Parshat Ki Tisa תשפא
This week’s portion contains the sin of the golden calf. Because of its magnitude and the misunderstanding surrounding it, we need to look at the events through the eyes of our Sages to properly understand what happened.
Because of the extremely high spiritual level the Jewish people were on at that time, they did commit a grave sin, but, contrary to what may appear on a first reading, their actions did not constitute the sin of blatant idol worship.
After experiencing many miracles, the Jewish people left Egypt on the 15th day of Nissan, seven days later reaching the Reed Sea. When Hashem told the sea to split to let the Jews pass through, it claimed, “Why should I split for the Jewish people? They worshipped idols just like the Egyptians do!” Despite that claim (and the rabbis acknowledge that, prior to the Exodus, the Jews had slipped to a very low spiritual level) by the time they reached the foot of Mount Sinai 35 days later, the Jewish nation had become like “one person with one heart.” They had transformed themselves from a people who had worshipped idols into a cohesive group unified in their mission to serve Hashem. Indeed, when Hashem inquired if they would accept His Torah, they answered, “Everything that Hashem said we will do and we will obey.” They were completely on board.
After hearing the first two commandments at Mt. Sinai directly from Hashem and the remaining eight from Moshe, Moshe descended the mountain. Hashem then told him (Exodus 24:12):
(יב) וַיֹּאמֶר יְדֹוָד אֶל משֶׁה עֲלֵה אֵלַי הָהָרָה וֶהְיֵה שָׁם וְאֶתְּנָה לְךָ אֶת לֻחֹת הָאֶבֶן וְהַתּוֹרָה וְהַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר כָּתַבְתִּי לְהוֹרֹתָם
12) And Hashem told Moshe, “Ascend to me up the mountain (again) and remain there, and I shall give you the stone tablets and the teaching and the commandment that I have written to teach them.”
Moshe would need to be in heaven for 40 full days to learn the Oral Torah that accompanied the Written Torah that they would receive. At the conclusion of the 40 days, Hashem would give Moshe the Tablets with the 613 Torah commandments written on them, to bring to the Jewish nation.
When Moshe descended the mountain 40 days later with the Tablets, he found the Jewish people with a golden calf. He then threw the Tablets to the ground, smashing them to pieces. Our Sages teach us that we never recovered from the ramifications of the sin of the golden calf. Although Hashem gave the Jewish people a second set of Tablets, they did not have the same level of holiness as the first.
It is very difficult to fathom how the Jewish people committed the sin of the golden calf. How could a people who had just 40 days earlier heard Hashem’s voice tell them, “Do not have other gods,” create an idol and worship it? And how could Aharon, the holy leader of the people, mislead them into making an idol to worship?
The Torah’s commentaries unanimously teach us that the Jewish people did not create the golden calf as a god to worship. This was truly impossible. Hashem at the Reed Sea and at Sinai showed the Jewish people His heavenly chariot and His heavenly system of angels! They clearly saw how Hashem runs the world through His spiritual channels. To believe that a newly made calf of gold had any spiritual power was ludicrous.
So, if it wasn’t idol worship, what was the problem? And why was it such a terrible sin? The Sages explain:
Before ascending the mountain for the second time, Moshe told the Jewish people that he would be away for a full 40 days, a “day” meaning from sundown to sundown. Hence, he day that Moshe ascended the mountain didn’t count towards the 40 days because he went up in the middle of the day. Day one began with sundown that night.
This detail, unfortunately, confused the people, because they began counting the 40 days starting the day that Moshe went up. On day 40, to their counting, which was really only day 39, Moshe was nowhere to be seen. The Satan, the force of evil in the world, taking advantage of the situation, paraded an image of a dead Moshe on a bed. This added to the confusion and created doubt in the people’s mind. They began thinking that Moshe would never return from heaven, suspecting that perhaps he was so holy, he had just ascended to heaven to remain there. Yet in reality, it was only day 39, and Moshe would return the next morning.
When Moshe failed to appear when expected, the people went to Aharon and said to him (32:1),
(א) וַיַּרְא הָעָם כִּי בשֵׁשׁ משֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן הָהָר וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ כִּי זֶה משֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה הָיָה לוֹ:
And the nation saw that Moshe had delayed in descending the mountain, and the people gathered upon Aharon and said to him, “Rise up, make for us a leader that will go before us, for the man Moses who brought us out from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has become of him.”
Who approached Aharon? The Torah saysהעם – the people, which always means the lowest element of the people. Also, the term “and they gathered upon” always connotes a disorderly gathering without respect to Sages or elders. A disorderly gathering is always the sign of trouble because it symbolizes a chaotic assembly – people acting out of confusion, rather than an orderly, rational approach.
When telling Moshe about the sin, Hashem told him, “your nation” has sinned. Who is Moshe’s nation? This is a reference to the mixed multitude of people who came out of Egypt with the Jewish people (Exodus 12:38):
לח) וְגַם עֵרֶב רַב עָלָה אִתָּם
38) And a mixed multitude went up (from Egypt) with them.
According to some opinions, the mixed multitude actually outnumbered the Jewish people. They had seen the miracles in Egypt, had become convinced that Hashem was real, and they wanted to join the Jewish people. When they were insistent, Moshe agreed to bring them along, thinking that it would be a good thing to bring them close to Hashem. Moshe made the decision to accept them without consulting with Hashem. That is why Hashem called them “your nation.” These are the people whom you decided to accept; they are not My people. These people were not the grandchildren Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov; they were instead gentiles from all different nations who had attached themselves to the Jewish people. As the Jewish nation encountered challenges while travelling from Egypt to Mount Sinai, many of the mixed multitude got cold feet and left the Jewish nation altogether.
Knowing that their connection to the Jewish nation was solely Moshe’s decision, the mixed multitude became especially concerned when Moshe went missing. Without him, what would be their fate? Perhaps Hashem agreed to let them join only out of respect for Moshe; but now that Moshe was gone, they would be unceremoniously dumped and left to fend for themselves in the inhospitable wilderness. This is why they were the first ones to approach Aharon for a new leader.
The Sages point out that a careful reading of the text reveals that they were not requesting an idol to worship, but rather a replacement for Moshe. Moshe was their advocate, and now that he had vanished, they needed a replacement.
The natural choice should have been Aharon. After all, he was the leader before Moshe came from Midyan where he had been hiding from Pharaoh. Why didn’t they just ask Aharon to be their new leader?
Even though Aharon was sympathetic to them and would probably intervene for them if Hashem should want to dump them, what if the next leader would not be? They would always have to live with this fear. This was very disturbing to them, and so they opted for something that would be everlasting.
Whence did Aharon get the idea to make a calf? It came from the image of the “holy animals” that “pull”Hashem’s chariot in heaven, which they saw when Hashem opened the heavens for them. The prophet Yechezkel describes what they looked like in the first chapter of his book (Ezekiel 1:10):
(י) וּדְמוּת פְּנֵיהֶם פְּנֵי אָדָם וּפְנֵי אַרְיֵה אֶל הַיָּמִין לְאַרְבַּעְתָּם וּפְנֵי שׁוֹר מֵהַשְּׂמֹאול לְאַרְבַּעְתָּן וּפְנֵי נֶשֶׁר לְאַרְבַּעְתָּן
10) As for the likeness of their faces, there was a human face, and a lion’s face to the right of the four of them, and an ox’s face to the left for the four of them, and an eagle’s face for the four of them.
Hashem’s chariot is a metaphor for how Hashem controls and manages His world, or how His influence is bestowed upon the world. The eagle is king of the birds, the lion king of the wild animals, and the ox is king of the domesticated animals. Man was created after all the above and is able to use all the other creations for his purposes. Man is the king of all the creatures and the purpose of the world.
In Torah thought, the world’s four directions are fixed and represent the path that a person should follow. מזרח- east- is always forward -קדימה- , the direction in which we wish to go to get closer to Hashem. West – מערב –is always behind us, and represents those things we need to leave behind and seek to distance ourselves from. דרום – south – which is always to our right representsחסד – kindness, and צפון – north– which is always to our left, represents דין – judgement. Supporting this idea is the verse that says (Jeremiah 1:14):
(יד) וַיֹּאמֶר יְדֹוָד אֵלָי מִצָּפוֹן תִּפָּתַח הָרָעָה עַל כָּל יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ:
14) Hashem said to me, “From the north the evil will start upon the inhabitants of the earth.”
Nachmanides (Exodus 32:1 quoted below) explains that Aharon created the golden calf to replicate the ox of Hashem’s chariot, which is to the north, the source of all judgments and decrees. Aharon’s thinking was that if the Jewish people would pray to Hashem with that direction in mind, it would stave off all the evil decrees that were prone to start from that direction.
