Parashat Ki Tissa

Negotiating A Relationship With God

In constructing the Golden Calf, the Israelites attempted to create a mediated, safe relationship with an awesome and consuming God.

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Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

The people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain. They ganged up on Aaron and said: Get up! Make us a God that can go before us because Moses, the man, who took us up out of Egypt, we don't know what happened to him. ....

And he took from their hand, fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it into a molten calf. Then they said: "This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!"
(Exodus 32:1,4)

The children of Israel had just witnessed God's awesome power at Mount Sinai. And now they worship a Golden Calf.

How could they?

How could a people liberated by a divine force so powerful to split a sea and drown their enemies worship a calf? Swept out of Egypt on the “wings of eagles,” they watched the sea split for them and drown their enemies. They sang a song of victory praising the powers of their savior. Sustained in the desert with water sweetened by God, they ate manna that rained down from the skies. And now they collect gold they had taken from their Egyptian neighbors, give it to Aaron to create a calf and say, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”

How could they indeed? What explains this seemingly senseless act of worshipping an inanimate calf? Was it a lack of faith in God or just sheer stupidity?

Let us try and reconstruct the story from the point of view of the Israelites. We might find clues rendering this seemingly senseless act, sensible.

Remember the terror of the Israelites at hearing God's voice at Sinai--"Talk with us," they begged Moses. "And we will listen, and don't let God speak with us, lest we die" (Exodus 20:16).

God responds in kind. Instead of speaking to the people directly, God instructs Moses to tell the people the following: "You yourselves have seen that it was from the heavens that I spoke with you. You are not to make beside me gods of silver, gods of gold you are not to make for yourselves! (Ex. 20:19-20). You’ve seen the source of the divine in heaven. So don’t make earthly figurines of gold and silver to worship. The warning could not be more explicit. So how could they?

This is how they could. As they said, contact with God, to them, meant death. Consider the following scene:

Moses goes up the mountain for forty days. Before he goes he tells the elders of the people where he is going, but to his poor terrified masses he doesn’t mention a word. And then he simply disappears.

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Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses

Dianne Cohler-Esses is the first Syrian Jewish woman to be ordained as a rabbi. She was ordained in 1995 at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is currently a freelance educator and writer, teaching and writing about a wide range of Jewish subjects. She lives in New York City with her journalist husband and their three children.