THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Ki Tisa – פרשת כי תשא
February 23, 2019 – יח אדר ראשון תשעט
The Golden Calf & the Exodus
The episode of the Golden Calf was a spiritual low point for the ancient Israelites. Just forty days after the Theophany, while still encamped around Mount Sinai, the Israelites descended into the abyss of idolatry. They exclaimed, “This is your god, o Israel, who has brought you up from the land of Egypt (Exodus 32:4).” How is it that descendants of Abraham who had only recently heard the Divine Voice promulgate the Decalogue could commit such a grave theological error? The classical commentators were deeply troubled by this question and struggled to develop a coherent answer that balances a need to protect the reputation of our forebears while accounting for the damning evidence in the Biblical text.
Rashi noted that Scripture does not state “our god,” but rather “your god.” He theorized that the sin of the Golden Calf took place at the instigation of the Mixed Multitude. These were non-Israelites who took advantage of the chaos of the Exodus and left Egypt with the Israelites. They followed the Israelites on their sojourn in the wilderness. The Mixed Multitude congregated around Aaron and demanded a graven image. They seduced the Israelites into forbidden worship. Rashi understood the Golden Calf incident to be another example of the rabbinic maxim “Woe unto the wicked and woe unto his neighbor.” Rashi’s interpretation is extremely charitable toward the Israelites, but it does not mesh well with the conclusion of the story when the Levites mercilessly kill several thousand kinsmen for their wanton idolatry.
Rashbam and Ramban both wondered how it is possible for intelligent human beings to believe that a graven image, recently fashioned by one’s own hands, could either be their creator or the deity that effected their escape from the house of bondage. Concluding that such a notion would be too absurd for anyone to believe, both commentators take for granted that the Israelites continued to believe in God. According to Rashbam, their error was in thinking that the divine spirit rested upon the Golden Calf. Ramban notes that the Israelites never claimed the Calf led them out of Egypt, always ascribing that feat to God. Their error was in fashioning an image to be a physical manifestation of the “Great Hand” of the Almighty. Their action was in contravention of the second commandment of the Decalogue.
Ibn Ezra suggested that in fashioning the Golden Calf the Israelites were not attempting to replace their traditional conception of God but rather were creating a substitute for Moses, who had led them out of Egypt. This interpretation fits well with Exodus 32:1, which states that the entire affair occurred because Moses delayed his descent from the mountain. In this view, the word אלוהיך is not a reference to the Deity, but rather has the mundane connotation of national leader (see Exodus 4:16 and 22:27 for other such mundane usages of אלוהים). Alternatively, the argument is that the line between a god and a powerful human leader was blurry to the ancients.
The sages’ delicate interpretative balance is seen most clearly in a Tannaitic statement quoted in Sanhedrin 63a. “If not for the letter וי”ו in the word העלוך, the Children of Israel would have been deserving of annihilation.” The letter וי”ו indicates plural, meaning that the Israelites attributed the Exodus to the power of God and some other entity such as the Golden Calf. Therefore, although the Israelites had sinned, their misdeed was not so horrific as to merit complete destruction. Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai rejected this explanation as failing in its intended purpose of saving the Israelites from the doom associated with gross sin. “Anyone who combines the name of Heaven with another entity is uprooted from the world.” The Tanna Kamma then retracted his opinion and interpreted the plural העלוך as indicative of the Israelites’ lust for many deities. The Jerusalem Talmud extended this reversal of approach by claiming that thirteen golden calves were constructed, one for each tribe (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:2). The rabbis tried their best to parse the language of Scripture in search for exculpatory evidence. Yet, the text is too damning for a revisionist reading to be at all convincing.
While it may be impossible for us to know the exact nature of Israelite sin, we can glean insight into the ancients’ conception of God. Three millennia ago, the focus of man’s spiritual and religious yearnings was on the entity he perceived to be the source of goodness in his life. It was believed that this entity, if worshipped appropriately, would continue to be a source of beneficence. [This concept is first seen in the story of Cain and Abel.] The purpose of worshipping the Calf was not fulfillment of rebellious zeal or even a sense of religious obligation. The Israelites wanted an entity, “who shall go before us.” They wanted a continuation of the same godly protection from which they had thitherto benefited.
This explains why the worshippers of the Golden Calf identified their newly fashioned deity as the author of the Exodus. The ultimate favor done on behalf of the nascent Israelite nation was their removal from the house of bondage. Whatever force or supernatural power was responsible for their miraculous escape to freedom would be worthy of Israelite religious adoration. The same explanation can be given for the first of the Ten Commandments. The Lord is identified not as the creator of the world, but as the author of the Exodus. The usual explanation given is that a command to believe must be based upon eyewitness testimony of God’s handiwork. Since no human being witnessed creation, whereas an entire nation experienced the Exodus, the latter was chosen. But with our understanding of the theological inclinations of ancient man, it emerges that creation is an irrelevant point and certainly insufficient to bind the people to exclusive worship of a specific deity. Only the Exodus could serve that function.
Elsewhere in Scripture we find another unfortunate episode involving golden calves. Jeroboam led the Ten Tribes in rebellion and formed the northern kingdom of Israel, breaking away from the southern kingdom of Judah. He prohibited his subjects from trekking to Jerusalem to worship at Solomon’s temple, lest they be inclined to restore their allegiance to the Davidic dynasty. As an alternative, Jeroboam set up two Golden Calves at Beth El and Dan. He proclaimed, “Here is your God o Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt (I Kings 12:28).” Critical scholars see this incident as proof that the story of the Golden Calf found in the Torah is a later interpolation designed to bolster the Davidic dynasty by depicting its northern counterpart as sinfully following in the footsteps of their Mosaic era predecessors. However, the real lesson learned from Jeroboam is the powerful hold that the Exodus had on the collective memory of the Israelites. Despite the lapse of roughly 300 years (or 520 years according the Seder Olam and a literal reading of I Kings 6:1), the Exodus continued to be the event by which one could identify God. This point is a significant challenge to those biblical minimalists who would categorically reject the historicity of the Exodus.
Judaism would later develop more sophisticated rationales for belief in and obedience to the Almighty. Certainly, the advanced theory propounded by Antigonus of Socho (Avot 1:3) of worshipping God without regard for reward was absent from the thinking of the newly emancipated Hebrews. But there is something positive to be found in the conception of God seen in Exodus 32. Man needs to recognize the Divine Source of his personal and national salvation or redemption. Annually, on Passover, we reaffirm that conviction.