The Challenge of Holding God Close While Keeping Fear at Bay

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11−34:35

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Reuven Greenvald

A man reaches to the sky in prayer

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
No signal
So many days
In a closed circuit we circle
Around the Golden Calf.

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald is the director of Israel engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).

Pray that I May Know Your Ways: From Anger to Intimacy

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Laura Rumpf

Two people hold hands in reconciliation

The divisive episode of the Golden Calf that erupts midway through Parashah Ki Tisa has God steamed! As Rabbi Greenvald illustrates above, a plurality of perspectives and confused motivations surround the construction of the Golden Calf. Common to each interpretation cited seems to be a misunderstanding of the ways in which the other, human or divine, needs to be acknowledged in order to trust in the covenantal relationship.

If we are to understand empathetically – as Singer Ehud Banai suggests in “Golden Calf,” that the people were in spiritual crisis and yearning for “living water” as they created an accessible divine bovine – then let’s also invite some empathetic curiosity for God’s anger at the calf and the spiritual crisis speaking through this reaction.

When Moses hears of the people’s transgression, he beholds God, seething with a countenance that can literally be translated as “angry nosed.” God implores Moses: “Now, let me be, that My anger may blaze forth” (Ex. 32:10).

Now, let me be. Essentially, God says, Turn away from me Moses. I can’t stand people right now. In this ringing dismissal, Rashi argues that in fact, God’s request to, “let me be” is perhaps a masked plea to Moses to do the opposite: Don’t let me be. Don’t leave me alone with my anger.

Rather than walk away from God, Moses displays a vulnerability that acts not only to diffuse God’s wrath, but also to draw God intimately back into their partnership. He shares that he needs God; He can’t take on the mission of leading the people alone. In addition to pleading the people’s case, citing God’s mercy and powerful leadership of his ancestors, Moses appeals to God’s desire to be known and acknowledged. He asks: “Pray, let me know Your ways that I may know you...” (Ex 33:13) Moses bravely, stubbornly cries, refusing to accept God’s withdrawal. I imagine Moses saying: Tell me who you really are.... Let me understand you, because I need you to be all in with me.

Moses shows genuine curiosity for God’s true self – the antidote to the feeling of scorn that has hurt God so badly. Though Moses never sees God’s face – and in fact, we learn in this parashah that no human can ever behold the face of God (Ex. 33:20) -- Moses gets to know a presence that no previous patriarch could. God reveals God’s Divine Presence embodied by goodness, by the name Adonai, by grace and compassion (Ex. 34:6-7). Moses gives God a chance to recall the qualities that make his love for the people endure, those qualities that are not vulnerable to wrinkles or human foibles.

Finally, when God is recalled to God’s Presence, Moses speaks on behalf of his people in crisis, saying:

"Yelech-na, Adonai b’kirbeinu
Pray, let My Lord go in our midst.” (Ex. 34:9)
[Come as you really are.]

Here, Moses acts as an intermediary at his best, meeting the people’s spiritual need for an ever-present source, with God’s need to be loved and recalled as God’s true self. By being vulnerable, by refusing to walk away in the face of bitter protests to “Let me be,” Moses helps God move from anger to intimacy. He invites the enduring essence that God discloses to dwell amongst the people always.

Moses sets an example in this parashah: a way that any of us faced with a loved one whose nostrils are flaring may approach a situation. Rather than withdraw or confront anger with anger, we can be curious about the root cause of the anger. We can try to determine what about our loved one’s core self has caused such hurt and what qualities of that person’s best enduring self will help him or her back to a place of healing and full, committed presence.

Rabbi Laura Rumpf is the assistant rabbi at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, CA.


Reference Materials

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11−34:35

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 632−662; Revised Edition, pp. 581–606

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 495–520

Haftarah, I Kings 18:1-39, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 722-725 ; Revised Edition, pp. 607-610

Originally published: