Rearranging the Golden Calf

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11−34:35

D'Var Torah By: David S. Lieb

A case can be made that the second half of the Book of Exodus is out of order, especially the incident of the golden calf in this week's parashah, Ki Tisa.

In Exodus 24:18 we read: "Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights." At the beginning of the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32:1, we read: "When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain...." Almost everything between these two verses (Exodus chapters 25 through 31 of Parashat Ki Tisa) is about the building of the Sanctuary and the priestly garments and, with some editorial creativity, can be understood as a response to the Torah's most infamous idolatrous incident; therefore, it should follow that story.

In his book on the Torah meditations of Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev titled God at the Center, David Blumenthal writes about this re-ordering of Exodus: "The Sanctuary was thus understood as a concession by God to the people's need to have a focus for their worship, and, perhaps, as an act of reconciliation between God and our people following the incident of the sin of the golden calf." In fact, almost everything in the entire second half of Exodus after chapter 24 is about the Sanctuary, the priests, the liturgical calendar, and the sacrificial system. For all practical purposes, the story of the golden calf does seem oddly out of place.

Although we should be cautious about placing too much spiritual value on editorial oddities, I am, nonetheless, intrigued by the relationship between sanctuary and idolatry, between "sacred space" and the things we find ourselves doing in the world outside of that space. Is sacred space or sanctuary an appropriate antidotal response to idolatry, as Blumenthal and Levi Yitzhak suggest, and if it is, what happens when the sanctuary itself becomes a semi-idolatrous endeavor?

The simple answer is that sacred space can, of course, protect us from the seductions of a world that worships visible, material gods. That's why we call it sanctuary. That's why the Torah refers to it as Ohel Mo-eid, the "Tent of Meeting." Architecturally speaking, sanctuaries should enhance that possible meeting, pointing beyond themselves to a God whose glory far exceeds that of a building constructed only to make manifest God's Presence.

But the more complex, less simple answer is that the golden calf, like so many other stories in the Torah, is a paradigm for eternal human conditions. If sacred space is indeed a response to our "need to have a focus for our worship," we may need to have that place much closer at hand than the top of Mount Sinai or Friday night services at Temple Sinai. We may need to have sanctuary at home, at the office, in the car, at the mall, or wherever it is that idolatrous impulses threaten to separate us from the Holy. That sanctuary need not be a physical space: It may simply be our ability to quietly withdraw into our own inner center of perspective and peace.

Notice, finally, that after the events that occur in Ki Tisa, Moses no longer meets God at the top of Sinai but in the Tent of Meeting, and the people can see that such an encounter is happening when the cloud of God's glory descends over the tent. Because a tent is a portable thing, perhaps we, too, need portable sacred spaces as we move through the wilderness in which we live.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How do you access the Holy when your synagogue is not near at hand or closed?

  2. Are there idols-golden calves-in your life that are as powerful as or more powerful than God's voice?

  3. Is worship/meditation about seeking safety from the world around you, or is it about teaching you how to live in that world? Can it be both? What other purpose does worship/meditation serve for you?

Rabbi David S. Lieb, z"l was the spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in San Pedro, CA from 1971 through 2005. 

To Have or To Be?

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Yael Splansky

Although it was not long ago that the Children of Israel offered their precious stones and metals for the building of the Tabernacle, now they melt down their earrings for a god of gold. Although it was not long ago that they danced on the shores of the sea and sang songs of praise to their Creator, now they dance around a material god of their own creation. The building of the golden calf is the Jewish "original sin."

In this week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa, we have two contrasting scenes. First, there is what the psychologist and social philosopher Erich Fromm would describe as a nonreligious experience because it is driven by ego, greed, and fear. Tired and hungry from their wanderings in the desert and leaderless and afraid because Moses is up on the mountain, the Children of Israel fashion an idol. When God seems distant and abstract, they seek comfort in the tangible, the own-able.

However, later in the parashah, there is a second scene. Moses leaves the camp. He leaves behind the noise and possessions, the hierarchies and demands of his people in order to enter the Tent of Meeting. Having suspended his ego, greed, and fear, Moses is motivated by a pure desire to be in the Presence of God. And the result is a religious moment so intense that Moses has to wear a veil over his face to shield himself from the radiance.

Today we may have traded in the calf of gold for the Visa gold card, but how much has really changed? We live in a society that teaches us to seek comfort in what we can own. Fromm shows how much language affects our behavior: Not only do we have a house or a bank account, but we also say we have a wife, a friend, or a child. We have knowledge. We have feelings. We even claim to own our actions, for example, Ihave to work or I have to go to temple.

In many other languages, including Hebrew, the verb "be" is used instead of the verb "have." For example,Yesh li, "There is to me," is used instead of "I have," as in There is to me a family and There is to me a headache. Verbs of being like I am in love and I am a Jew make a stronger impact.

But statements of being, make us vulnerable because they expose who we are and who we are not. As a result, we prefer to employ expressions of ownership. However, the Psalmist warns us: "Their idols are...the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak; eyes, but cannot see; ears, but cannot hear. Those who fashion them, all who trust in them, shall become like them." (Psalms 115: 5-8)

When in the Tent of Meeting Moses pleads with God: "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" (Exodus 33:18), God reveals God's self to Moses by the name Y-H-V-H, from the verb "be." Our God is a God of being, not having: "Adonai! Adonai! I am compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin." (Exodus 34:6-7) "I am,...I am,...I am,..." says the God of being.

Parashat Ki Tisa challenges us with the following question: To have or to be? Two choices are laid out before us: to build idols or to enter the Tent of Meeting; to live in the realm of ego, greed, and fear or to come out from our hiding places behind the calves of gold, to enter into the Tent of Meeting, and to emulate the God of being.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Can you cite some instances when we use "having" although we wish to express "being"?

  2. What are today's incarnations of the golden calf?

  3. How can we, like Moses, suspend ego, greed, and fear?

  4. Following God's example of articulating the divine thirteen attributes, try using "I am" statements to express the essence of who you are.

For Further Reading

Erich Fromm, You Shall Be As Gods: A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament and Its Tradition (New York: Henry Holt Publishing, 1991).
Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be? (New York: Continuum Publishing Group, 1996).

Rabbi Yael Splansky is the senior rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, ON, Canada. She is a fourth-generation Reform rabbi.

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 

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