והכוונה לאהרן היתה, מפני שישראל היו במדבר חורב שממה, והחרבן ושממות עולם יבואו מן הצפון …
והנה במעשה המרכבה אמר פני שור מהשמאל לארבעתם ולכן חשב אהרן כי המחריב יורה דרך מקום החרבן כי שם כחו הגדול, ובהיותם עובדים שם לאל יערה רוח ממרום, כאשר נאצל על משה וזהו שאמר חג לה’ מחר, שיהיו העבודות והזבחים לשם המיוחד להפיק רצון ממנו אל בעל הצורה, כי בהיותה לפניהם יכונו אל ענינה
Aharon’s thinking was that because the Jewish people were in a barren, desolate desert, and all destruction comes from the north, and because in the image of Hashem’s chariot the face of the ox was on the left, Aharon thought (that by making the image of an ox) the destructive force (attribute of Judgment) will guide them through the difficulties of the desert, since this is where its power is the strongest. And when they direct their service to Hashem there, Hashem will pour out upon them a merciful influence from heaven just as He did for Moshe.
When seeing Aharon’s and the people’s intentions from this perspective, we wonder even more: what was so terrible about what the Jewish people did? They were not denying Hashem or thinking that the calf was any kind of god!
A later chapter in the same book of Yechezkel says (10:14):
(יד) וְאַרְבָּעָה פָנִים לְאֶחָד פְּנֵי הָאֶחָד פְּנֵי הַכְּרוּב וּפְנֵי הַשֵּׁנִי פְּנֵי אָדָם וְהַשְּׁלִישִׁי פְּנֵי אַרְיֵה וְהָרְבִיעִי פְּנֵי נָשֶׁר
14) Each one had four faces, one face was a cherub, the second was a man, the third was a lion, and the fourth was an eagle.
This contradicts how Hashem’s Chariot was described in chapter one where the four faces were a man, a lion, an eagle and an ox. Here, a cherub replaced the ox!
This difference in the makeup of the “holy animals” has another ramification. They all had wings and legs. When the ox was part of the chariot, the holy “animals” would lead the chariot by walking. When the cherub was part of the group, the chariot flew via the angels’ wings. What could be the meaning of this contradiction?
The Malbim (1807- 1879) explains.
Hashem has two different systems through which He controls and manages the world.
One is called- טבע – “nature,” and the other is נס – above nature, or miraculous.
In running the world through the system of טבע – nature, Hashem gives the impression that He is not involved in the workings of the world; rather, it has a self-sustaining independent mechanism that controls it without any outside control. The wordעולם – olam – which means world, comes from the word נעלם , which means hidden. Hashem has hidden Himself behind a wall of nature that conceals Him from being seen in the picture. So perfect is Hashem’s disguise that there are many who argue that there is no disguise at all! It is only nature, not Hashem!
But, for those who know that Hashem exists, nature is the biggest proof to His existence. They understand that Hashem is behind every act of nature. Nature is so perfect – the beauty, the harmony, the symbiosis between animals, how each creature is endowed with the instincts it needs to survive its predators, procure its food, and reproduce – all point to a supreme intelligence all-knowing and all capable. Although everything seems to operate naturally with no external input, without Hashem’s involvement and control, all would disintegrate in a nanosecond.
Our Sages use a metaphor to help us understand this concept.
A person peeking into a room through the keyhole sees the tip of a pen moving across a piece of paper on a desk, writing. From the limited view through the keyhole, it looks like the pen is doing the writing all by itself as it floats over the paper. It is writing the deepest, most beautiful poetry; yet it seems that, somehow, the pen knows how to do this all on its own. This is the common view of nature, which contains so much beauty and wisdom, so much complexity and symbiosis; but since we don’t see Hashem holding the pen, so to speak, it looks like the pen – nature- somehow knows how to manage all on its own.
Upon opening the door, though, he would see a person holding the pen in his fingers, controlling its movement as it writes the beautiful poetry. Of course, a pen cannot write by itself, or think of beautiful, meaningful concepts! But if we wish to acknowledge only what we see, that is what we must accept as the only reality. Hashem keeps the door closed as He assumes His convincing disguise, nature. When we would open the door, we would see clearly that it is Hashem who is holding the pen and creating all the beauty
With this the Malbim resolves the contradiction in the two verses in Yechezkel. The first verse describes Hashem as He runs the world through the system of nature. The “holy animals pull” the chariot and it moves forward, a process that looks normal and natural.
The second verse describes Hashem’s miraculous system, where things happen with no physical cause and effect. The chariot is carried by flying angels. Hashem makes things “fly around” the way He sees fit without any apparent source.
When Hashem took the Jewish people out of Egypt and took them to the Land of Israel, He used exclusively the “miraculous” system. He wanted it to be clear beyond doubt that He was in control. Their food fell directly from heaven ready to eat in the form of mana; their water came from a large stone that travelled with them; and their protection from the elements and their enemies came from clouds that enveloped them. There was no natural basis for any of these phenomena; they were miraculous.
Hashem’s visible presence was appropriate for the Jewish people who were on a very high spiritual level at that time. Their relationship with Hashem was one where they saw Him very clearly and understood that everything emanated directly from Him without any intermediaries.
