This coming week’s Parsha (3/6/21) includes the account of the Golden Calf incident.
Philo of Alexandria saw in this incident another good allegory which teaches Stoic principles, writing:
(158) This is the food of a soul which is inclined to the practice of virtue, to consider labour a very sweet thing instead of a bitter one, which, however, it is not allowed to all persons to participate in; but to those only by whom the golden calf, the animal made by the Egyptians, the body, is sprinkled over with water after having been burnt with fire, and broken to pieces. For it is said in the sacred scriptures, that “Moses having taken the calf burnt it with fire, and broke it up into small pieces, and threw the pieces into the water and caused the children of Israel to drink Thereof.” (Ex 32:20.) (159) For the love of virtue being inflamed and excited by the brilliant appearance of virtue, burns to ashes the pleasures of the body, and then cuts them to pieces and pounds them to nothing, using the divine word which can at all times divide everything.
(On the Posterity of Cain and His Exile 158-159a)
Philo sees the Golden Calf as representing the “pleasures of the body”. When the people made the Golden Calf, they made a feast of which we read:
And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.
Rashi writes concerning the Hebrew word translated “to play”:
Heb. לְצַחֵק. In this word, there is [also] a connotation of sexual immorality, as it is said: “to mock (לְצַחֶק) me” (Gen. 39:17), and bloodshed, as it is said: “Let the boys get up now and play (וִישַׂחִקוּ) before us” (II Sam. 2:14). Here too, Hur was slain. -[from Midrash Tanchuma 20]
The Torah records the destruction of the Golden Calf as follows:
And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.
Gold does not burn, it melts. The word “burnt” must be here to teach us something deeper. Philo understands this word “burnt” to mean that the calf (the pleasures of the body) are destroyed by the “love of virtue” because virtue “burns to ashes the pleasures of the body“.
And what is meant by “ground it to powder“? Philo paraphrases this “broke it up into small pieces” saying that |the divine word (Logos, Reason) which can at all times divide everything” and “cuts them (pleasures of the body) to pieces and pounds them to nothing.”
Philo is telling us that the four virtues, especially in this case, self-control, like a fire, burns the pleasures of the body, rooted in the emotions, and the root passion of pleasure, and that reason (the Logos) has the power to grind the negative emotions to nothing.
Reason (Logos) “grinds” or “at all times divides everything” because logic is a process of breaking down classifying and following the dividing paths of a logic tree. This process of logic can subdue irrational thinking overcoming negative emotions and manifesting the virtues in us.
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