – and gentle rain at night!