What Was Golden about the Golden Calf?

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11−34:35

D'Var Torah By: Dr. Carol Ochs

The story of the Golden Calf has so seared itself into our consciousness that it has become one of the prime acts of apostasy in the Jewish story. The Israelites, so recently liberated from slavery, are fearful when Moses, their leader, climbs up Mount Sinai but does not return before their patience runs out. Fearing the worst, they contribute the gold they had with them and ask Aaron to make them a calf, an image they can worship to reassure them in their terror. We recognize their motivation from our own desire to carry a "lucky piece"into a frightening situation, whether it is a job interview or an exam. We think fleetingly how having a mezuzah on the door or kissing the Torah resembles or differs from what the Israelites were seeking. When do our own sacred objects serve merely as ways to remember God, and when are they actually idols? The injunction against idolatry is probably the most frequently violated rule in our religion. That is not because we make statues or light candles in front of images, but because we treat something that is less than ultimate as if it were an ultimate concern. We can make an idol out of our own status or wealth. We can see this more clearly when we realize that even Moses sought to have an image of God:

[Moses] said: "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!"And [God ] answered, "I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Eternal, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show,"continuing, "but, you cannot see My face, for a human being may not see Me and live."(Exodus 33:18-21)

The God we worship is not one we can look at; rather, God shapes the way we look at everything we see. Since God is God- our ultimate concern-God cannot be an object to our subjectivity. Rather, our subjectivity, as well as our consciousness and will, are transformed by our awareness of God. Our subjective senses-sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste-cannot detect God. God is described by adjectives and verbs: "compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin-yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children's children, upon the third and fourth generations"(Exodus 34:6-7).

Moses, not unlike the Children of Israel, wanted some vision that could provide reassurance-an amulet, a talisman, a "lucky piece." And the Israelites, not seeing what they felt they needed, created an effigy, an idol, by our definition. Moses waited for God to help him understand where and how to seek God's Presence. Can we, also, learn to wait for what is real?

In this life, where, according to the Torah, no one can see God and live, waiting to see God gets us nowhere. But while we recognize, and accept, that we will not get to God through our sense of sight, we can imagine! Imagination is how we can enter reality and allow it to enter us. Imagination is not wrong-it can fill in all the empty spaces in our world. Jeremiah could imagine a time that, to this day, still fuels our hopes for the future:

See a time is coming-declares Adonai -when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah. . . . I will put My Teaching into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts. Then will I be their God, and they shall be My people. No longer will they need to teach one another and say to one another, "Heed Adonai "; for all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall heed Me-declares Adonai . (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

Imagination is not a domain restricted to prophets. We all need to envision the changes we wish to help bring about. Our imagination can energize us and give us the hope and vision to bring about the changes we desire in this world. The ways we view reality vary from one person to another. The Torah offers us story after story that gives us warrant for a hopeful view of the world and a most encouraging assessment of our ability to work for its healing. We don't always realize that each of us forming a personal worldview helps shape the worldview of Judaism at large. Therefore, it is most important that we each take responsibility for our own worldview.

Sigmund Freud wrote, "Among the precepts of the Moses religion there is one that is of greater importance than appears to begin with. This is the prohibition against making an image of God-the compulsion to worship a God whom one cannot see. . . . If this prohibition were accepted, it must have a profound effect. For it meant that a sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea-a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality or, strictly speaking, an instinctual renunciation, with all its necessary psychological consequences" (Moses and Monotheism [1939], in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey and Anna Freud [London: Hogarth Press, 1957-74], vol. 23, pp. 112-113).

The prohibition against making an image of God and really giving second place to sensory perception seems to have been carried further. In many of the world's religions, people mark the phases of the moon and celebrate the full moon. Israelites mark the phases of the moon and celebrate the new moon, the moon they can barely see.

From earliest childhood on, Jews have learned not to confuse appearance with reality. We have learned to look beneath and behind what is visible for the deeper cause or meaning. We are taught that "the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone"(Psalm 118:22). Pharaoh's slaves are God's chosen people.

Slowly, Moses, and far later the rest of the Israelites, come to understand that to perceive God is to perceive the effectiveness of godliness in this world. We can't experience God by a simple vision of a designated object, but an experience of compassion can serve to remind us of God's Presence. Justice called for or achieved can do the same. The beauty that causes us to hold our breath also causes us to "see God"and find in all experiences of goodness a basic sense of godliness.

The incident of the Golden Calf is truly "golden"and valuable in that it has shaped us as a people who look more deeply and find God in and through the values we enact in this world.

Dr. Carol Ochs is director of Graduate Studies and adjunct professor of Jewish Religious Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

Searching for God, Seeing God

Daver Acher By: Jacqueline Koch Ellenson

This parashah contains a famous passage in Exodus 34:6-7, considered to be the expression of God's thirteen attributes of mercy. The text gives us the ultimate paradigm of God's care, love, and forgiveness. It appears in the traditional prayer book and is used as a regular part of our liturgy. In that context, the passage reads:

The Eternal! [1] The Eternal! [2] aGod [3] compassionate [4] and gracious [5], slow to anger [6], abounding in kindness [7], and faithfulness [8], extending kindness to the thousandth generation [9], forgiving iniquity [10], [forgiving] transgression [11], and [forgiving] sin [12], and cleansing [13]. . . .

The notion of God's mercy is the central theme of the High Holy Days, and this short passage is repeated numerous times on those days, as well as on other holidays, to remind us of God's grace and compassionate nature.

In his commentary to the Torah, K'dushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev states that God's thirteen attributes of mercy are related and linked to the thirteen principles of interpretation by which the Torah is interpreted. These principles are attributed to Rabbi Yishmael, a well-known and often quoted rabbi of the Talmud, and are so significant that they are an essential section of the traditional daily prayer service. In My People's Prayer Book, vol. 5 (Lawrence Hoffman, ed. [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001], pp. 174, 179), Rabbi Elliot Dorff explains their importance, "for they are the key to opening the meanings inherent in the Torah . . . they epitomize the Rabbis' approach to revelation. . . ."

This approach to revelation is a part of the revelation itself. When we engage in the process of interpretation, we become active partners in the revelation God shared with Moses and are reminded of God's. With the association of God's thirteen attributes of mercy to these principles of Torah interpretation, we come to understand that revelation is a sign of God's love and care. The relationship between the two "thirteens" testifies as well to the process of Torah interpretation as another manifestation of God's Presence. Our participation in that revelation through interpretation permits us to be the recipients of God's love and care in yet another way.

Most of the time, the relationship between our lives and God's mercy may elude us. We wrestle to create meaning from obscure texts and from life's challenges. Like our biblical ancestors, we are impatient. We may aspire and pray to see God, in our texts and in our lives. There is so much we do not understand. We, like Moses, may be unable to see God's face, and we may feel frustrated and angered by our blindness.

Yet, the search for connections and meaning must continue, just like God's compassion. We may not always understand what is before us, but we can always strive to understand. If we look carefully through these dual prisms of God's Presence, mercy, and revelation/interpretation, we may find that they give us enormous power and strength. If Torah can be interpreted in thirteen ways, if God has thirteen attributes of mercy, there is more than one way to try to understand our lives. We have important choices to make. Not all interpretations are right or valid, but they are ours to make. Awareness of the divine nature of our options will give us the ability to cope with the challenges of our texts and of our lives. Only then will we be able to discover God's Presence in our lives through our faith and in our actions.

Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson is the director of the Women's Rabbinic Network.

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

Originally published: