In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, we encounter one of the most troubling episodes in Israelite history and find ourselves, along with generations of commentators, searching for explanations — even excuses — to justify the Israelites’ behavior.
Merely steps from Egypt, the land of their enslavement and suffering, and only days removed from the divine miracles that enabled their escape to freedom, the Israelites forget their awesome sense wonder and lapse into impatience, fear, and boredom. With no word from Moses, who is still on up on the mountaintop, the people clamor around Aaron. They demand:
“Come, make us a god (elohim) who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses — the envoy who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him.” Aaron said to them: “[You men,] take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god (elohim), O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Ex. 32:1-4)
The whole episode is shocking. Could the Israelites really have backtracked so far? Only chapters ago in the narrative they had answered with one voice: “All that Adonai has spoken we will do!” (Ex. 19:8). Now, it seems they are all involved in this egregious act of idolatry — men, women, even children. This is certainly one passage of Torah where we eagerly look to the commentators before us hoping their insights might help us make sense of this troubling text.
Of course, there are many commentaries on this difficult passage, but one that I find to be particularly meaningful is that of Ramban, one of the leading rabbis and scholars of 13th century Spain. Noting that elohim need not be translated as “god,” Ramban says:
What they needed was a new "man of God." You can learn from Aaron’s excuse to Moses that it is as I have explained: "They said to me, 'Make us a god (elohim) to lead us' — not a god to worship." He explained to Moses: “As long as you were gone, they needed a guide. If you should return, they would leave him and follow you, as they had done at first.” In fact, this is exactly what happened. As soon as the people saw Moses, they abandoned the calf contemptuously. (Ramban on Ex. 32:1)
According to Ramban, the Israelites were lamenting the loss of their leader — their guide, their spokesman, their teacher, their role model. Certainly, this is a feeling we can all identify with: the loss of someone we have followed, on whom we have modeled our lives, and who we have revered with respect and admiration. We might feel a profound sense of loss at the death of a loved one who taught us so much. We might feel bereft when distance separates us from a mentor who was once close to us. We might feel disheartened to discover faults in someone we considered to be a hero and while we once sought to model our lives after his or hers, now we are left with a void.
I find Ramban’s reading of this difficult passage very comforting. For me, he transforms one of the most inexplicable episodes in our textual history into one of the most recognizable, and, in so doing, he offers important advice for each of us in our own day: Hastening to fashion a leader to fill our immediate needs and soothe our momentary doubts is but another form of idolatry. Judaism’s sages have taught: “Seek for yourself a teacher” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). Perhaps this is among the most important journeys of our lives; a quest that requires time and demands patience. And when we find them — teachers, role models, guides along the paths of our lives — we should not hasten to let them go.
Perhaps the biggest error the Israelites committed was succumbing to their doubts that Moses’ absence — even his death — would signal the end of his leadership. The poet and freedom fighter Hannah Senesh wrote:
“There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth though they have long been extinct. They are people whose brilliance continues to light the world though they are no longer living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for humanity.”
May we each find such luminaries to brighten our lives. And, if circumstances should remove their light — whether permanently or temporarily — rather than trying to replace the source of light, may we follow the sparks they left behind within us, growing their light and sharing it with others.
Rabbi Stephanie M. Alexander is the senior rabbi at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, SC. She is a past-president and founding member of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, a faith-based social justice organization of 29 diverse congregations.
The events of Ki Tisa take place against the backdrop of Revelation. At the foot of Mount Sinai, a mixed multitude of former slaves become a people. As we become a nation divinely imbued with new meaning and purpose, we set out on an eternal march to the Promised Land. At Mount Sinai, the Israelites witnessed the Revelation of the god of the Exodus, the god of liberation who brought them out of bondage in Egypt, the god who took down the house of Pharaoh.
For forty days, Moses sat with God on behalf of the Israelites and received the laws by which this new, free people would live. In her retelling of the Exodus story, Zora Neale Hurston writes of the transformative impact of God’s law, not only on the Israelites, but on the world. With Torah:
“ ... men could be free because they could govern themselves. They had something of the essence of divinity expressed in order. They had the chart and compass of behavior. They need not stumble into blind ways and injure themselves. This was bigger than Israel itself. It comprehended the world. Israel could be a heaven for all men forever, by these sacred stones.” (Zora Neale Hurston, Moses Man of the Mountain, Harper Perennial 2009)
But the Israelites soon forget this revolutionary covenant with God, and they ask Aaron to make them a new deity, who according to midrash, was “like those of the Egyptians” (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 45). Aaron then instructs the people to “take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me” (Ex. 32:2). In Aaron’s call to the people, we hear an echo of God’s voice from several weeks ago, instructing the Israelites — every person whose heart is so moved — to bring a t’rumah, “a gift,” of gold, silver, or copper to build the Mishkan, the temporary sanctuary where the Israelites will worship God in the desert (Ex. 25:2)
After Aaron constructs the Golden Calf, the people say: Eleh elohecha, Yisrael — “This is your god, Israel” (Ex. 32:4). Here again we hear an echo of an earlier episode: Moses and the Israelites singing God’s praises after the splitting of the Red Sea and the passage to freedom: Zeh eli v’anveihu, “this is my God and I will enshrine Him (Ex. 15:2). What of the Mishkan? What of the Exodus? Is this, as the Sages of the Talmud proclaim, a sign that the people have accepted idolatry (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 53b)?
On the cusp of freedom, the people demand a god like that of their oppressors. When Moses returns with the tablets and sees the people cavorting before the idol, the Torah says he became enraged; he throws down the tablets and shatters them at the foot of the mountain (Ex. 32:19). Here Moses makes manifest the people’s spiritual and moral brokenness, and their shattered relationship with God, who, if not for Moses’ pleading, would wipe out the entire nation of Israel and begin building a new nation (Ex. 32:11).
At the behest of Moses, the author of the Jewish story, this event is forever imprinted in the history of Israel. It is not the end of Israel’s story, but instead, a foundational lesson in the narrative of a new nation. It is a lesson for all peoples who seek to tear down the house of Pharaoh and build a new social order that honors every person’s sacred dignity. It is the revolutionary lesson that rings true across history. In the words of Audre Lorde:
“The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches [Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press 1984, 2007], 110-114)
The Golden Calf, the idol that comes to define all other idols, is a tool of Pharaoh's house, a false god that obscures the liberating force of the god of the Exodus.
Every year as we read Ki Tisa, we are reminded of the divine revolution that occurred at Mount Sinai. Through the Torah, God gave the world the tools to dismantle Pharaoh's house, to bring about genuine change in the world.
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, Eze. 36:22-36, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,651−1,652; Revised Edition, pp. 1,455−1,456