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Torah Sparks

March 14, 2009 – 18 Adar 5769

Annual: Ex. 30:11 – 34:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 523; Hertz p. 352)
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. 1287; Hertz p. 999)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

God instructs Moses to take a census of adult men by telling each to contribute half a shekel. The instructions for making the bronze basin, the anointing oil, and the incense are given. Bezalel is named to head the construction of the mishkan and its furnishings, and Oholiav is to be his assistant. God tells Moses to remind the people of the importance of keeping Shabbat and then gives him the tablets inscribed with the Ten Statements.

While Moses is on the mountain, the people despair of his return and demand that Aaron “make us a god who shall go before us.” Aaron fashions the Golden Calf and the next day the people offer sacrifices and rise to dance before it. God tells Moses what is happening in the camp. Moses pleads with God to restrain His anger and then descends the mountain. When Moses sees what the people are doing, he angrily shatters the tablets. He destroys the calf and 3000 of its worshipers are put to death. Moses returns to Mount Sinai and intercedes with God to save the people.

God tells Moses to lead the people to the land He has promised, but that God Himself will no longer go in their midst. Moses once again steps forward on behalf of the people and God relents. Moses asks to see God, but God refuses, saying, “man may not see Me and live.” Moses ascends Mount Sinai a third time and receives the revelation of God’s Thirteen Attributes. After forty days, Moses descends the mountain with the second set of tablets.

1. How Could Aaron Do It?

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32:1)

  1. Hur arose and rebuked them, “You brainless fools! Have you forgotten the miracles God performed for you?” Whereupon they rose against him and slew him. They then gathered against Aaron and said, “If you make a god for us, well and good; but if not, we will do to you what we have done to this man.” When Aaron saw the state of affairs, he was afraid... The people wanted to build an altar with him, but he would not allow them, saying, “Allow me to build it by myself, for it is not befitting the respect due to the altar that another should build it.” Aaron’s intention in this was to delay matters; he said to himself, “By the time I build it all by myself Moses will come down.” But when he had built it and Moses had not yet descended, we read, “Early the next day, the people offered up burnt offerings.” (Shemot Rabbah 41:7)
  2. Aaron argued with himself, saying: If I say to them, give me silver and gold, they will bring it immediately; but behold I will say to them give me the earrings of your wives and sons and daughters and right away this thing will fail, as it is said, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters.” The women heard, but they were unwilling to give their earrings to their husbands, but they said to them, “[You want] to make an idol and an abomination that has no power to save – we will not listen to you.”... What did the men do? They broke off the earrings that were in their own ears and gave them to Aaron. (Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 45)
  3. Aaron intended to act for the sake of Heaven. He thought, if I say to them Caleb son of Yephuneh or Nachshon son of Aminadab, or someone like that will become leader and I appoint him over them, when Moses returns he will not want to give up his lofty position and this will cause a major quarrel among them and bloodshed. If I tell them I will not appoint a leader for them, they will choose a leader themselves and this will also cause a major quarrel. If I say I will be their leader, Moses will not like it. I will keep them busy until Moses returns, and I will make them something with no reality, and when Moses returns it will become meaningless. And when he said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives” he intended that the women would be reluctant to give up their jewelry and he could stall until Moses returned. (Bechor Shor [Rabbi Yosef of Orleans, 1140-1190, France])
  4. The law is that a person must allow himself to be killed rather than to engage in idolatrous practices. Why then didn’t Aaron allow himself to be killed rather than build the people an idol? The explanation is as follows: the people never forced Aaron to engage in such idolatrous practices. All they asked was, “Come, make us a god,” make an idol that we will worship. The prohibition involved, as far as Aaron was concerned, was only that of lifnei iver – “placing a stumbling block in front of the blind,” i.e., enabling someone else to commit a sin. One is not required to lay down his life in order to prevent another from committing a sin. (Imrei Shefer [Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, 1785-1869, Croatia])
  5. Hillel taught: Be a disciple of Aaron: loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and attracting them to the study of Torah. (Pirkei Avot 1:12)

Sparks for Discussion

How could God’s chosen high priest have made an idol? The various midrashim portray Aaron engaging in delaying tactics, hoping that Moses would return and defuse the situation. Why didn’t Aaron just say “No!”? How much blame does Aaron bear for the sin of the Golden Calf?

The rabbis portray Aaron as the paradigmatic peacemaker, willing to go to extremes to heal conflicts or to prevent them. How much did this figure into the episode of the calf? Where does peace rank in the hierarchy of values? What happens when people decide there is no cause worth fighting (that is, killing or being killed) for?

2. How Could Moses Do It?

As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. (Exodus 32:19)

  1. The action of breaking the tablets appears strange and astonishing, seemingly prompted by anger. Yet we know that it is forbidden to break even the smallest vessel, how much more so an object as sacred and precious as this! (Be’er Yitzhak (Rabbi Yitzhak Horowitz of Yaroslav), d 1864, Poland, supercommentary to Rashi)
  2. “Bearing the two tablets of the Pact” – For he thought that when he returned to them [the people in the camp] they would repent; and if not, he would break them in their sight... so that they would repent. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  3. This is what Moses did: When Israel perpetrated that act, he took the tablets and shattered them, as if to imply that had Israel foreseen the punishment awaiting them, they would not have sinned. Moses moreover said, “Far better that they be judged as having done it unintentionally than as if they had willfully committed the act.” (Shemot Rabbah 43:1)
  4. Now we may understand when Moses perceived the physical and mental state of the people he promptly broke the tablets. He feared they would deify the tablets as they had done the calf. Had he brought them the tablets intact, they would have substituted them for the calf and not reformed their ways. But now that he had broken the tablets, they realized how far they had fallen short of true faith. . . . It was the first tablets that were the work of God that were broken, not the tablets hewn by Moses, which remained whole, demonstrating that no holiness resides in any created thing other than that invested in it by Israel’s observance of the Torah in accordance with the will of the Creator and His holy name. (Meshekh Hokhma, Rabbi Meir Simha Hakohen of Dvinsk, 1843-1926, Latvia)
  5. When the Holy One gave Moses the tablets, they carried themselves [as though weightless]. But when he descended and approached the camp, and saw the calf, the writing on the tablets flew off, and the tablets became heavy in the hands of Moses. (Tanhuma Ki Tissa 26)
  6. Rabbi Meir said, the tablets and the fragments of the [first] tablets were placed in the Ark. (Midrash HaGadol)

Sparks for Discussion

How could Moshe Rabbenu, whom God chose to transmit the Torah, shatter the precious tablets, “God’s work”? Was he overcome by rage? Was it a calculated act, meant to shock the people into coming to their senses, or perhaps to mitigate their punishment? Was it, as the Tanhuma suggests, beyond Moses’ control?

Once God has forgiven the people, He tells Moses, “Carve two tablets of stone like the first...” – like the first, not the same. How were they different? What does it mean that the fragments of the first tablets were placed in the Ark together with the second ones?

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