The core of this week’s parsha is the incident of the Golden
Calf. As usual there are lots of
troubling details in this story.
· How could the people so quickly lose faith?
· How could Aaron help them?
· Why is the punishment so severe?
· Who did the Levites kill?
· How did any one survive?
· What kind of G-d is it who only controls his anger when his ego is
I hope you also have questions.
The Torah includes numerous
diatribes against the straw horse of idolatry, this time the straw horse is a
People in ancient times prayed
to images of gods whether anthropomorphic, as in
Exodus 20 verse 4 emphasizes
that what is forbidden is less an image than “… any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below,
or in the waters under the earth.” Thus anthropomorphic or zoomorphic
images of God are out but composite images, like cherubim or sphinxes, which
are part animal and part human might be allowed.
The question of having an
iconic religion i.e. with images is clearly distinct from whether it is
polytheistic or monotheistic. Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians use
images in a monotheistic context. Hindus and Ancient Greeks used them in a
The people of
This need for having a god who
is both transcendent and immanent remained a constant for most peoples
throughout the ages. Ancient Israelite
religion solved the conundrum by making God accessible through the ark, angels,
ritual and prophecy. Late Judaism did it
by sanctifying the Torah scroll, the holy law, developing a theology of the Shekinah
(God’s manifestation on earth) and ritual.
The text shows that the people
had trouble trusting an invisible G-d and an absent leader and needed something
concrete to focus on. Indeed some of
the midrashim say that when Moses argues with G-d to
prevent him from destroying all the people, he reminds G-d that they had just
been brought out of a polytheistic land and that G-d was the one who put them
The story might also have been
written to emphasize the superiority of prophesy over ritual. The Torah itself demands ritual so it is
necessary. However, Moses, the pure man representing prophecy, is clearly shown
as superior to his brother Aaron the temporizing priest. Aaron can only try to control the people with
delaying tactics and helps them build the idol. It is true that Moses calls on the Levites
to slay the offenders, but when he does so he claims he is acting on G-d’s
command. Although the priesthood was
essential in earlier times, eventually Judaism gave it less significance,
partly out of necessity.
Nehama Leibowitz cites some of
the discussions on Moses’ summary execution of 3,000 people. Of course, we are upset by this story. The defendants of this action say that these 3,000
were the only people who truly forsook G-d and that it was necessary to destroy
them in order to save the community as a whole. They say that the command to kill “your
brother” means that it is only acceptable to murder when you are not acting out
of personal hatred or self-interest, and that this would be true for any one
meting out justice in the future.
The people who are not killed
are made to drink the ashes of the golden calf just as a woman expected of
adultery is made to drink the bitter waters.
say that Moses broke the tablets to protect the people from worse punishment,
likening them to a betrothed but not yet married woman. If they do not have the commandments yet, if
they are not truly married to G-d yet, they do not need to be killed.
Some midrashim say that Moses did not
throw down the tablets but dropped them because when he saw the frailty of
human nature they became too heavy to bear.
This does not fit with the strict language of the text but fits with the
existential picture. Since life in the
Garden of Eden was disrupted by the snake, life is never stable and we have to
strive continually to approach the ideal of goodness and unity with God.
Following the punishments, Moses engages in
dialogue with God and is allowed to see his “back”. The Talmud says he saw God wrapped in a tallit, like the leader of prayer. It is through prayer that we can
repent. In the parshah, Moses returns with the second set of tablets, and the
people have a second chance. Before the
story they were given the laws of Shabbat and here the laws of the hagim
are repeated. These are said to remind
the people that it is not nature alone that should be worshipped, but we should
recognize G-d’s role in nature.
Whatever the problems we may
have with this story, we can still find inspiration in it, to accept ourselves
with all our flaws and to get up again and again to strive for the ideal.