Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

Parashat Ki Tissa
March 7, 2015 – 16 Adar 5775

Annual (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35): Etz Hayim p. 523; Hertz p. 352
Triennial (Exodus 31:18 – 33:11): Etz Hayim p. 529; Hertz p. 356
Haftarah (I Kings 18:1 – 39): Etz Hayim p. 548; Hertz p. 369

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

The Israelites are to be counted; each male over the age of 20 must give a half-shekel to the Mishkan fund. Instructions are given for making a bronze laver, anointing oil and incense.

God tells Moses that Bezalel, assisted by Oholiab, will head up the Mishkan’s construction. The Israelites are exhorted to observe Shabbat.

The Israelites panic when Moses does not return from Mount Sinai when they thought he would. Aaron responds by asking the people to bring him gold, which he melts into the shape of a calf. Moses descends the mountain to see the people worshipping the calf; angrily, he smashes the tablets of the Law. The Levites kill 3,000 of the idolaters, and God causes a plague on the people, but Moses talks God out of destroying the entire nation. Requesting to see God, Moses is shown God’s back, causing him to declare attributes of God.

After issuing a second set of tablets, God warns the Israelites against idolatry, then reminds them of proper festival observance. Moses returns from Mount Sinai with a shining face.

Theme #1: Having a Cow

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." ... [The people’s gold] he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!" (Exodus 32:1, 4)

Forty days removed from the most transcendent moment in their history, the Israelites commit the most egregious of transgressions -- but not without help.

But they, our ancestors, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and they did not obey your commands. They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, ‘This is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt,’ or when they committed awful blasphemies. Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness. By day the pillar of cloud did not fail to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take. You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst. For forty years you sustained them in the wilderness; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen. -- Nehemiah 9:16-21

Their offense lay in the fashioning of an image which had been forbidden them and in attributing Divine sanctity to the product of their own desires and hands without being commanded to do so by God. In extenuation of their sin we should remember the lack unanimity which preceded it and the fact that the worshippers of the Golden Calf constituted only 3,000 out of a mass of 600,000 persons. But the excuse of the leaders who helped in making the Calf was that they did so for the purpose of distinguishing between the believer and disbeliever in order to put to death those caught actually worshipping it. Their culpability lay in leading the rebellion from the realm of thought into that of deed. -- Yehudah HaLevi, The Kuzari

I reject the notion that we were worshipping a foreign god. We were worshipping the One God via One Calf. The real issue was the matter of creating idols. We did do that. We were worshipping with the aid of an icon, and it’s a sin. It’s also about the hardest demand of our faith. Cleanse your mind of images, leave it open to nothing, thus everything. Nearly impossible! Just look how image-filled the Jewish and Christian world is even today! And these were the first people told to do it. But here’s the key: They had not been told yet. You’ve got me in your books for violating a law that had yet to be written! I think, in your country, you’re protected by an ex post facto law. You can’t be charged for breaking a rule if that rule did not exist when you broke it. When I built the calf, Moses was still up the mountain. There were no commandments, no law forbidding what I was doing. So condemn me, but please notice how God never did so. -- Rich Cohen, from Unscrolled, Roger Bennett, ed.

Questions for Discussion:

The passage from the book of Nehemiah indicates that the incident of the Golden Calf is the worst sin that the Israelites commit in the wilderness. Yet, in the book of Numbers, the incident of the spies is cited as the reason for the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering. As well, the Golden Calf is built relatively early in the journey toward Canaan. Do you agree with Nehemiah’s view of this sin? Is it possible that the calf is the most prominent Israelite sin because of the image of the calf itself?

The Kuzari emphasizes that a relatively small percentage of Israelites actually build the Golden Calf. Is Israel’s punishment a case of communal punishment, where the actions of the few hurt the many? Are there times when the actions of a few people are worse than those of a larger number of people?

Cohen takes on the voice of Aaron as if he were living today, defending himself for his role in the calf incident. Are you sympathetic with Aaron’s excuses? When looking at the Torah as a whole, is it fair to say that Aaron actually goes unpunished?

Theme #2: Totally Smashed

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)

This is not the only time in the Torah that Moses loses his temper, yet this time, his action seems to fit the occasion.

The seed of Amalek, of whom it says “You shall erase their memory from beneath the heavens,” were the ones who caused the shattering of the tablets. -- Zohar

The first tablets were destroyed because they were given with public fanfare … said the Holy One, “There is nothing better than modesty,” as it says, “What the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8). -- Midrash Tanhuma

As soon as [Moses] beheld the abhorrent spectacle of the worship of the calf, he said: “How can I give them the tablets? I shall be involving them in serious breaches of the commandments rendering them liable to death at the hand of Heaven, since it is written thereon, ‘You shall have no other gods besides Me.’ … Instead I shall break them and reform the people.” Moses’s action met with the approval of the Omnipotent, as it is stated: “The tablets, which you broke,” implying “More power to you for having broken them!” -- Avot D’Rabbi Natan

Questions for Discussion:

The Zohar claims that it is the descendants of Amalek who cause the breaking of the tablets. What is meant by this? Is it that their influence leads the Israelites to build the Golden Calf, thus leading up to Moses’ action? Or did Amalek personally provoke Moses’ anger? How would either outcome impact our understanding of the story?

The Tanhuma says that the public nature of the giving of the commandments is the reason behind the destruction of the first tablets.

Does this imply Moses would have destroyed the tablets anyway, regardless of whether or not the Golden Calf was created? Or is it a critique of presenting the law so publicly? Is God second-guessing the decision to make Revelation into a “show?” Is Moses?

Avot D’Rabbi Natan believes that God is happy that Moses breaks the first set of tablets. Does Moses break them to save the people? Does this idea match the notion that Moses is angry? With the notion that God is angry? Does this imply that, later, when Moses hits the rock at Meribah, the temper he displays is an anomaly?

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