Ki Tissa


Carol Steinberg


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 appealed to? 

I hope you also have questions.

The Torah includes numerous diatribes against the straw horse of idolatry, this time the straw horse is a golden calf. 

People in ancient times prayed to images of gods whether anthropomorphic, as in Greece, composite, as in Egypt, or zoomorphic as when the Bull represented the Canaanite high-god El or the Egyptian god Apis. This is still the practice among Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Hindus.  While the uneducated worshipers may confuse the god with the image, for the sophisticated worshipper the image has always been a sort o focus of the god’s presence – making the transcendent cosmic go immanent, visible, accessible to mere mortals.

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 polytheistic context.

The people of Israel clearly violated the ban on zoomorphic images and the ban on polytheism. In Exodus 32 verse 4 (incorrectly translated in Etz Hayim, the text says “these are your gods Israel, who took (plural) you up from the land of Egypt

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 there.

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.  Some midrashim 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.