Ki Tisa – Exodus 30:11 to 34:35
The Golden Calf demonstrated that the people needed something tangible in order to remain faithful to God. Moses brings three items to the Israelites to fill this void … The Tabernacle, Shabbat, and direction provided by the laws and commandments of Torah.
“The Eternal One spoke to Moses saying; ‘When you take a census of the Israelite men according to their army enrollment…. ‘” (Ex. 30:11) And so, this week, the Eternal concludes the listing of commandments and ordinances which Moses is to take back to the Israelites.
After waiting forty days for Moses to return from his meeting with God on Mount Sinai, the people went to 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 has happened to him.”… Aaron took the gold of the people’s jewelry and molded them into a Golden Calf and exclaimed, “ ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and announced: ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Eternal.’ Early the next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance.” (Ex. 32:1 -6)
The Eternal is angered by the construction of the Golden Calf which was viewed as an idol and built in violation of the second commandment. God spoke to Moses and said: “I see that this is a stiff-necked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.” (Ex.32:9-10)
Commentators through the ages have asked why the Eternal became so angered by the actions of the people. Judah Halevi (1075-1141- a Spanish Jewish physician, poet, and philosopher) wrote: “All the people in those times worshiped images. Even the philosophers who demonstrated the unity and existence of the Deity were unable to dispense with an image to which they directed their worship. They explained to the masses that this image attracted some divine quality to be shown the same reverence we give to our holy places. The masses could only be persuaded to accept the worship of a tangible image.” … after forty days “some of the people were overcome with frustration and dissension was sown until some individuals were prompted to ask for a tangible object of worship in the manner of other nations without repudiating God who had brought them out of Egypt, merely requesting it should be placed before them to gaze upon when they related the wonders of their God … as we do in with the sky.” (from Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, p. 550) …. Leibowitz sums up by saying: “ Accordingly the children of Israel were not guilty of actual idolatry, but merely with wishing to facilitate their worship of God through material symbols. She then asks, what was the offense of the Israelites?
Judah Halevi answers by saying: “Their offense lay in the fashioning of an image which had been forbidden them and in attributing Divine sanctity to the product of their own desires and hands without being commanded to do so by God…. Their sin did not constitute a total repudiation of the services of Him who brought them out of Egypt, but was rather a partial repudiation of some of His commands….” (Ibid. p.551)
It is significant that this story of the Golden Calf comes between the time when Moses received the instructions on the building of the Tabernacle, and its actual construction. When the calf was constructed, Moses had all the information on how to build the holy place…. But the people didn’t have this information. So, even though they were commanded not to craft any images of God, in their frustration, they constructed such an image. Maybe God knew that this would happen (God knows what was, what is, and what will be). Maybe all the instructions given to Moses was a solution to the problem presented by the Golden Calf.
In this week’s parsha, Ki Tisa, Moses gives the people several items that provide the people a definite direction, even when he is not present.
Before the Golden Calf, the people lacked a central place to show devotion to the Eternal…. They also lacked a real set of laws and ordinances (secular and ritual) to guide them in their daily lives. With the return of Moses from his meetings with the Eternal, Moses gave the people the direction they needed through the following items.
One, the Tabernacle gave them a place they could see … A place that became known as God’s home on earth. It was also a place which they could give offerings to the Eternal…. The second item Moses gave to the Israelites was Shabbat. This became a “Temple in Time” …. a day – occurring once every week – that gave the people a time to be holy and remember why the Eternal was important. It was a day that celebrated whether they were at home or away…. The third item was the laws, commandments, and ordinances that were included in Torah. The people had direction and focus. The Golden Calf may have demonstrated the people’s need for direction. These three items – Tabernacle, Shabbat, and the Law – provided a solution. And these three items have given the Israelites and all the generations that followed the power needed to survive.