The poet Yehuda Amichai writes:
I don’t want an invisible god. I want a god who is seen
but doesn’t see, so I can lead him around
and tell him what he doesn’t see…
("God Changes, Prayers are Here to Stay” in The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, ed. Robert Alter, pp. 409-10)
Back in Parashat Mishpatim, the Torah tells us that Moses was called up to the mountain to work on the stone tablets and remained there for 40 days (Ex. 24:12-18). In this week’s portion, Ki Tisa, we reconnect with this unfinished storyline at the beginning of Exodus 32. While Moses tarries atop Mount Sinai, the people down below are losing their patience:
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 happened to him.”(Ex. 32:1)
What happens next is one of the most well-known biblical stories. Aaron, Moses’ brother and the priest, produces a molten calf for the scared and frustrated Israelites (Ex. 32:4), proclaims for them a festival to the Eternal (Ex.32:5), and offers the appropriate sacrifices for a festival (Ex. 32:6). From his ground-level view, Aaron communicates in word and action that he thinks he is doing right by the people.
From God’s point of view, however, this behavior has crossed an irrevocable covenantal line, deserving of the ultimate capital punishment (Ex.32:7-11). The people are saved due to Moses’ pleading (Ex.11-14): God refrains from wiping out this “stiffnecked people” (Ex. 32:9). From a lofty distance Moses is compassionate. But when he rejoins the people below and actually sees what is going on, he is overcome with anger – he smashes the tablets and burns the calf to the ground (Ex. 32:19-20).
Close and nuanced readings of the Golden Calf episode reveal seam lines of multiple perspectives about its meaning. From a source-critical perspective, Exodus 32 seems to be a story written as a polemic against later historical events – the post-Solomon splitting off of the Northern tribes into their own kingdom, and how its first king, Jeroboam, set up new centers of cultic worship with calves (or bulls) as their symbol (I Kings 12:25-33; see Israel Knohl, The Divine Symphony: The Bible’s Many Voices, p. 80). In this political-theological dispute, we have a clash of symbols. Our Bible presents the viewpoint of the Davidic line in the southern kingdom of Judah with Jerusalem as its capital, where winged lions (cherubim) were the symbols adorning the sacred altar (Ex.25:18-20; I Kings 6).
Another lesson in perspective-taking comes from a literary analysis of the unfolding of the Exodus 32 story. In between Moses’ compassionate pleading on behalf of the people from above and his enraged response down below, a curious exchange of perspective happens at mid-level. On his way back down the mountain, Moses meets up with Joshua, his second-in-command and military leader, who was halfway down the mountainside (see Ex. 24:13). Unlike Moses, who had been stationed at the mountaintop, Joshua was positioned in a place where he could hear something of the people’s activity on the ground:
When Joshua heard the sound of the people in its boisterousness, he said to Moses,
“There is a cry of war in the camp.” But he [Moses] answered,
“It is not the sound of the tune of triumph,
Or the sound of the tune of defeat;
It is the sound of song that I hear!” (Ex. 32:17-18)
According to literary scholar, Robert Alter, Joshua’s perspective is shaped by his training: “Joshua is a military man and so jumps to the conclusion that the uproar means battle” (The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, p. 496). In didactic, poetic language, Moses teaches his disciple not to jump to conclusions. The power of this lesson is embedded in a Hebrew wordplay: the Hebrew words translated as “tune” and ‘song” have the same Hebrew consonants: ayin-nun-vav-tav, but they are vocalized differently: tune is anot and song is annot, The doubling effect of the letter nun implies intensification of the root meaning from tune to song. There is much debate about this in the traditional and modern commentaries. But if we accept the interpretation that annot means song, then two midrashic interpretations see this mid-mountain interchange as a chance for Moses to influence Joshua’s leadership perspective for the long haul:
[And to this] Moshe said to him, "Yehoshua, they are depending on you and trusting you to acquire the land and [yet] you do not know how to distinguish between one sound and another... (Midrash Tanchuma on Parashat Va-et’chanan 2:2)
Nachmanides offers a different point of view:
The Rabbis have likewise said in an aggadah (Kohelet Rabbah 9:11) that Moses told Joshua, "Is it possible that one who is destined to be the leader of Israel cannot distinguish between different kinds of sounds?" Now Moses in his great humility did not tell Joshua the cause of the noise, as he did not want to speak of the disgrace of Israel, and so instead he told him that it was noise of merriment. (Ramban [Rabbi Moses ben Nachman or Nachmanides] on Exodus 32:18)
Finally, a psychological perspective is offered by the contemporary Israeli singer-songwriter Ehud Banai, in his song, “Golden Calf.” Its opening stanza it gives first-person voice to the Israelite people’s deep sense of crisis. Banai’s stirring composition contributes another layer of empathy to our understanding of this familiar story:
Here we are in the heart of the desert
Thirsty for living water
You're on top of the mountain
Above the clouds
There is no sign
So many days
In a closed circuit we circle
Around the Golden Calf.