When Moshe failed to return, in addition to the mixed multitude, the Jewish people also became concerned. Moshe had gone up to heaven without food or water. A human being cannot live for 40 days without nutrition or hydration! They surmised that he probably became a spiritual being with no need food or water. With Moshe as their leader, they had felt confident that they could maintain the open presence of Hashem among them. The entire time that Moshe led them in Egypt and as they subsequently travelled, Hashem’s holiness was evident in Moshe. They were confident that his holiness and closeness to Hashem would keep them at the high spiritual level they needed to be at, to live with Hashem in His openly visible mode. Without Moshe, however, they were unsure that they would be able to sustain that high spiritual level. Perhaps they would fall into the hands of the evil inclination and from they would fall lower and lower.
With the mixed multitude clamoring for a physical substitute for Moshe, the Jewish people began thinking that maybe, in his absence, they should adopt a lower level of relationship with Hashem, one of טבע – nature, instead of נס- miracles. They would still recognize Hashem as the Master controller of the world but it would be on a lower level, through nature. Not being in “miracle mode” would be more comfortable and “easier” level of relationship. They felt confident that they could maintain this level of relationship with Hashem. This was the meaning of the request for the ox, the lower level of Hashem’s “holy animals,” where they “pull” the chariot while walking on their feet, instead of flying with it.
There was a second danger inherent in having a physical reminder of the Holy animals, namely, that it created the possibility for one to look at it as an idol, as they had done before in Egypt. Indeed, the Torah tells us that 3,000 people did fall into that trap and were killed for idol worship. That was a very low percentage (0.5%) of the Jewish nation who then numbered over 600,000, but nevertheless, there were some who actually worshipped the calf as an idol.
This is how the Sages explain the sin of the golden calf. The Jewish people should not have been so eager to abandon the close and miraculous relationship that they had with Hashem. They should have felt it such a privilege to have that close relationship that it was worth all the effort in the world to try to maintain it even without Moshe present. It was interpreted as a rejection of Hashem and His desire to have that close and open relationship with them.
When Moshe did return the next day, everyone immediately abandoned the golden calf. With Moshe back, all was well and they were very happy to continue with the relationship as it was. Without protest, Moshe ground the gold into dust and got rid of it. But the damage had been done. The people had already rejected Hashem’s open relationship with them, and now they would be unable to retrieve it.
In summary, the Jewish people did not want the golden calf as a god, but, rather as leader – a replacement for Moshe, who would lead them with the “natural system” –טבע , instead of the miraculous system – נס. For a people in a close open relationship with Hashem, this was considered a rejection of Hashem, and a grave sin.
We live within the system of nature, and we live in a world that screams טבע – nature! We must struggle to rise above the tidal-wave of voices claiming, “There is no G-d controlling the world! It is all a figment of your imagination!”
As Jews, our lifelong mission in this world is seek out Hashem and reveal His presence from behind the façade of nature that He so effectively uses as His disguise. We must not be content to look through the keyhole all our lives and miss the true reality: Hashem controls the world. Our goal is to reach the point where we see only Hashem behind every action and outcome. This is accomplished slowly but surely through learning Hashem’s Torah and performing His mitzvot, which brings a person closer to Hashem and makes His existence more and more of a reality to us.
King David said in Psalm 121:
(ה) יְדֹוָד שֹׁמְרֶךָ יְדֹוָד צִלְּךָ עַל יַד יְמִינֶךָ
5) Hashem watches over you, Hashem is your shadow on your right side.
What’s the meaning of Hashem is your shadow? The Sages explain. A shadow follows a person’s every act. If he moves his arm forward, the shadow of his arm goes forward. If he picks his arm up, the shadow of his arm goes up also. In the same sense, Hashem follows our lead. If we open ourselves to Him, He opens Himself to us and reveals more of Himself to us. Hashem is like our shadow.
Therefore, as we make room for Hashem in our lives, and as we grow closer to Him, He responds to us by revealing more and more of Himself to us.
During these topsy turvy times, we must bear in mind the Torah perspective; Hashem controls all events in the world. This is a very comforting thought, because we know that Hashem does everything with wisdom and purpose. We should not abandon our trust in Hashem and His actions in the face of the rush of panicked voices who see the world as the captive victim of chance and randomness. When that would be the case, we would lose all hope. But the reality is that Hashem is in complete control, and it is to Him that we must direct our prayers and requests to protect us from all harm. We must learn the lesson from the Jewish people who were a bit too eager to abandon their close relationship with Hashem and adopt a lower level of service to Him. We must hold tenaciously on to our strong trust in Hashem, understanding that He does everything for our best. We will never be disappointed.