At this point in Exodus, in Parashat Ki Tisa, the Israelites have seen a lot of action: the great drama of the plagues, the earth-shattering Exodus itself, and the transcendent moment of Revelation at Sinai. But now, it is as if the rushing scenes have been paused in favor of, well, waiting. The Israelites are somewhere in the desert, they have had these communal, transcendent experiences, and now, … now they are killing time until Moses returns to them.
Meanwhile, Moses is up on the mountain, getting very detailed information from God. Over the past few Torah portions, we’ve gotten a window into what Moses and God have been discussing: the laws in Parashat Mishpatim governing living in community, and the laws in Parashat T’rumah and Parsashat T’tzaveh detailing the elaborate instructions for building the Tabernacle. Moses and God are hard at work grappling with very long and precise directives, but the Israelites have no idea what’s going on. Instead, they are down in the desert with no leader, no permanent home, and no sense of what they should be doing or of what’s next.
It is in this moment that the Israelites, under Aaron’s leadership, build the Golden Calf. The Israelites go to Aaron and say, “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 has happened to him.” (Exodus 32:1) Amazingly, this single verse is all it takes to convince Aaron to move towards apostasy, suggesting that this isn’t a story about Aaron or even about the Israelites’ particular religious beliefs. Contemporary biblical scholar and professor Nahum Sarna writes,
“An assurance of the continued existence of an avenue of communication with God — some visible, tangible symbol that He remained always present in their midst, irrespective of the ever-increasing distance between themselves and the mount of revelation — became a pressing imperative.”1
In building the Golden Calf, it seems like the Israelites were seeking some kind of tangible connection to the divine, a reassurance for their communal anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. And it was in this state that they acted rashly and, arguably, impulsively. The consequences they face are grave: Moses returns early from the mountain and smashes the tablets with the Ten Commandments, and God actually sends a plague to Israel. (With its parallels to the recent plagues in Egypt, this is a demonstration of the depth of God’s anger.)
God and Moses react to the Golden Calf episode as if it is a betrayal, and the story itself is driven by the developing gulf between the Israelites, God, and Moses. As the Israelites begin to dance and make sacrifices to the calf, God instructs Moses to “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely” (Exodus 32:7). I find it fascinating that God becomes so angry so quickly at the Israelites. Why does God immediately react to the idolatrous festival but not to the events that preceded it, such as the Israelites’ sense of loss and desperation without Moses, their steady leader? Whether God’s and Moses’ anger is a proportional response to the Israelites’ actions is debatable. What is clear, though, is that the Israelites are struggling in the desert and that they are feeling lost.
Once the drama of the Golden Calf is resolved, God, Moses, and Israel are relatively back in one another’s good graces. But if we zoom out in the parashah, we actually can find a response to the Israelites’ fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Dr. Elsie Stern writes:
“The story of the Golden Calf is situated between the instructions for the Tabernacle (25:1-30:10) and the description of its construction (35:1-40:38). This arrangement affirms that the Tabernacle, unlike the calf, is an appropriate response to the people’s needs for a physical location where they can gain access to God.” 2
If we think about the Tabernacle as a response to the Israelites’ visceral need for God to have some kind of concrete presence, then we gain a model for ourselves as well. It can be so easy to blame the Israelites for a lack of faith in God, for having such a short-term memory that even iconic events like the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai quickly seem removed from their daily experience. Yet, viewing the construction of the Tabernacle as a response to the Israelites’ need for reassurance reminds us that sometimes, instead of fighting against fear and anxiety, we need to consider those human reactions as we deliberately structure our communities. We can therefore take a few lessons from the Israelites’ experience with Golden Calf and subsequent building of the Tabernacle:
1. We need constant, real reminders of abstract ideas — even inspiring ones.
The human element of the Golden Calf story is so powerful. It’s hard to think of a more powerful communal and bonding experience than the Israelites’ escaping from Egypt, camping in the desert, and standing together at the foot of Mt. Sinai. It’s also hard to think of a greater demonstration of God’s might and power than the sum total of 10 plagues, the splitting of the Reed Sea, the deliverance of manna in the desert, and the meteorological show of thunder and clouds as part of the Revelation at Sinai.
And yet despite all this, the Israelites still need the reassurance of God’s presence and Moses’ leadership. They need something more than an abstract idea of a covenantal relationship — as inspiring as the concept may be. The Israelites’ struggle is a good reminder to us about something fundamental in human nature. We all need to experience reminders of the power of the principles we believe in, and we may need to intentionally create those experiences.
2. Buildings can fill real, intangible needs.
Communal building projects represent hopes, dreams, and ideology. From the pyramids in Egypt representing the Egyptians’ hopes for the afterlife to the construction of Washington, DC in the United States’ early days representing the dream of American democracy, major building projects reflect core principles throughout history and the world. So too it is with the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The Tabernacle represents God’s proximity, the ongoing nature of the covenant between God and Israel, and the hope for a safe and prosperous future. It is all a reminder that buildings are more than bricks and mortar. Whether we are building, renovating, or maintaining the homes of beloved communal institutions, it does us well to consider the dreams and values they represent and to keep those concepts front and center.
1. Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel (New York: Schocken Books, 1996), p. 190
2. Elsie Stern, “Tablets, Calf and Covenant: Mediating the Relationship with God” in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, eds. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss. [New York: URJ Press, 2008], p. 495
Rabbi Ana Bonnheim recently moved to Charlotte, NC with her husband and two young children. She served as the associate director, and director of year-round programs, at URJ Greene Family Camp in Texas for the past 8 years.
Rabbi Bonnheim is absolutely right — one of the lessons of Parashat Ki Tisa is that we need concrete reminders of our fundamental ideas. In large part, that’s what organized religion does best — it offers us a more manageable way to engage with ineffable concepts. But, while we’re embracing these symbols, we also have to remember the flip side of this observation, which is that these symbols — whether they be physical, ritual, textual, or other — exist for us, not for God. We need them; God doesn’t. And, that means that as beautiful and powerful as they are, they aren’t, themselves, ultimately true. They aren’t truth; they’re a tool that we use to get to truth.
And, that’s just as true for our religious symbols, and our religion, today.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, the Kedushat Levi, teaches that the Sh’ma can be read as a reminder of this balance between ultimate truth and limited, human encapsulations of that truth (Kedushat Levi, Parashat Va-et’chanan). Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad is a progression. We start with Adonai, God’s “true name,” representing ultimate, and ultimately unknowable, divinity. To grasp it, we turn it into Eloheinu, “our God.” That is, we make a more limited, knowable, particularistic version of God, because we need that. But, if we can get back to Adonai, back to that pure, essential divinity, then we have a chance of Echad, of achieving real unity and true holiness. The universal necessarily becomes the particular, but our ultimate goal is to reach out to the original, purer truth.
In his essay “Religion in a Free Society,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches that “Religion has suffered from the tendency to become an end in itself. … Religion is not for religion’s sake, but for God’s sake.” The practices and icons of our people are sacred, because they can point us towards true holiness. Let’s never forget that ultimate, sacred goal.
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Tampa, FL.
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, Ezekiel 36:22−36
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,651−1,652; Revised Edition, pp. 1,455−1,456