Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

March 18, 2006 - 18 Adar 5766

Annual: Ex. 30:11 - 34:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 523; Hertz p. 350)
Triennial: Ex. 31:18 - 33:11 (Etz Hayim, p. 529; Hertz p. 356)
Maftir: Numbers 19:1 - 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 880; Hertz p. 652)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16 - 38 (Etz Hayim, p. 1286; Hertz p. 999)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


This long portion deals with many themes. The Israelites shall take a census; each male must give a half a shekel to the sanctuary. God gives instructions for making a basin for ritual washing, and also gives the precise mixture of ingredients for making the holy incense. God then gives instructions for the holy oil used for anointing. Betzalel, a man filled with wisdom, is given the duty of overseeing the building of the tabernacle. Even as they build the tabernacle, the Israelites shall keep the Sabbath.

The building of the tabernacle is interrupted to tell the story of the golden calf. The people worry that Moses is delayed on the mountain. They want a god who will be a physical presence in front of them. So they take off their gold and Aaron builds a golden calf. Moses hears the celebration and realizes the great sin of the people Israel. He breaks the two tablets of the law he had carried down the mountain. He grinds up the calf, mixes it in water, and forces the people to drink it. He gathers the Levites to his side and slays the ringleaders of the golden calf incident.

God wants to destroy the people but Moses pleads for forgiveness. He tells God that if He is to destroy the people, to wipe his own name from the book he has written. God forgives the people. Moses asks to see God's essence, and God tells him to hide in the rock. He will see God's back but no one can see God's essence. God appears as a forgiving God, and Moses hears what are often called the 13 attributes, that the Lord is a merciful and gracious God. Moses makes a second set of tablets.

The portion ends with a number of Jewish ritual laws, including the pilgrimage festivals and the prohibition of cooking a kid in its mother's milk (mixing milk with meat). Moses is again on the mountain 40 days, and when he comes down a powerful light shines from his face. He must wear a mask in the presence of the people to cover that light.

Issue #1 - Moses and Aaron

"Then he (Aaron) took it from them and cast it in a mold and made it into a molten calf. And they proclaimed, this is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!" (Exodus 32:4)


  1. Moses and Aaron were two brothers, but they were unlike each other. In what ways were their personalities distinct? How do these two leaders differ in their approaches to leadership? In what ways are they similar?
  2. The Talmud teaches, "Moses' motto was, 'Let the law cut through the mountain.' Aaron, however, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between man and man." (Sanhedrin 6b) Moses was a law person; Aaron was a people person. Are there times in the Torah in which Moses seems more concerned with law than with people? (Was Moses wrong in how he dealt with the sins and shortcomings of the people?)
  3. How could Aaron make a golden calf? Idolatry is one of the greatest sins of Judaism. Perhaps Aaron did not consider the calf an idol. Could it be that the calf was meant as a god, but simply a symbolic presence? Even if so, it was wrong. Rashi quotes the Midrash that said Aaron built the golden calf out of fear. The people had asked Hur to make it, and the mob murdered him when he refused. Is it possible that Aaron made the golden calf because he was a peacemaker? ("I don't want any trouble!")
  4. Perhaps we can learn from Aaron's behavior that peace is not always the right course to pursue in every situation. Sometimes pursuing peace allows injustice, or even evil, to flourish. Sometimes by pursuing peace we tolerate that which ought to be intolerable. That is the reason why the great prophet Jeremiah taught "Peace, peace, but there is no peace" (Jeremiah 6:14). There are times when the world needs not a mediator or a reconciler, but someone willing to take a stand.
  5. Later in the Torah, the people mourned much more when Aaron died than when Moses died. Why? We all love a peacemaker. How can we live a balance between Moses and Aaron?

Issue #2 - Metaphors for God

"Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen" (Exodus 33:23)


  1. What does the Torah mean when it speaks of "God's face?" What does it mean by "God's back"? Most commentators explain God's face as a reference to God's essence, which is unknowable. On the other hand, God's back is God's attributes (what God does or how God behaves in the world). This can be known.
  2. We use human metaphors for God in order to better understand God's actions. What do we mean when we use metaphors for God - Avinu Malkeinu - "Our Father, Our King." (Is God male? Can we use the female "Our Mother, Our Queen" and keep the same meaning? What about "Our Parent, Our Sovereign?") What about the metaphor "The Lord is my shepherd?" What about HaMakom ("The Place"), the name we use when comforting mourners? What do we mean when we use the kabbalistic female term Shekina ("Indwelling")? How do we feel using that term when describing God as protecting souls under her wings in El Maleh Rahamim? Some feminists have compared God to a womb or a wellspring. What do these metaphors mean? In what ways does the name we use for God in given situations affect the way we see the situation? Does a name we use to refer to God in any given instance change the essence of God? What does use of different names reflect?
  3. There is a famous Midrash that tells us that at the crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites saw God as a warrior fighting in battle. Seven weeks later, at the giving of theTen Commandments, the Israelites saw God as an elderly man filled with mercy. (Mechilta on Exodus 20:2) Could both be the same God? God does not change, but our perception of God changes at different times. What metaphors for God work for us today?
  4. In this portion Moses is not allowed to see God's face. Yet at the end of Deuteronomy, the Torah teaches, "And there has not arisen since in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face" (Deuteronomy 34:10) Why the inconsistency? Could it be that Moses came as close as anyone could come in seeing the unseeable?

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016