KI TISSA (2nd Part)

Shemot (Exodus) 31:18 - 33:11

Eitz Hayim 529; Plaut 635; Hertz 356


The main topic in this week’s parashah is the story of the golden calf. Tempting as it is, I am not going to focus on this part of the parashah.  There is already a lot written about it, and, on close reading, it turns out to be very confusing.  Was it really idolatry, or were the people seeking not a god but a substitute for Moses?  What was the difference between the golden calf and the golden cherubim on the ark?  How much of an active role does Aaron play in permitting the sin, and what are we to make of his blatant lie to Moses?  Good questions, but I am not going to touch any of them.  Rather, I want to discuss the aftermath, what happened after Moses came down from the Mountain and destroyed the first pair of tablets.  You will find the relevant passages from 32:25 through 33:6.


Quite a lot happens in these 17 verses.  Briefly, Moses calls for those who are loyal to God to come to him, and, according to the text, only the Levites respond.  He then instructs them to inflict summary execution on any “brother, neighbour or kin,” with the result that 3,000 people were killed, including presumably some Levites. Moses then goes back up the Mountain, and in what is perhaps his greatest act as leader, he asks God to pardon the people.  Indeed, he challenges God by linking himself closely to the Israelites and demanding that, if the people are annihilated, he too should be killed.  According to Hertz, Moses even implies that it is partly God’s fault for having told them to take gold from the Egyptians. As it turns out, God backs off quite easily, and indicates that only those who are guilty will be punished.  He then instructs Moses to start off with the people toward the promised land, and informs him that an angel will go with them.  An angel, but not God, for God does not dare go with the Israelites lest, given their proclivity to backslide, He gets angry again and destroys them. That statement appears in 33:3, and is re-emphasized just two verses later in 33:5, along with God’s statement that He is still considering what to do with the Israelites. The excerpt closes by saying that the Israelites were repentant, and, as a token of repentance, took off their good clothes, which was just as well as they were about to embark on a 40-year trek across the desert.


There are lots of problems with these verses.  To start: By what authority did Moses order the killing of 3000 Israelites. He asserts that God was behind the order, but we only have his word for that.  Rashi says that the authority comes from Sh 22:19 which says that anyone who sacrifices to any other God shall be proscribed or put under cherem (םרחי), but it is not until Vyk 27:29, which, even by Biblical accounts, came much later, is there any indication that this implies death. Ramban is more realistic; he says the situation was at a crisis, and there was neither enough time nor enough judges for normal practices – an explanation that will be offered dozens of times in subsequent world history.  In either case, it is not clear how the Levites identified 3,000 guilty people among that huge numbers that allegedly left Egypt.

A brief digression:  After the killing, Moses orders the Levite warriors to consecrate themselves to God.  According to Hertz this meant that they were now worthy of being priests, but according to Plaut it means that, however strong the justification, they had to atone for the killing.  No small difference in interpretation!


Next problem: Moses has placated God and saved the people as a whole, but, immediately after pronouncing that only the guilty will be held to account, God sends down a plague. Hertz is less specific, and just says that God smote the people.  However, the word used (ףגיו) does imply a plague, and plagues are notoriously non-discriminatory about who dies and, one supposes, about guilt.  Rashi says that the plague killed those who sinned in secret and were therefore not dispatched by the Levites.  Ramban suggests that perhaps no one was actually killed but that the lives of the guilty were shortened.  I also wonder what constituted guilt.  Did one actually have to participate in donating to the golden calf, or was it sufficient just to stand around and watch?  If the former, less than 3,000 would have sufficed; if the latter, it must have been many more.


A further problem: Despite the revenge of the Levites and the plague, and God’s own words, most commentators feel that the Israelites were still subject to some collective punishment. As mentioned above, after telling Moses to start out on the route to the promised land, God is still wondering what to do with this stiff-necked people (33:5).  At one time or another some rabbi has attributed every bad thing that happened to that generation as collective punishment for the sin of the golden calf. Even modern commentators vary in their view as to what happened.  Plaut cites Bemidbar 14:20-24, where God says that one reason for keeping the Israelites in the desert for 40 years is to ensure that all those who participated in building the golden calf would die before crossing the Jordan River.  Eitz Hayim cites Ezekiel 20, which refers to apostasy, but the Soncino edition explicitly denies any link with the golden calf, and suggests that the verse refers to some alien practice adopted when they were slaves in Egypt.


To now, my d’var is rather critical, so let’s change the tone and move to a couple of positive lessons that come from this excerpt – several pieces of really good news. 


                     First, there is an unqualified statement about responsibility for sin, and it comes from God himself: Only the sinners are to be punished; there will be no collective punishment, even for an act that seemed to have wide support and to approach, if not actually be, idolatry.


                     Second, God accepts the Israelites as they are, well short of perfect, and with all the nuances of being “stiff-necked.”  Perhaps that is why Moses seems to be able to get God to back down from the original threat to annihilate the Israelites. Commentators note the possessive pronouns that God uses in discussions with Moses.  When God is pleased with the Israelites, they are “My People;” when displeased, they are “your People.”  By the end of this excerpt, God has adopted a more neutral position, and refers to the Israelites as “the people.”

                     Third, God’s explicit reason for not accompanying the Israelites on their forthcoming journey is that He is afraid of His own anger.  However, at the same time God is passing greater responsibility to the Israelites, one further step in a process that has been ongoing since Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden. Not only will they have to make their own decisions but they will also have to accept a more remote and less anthropomorphic God, the kind of God whom Jews now almost universally accept.


What does this all mean?  It means that God recognizes that the Israelites, and presumably later in history the Jewish people, will never reach God’s ideal.  More generally, the lesson is probably that God and human beings can never co-exist in close quarters; they can only co-exist when each keeps to one realm, humans on earth and God in heaven.  We interact at a spiritual and even at a mental level, but not at any physical level.


What is my proof text for this conclusion?  It is that same verse that I cited above, when in 33:5, which in Eitz Hayim reads (649) “I will consider what to do to you.”  (ףל-השעא המ עדאו – singular to conform to the noun people).  I do not read this as a threat of future punishment but rather what one should expect of the God to whom we refer so often in our prayers as v’kayim: living.  If our God is a living God, so too is our God a learning God.  For better or for worse, God has created human beings, given them the earth on which to live and prosper, and chosen the Israelites, already on their way to becoming the Jewish people, to take the lead in showing how human beings should live.  That is what God is considering.


As Susan Landau-Chark, who critiqued this d’var in draft, suggested, God is pulling back and will no longer interact with the children of Israel as He did with their ancestors.  Perhaps God now recognizes what many call the Yoke of the Covenant is heavy, and it will not be borne well by many of the people.  There will be Jewish heroes and Jewish villains; there will be observant and unobservant Jews; a few will even dispense entirely with the Yoke.  However, we are still a chosen people and, over time, I suppose that God concludes that there will be more good, perhaps a lot more good, than bad.  Quoting Susan, “We have the instructions–the Torah; now it is truly up to us to create G-D's world .


Shabbat shalom,