By Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Ki Tisa
It was all supposed to be so very different: Their stop at Sinai was originally supposed to be brief, but transformative. When the Children of Israel arrived at Sinai, everything seemed so special, so idyllic, in so many ways: They had come together as a nation, bonded in a sense of unity and love, born of a common past and a shared vision of the future. “As one man, with one heart,” they prepared themselves to enter into a covenant with God, to take a quantum leap towards the fulfillment of the promises made to their forefathers. In preparation and affirmation of this great moment in history, they brought offerings. And then, the heavens opened; they were granted a vision of God, as He Himself spoke words of holiness to them. The next stop should have been the Promised Land, where they would put the commandments they had just received into practice, creating a new reality, a perfected society and a holy community.
Instead, something went wrong; things began to unravel. After hearing only two commandments, the people felt overwhelmed: The experience was too intense. God had more to say, but the people demurred. They asked that Moshe serve as a conduit, that God speak to Moshe alone, who would then relay the message to them in a more digestible form.
Moshe was invited to climb the mountain; there were more laws to be taught, more instructions to relay.
While Moshe was away, the people became afraid: What was taking so long? Why had he not returned? Their deepest fear seemed to have been realized: Moshe had died and left them without a leader, before their mission had been accomplished. After all, Moshe was just a man, and men can break your heart; even the best of them are fickle. The people demanded something more sturdy, something more permanent. They settled on a calf made of gold – and declared that this calf had taken them out of Egypt. Their “logic” seems absurd: How could the gold taken from the ears of their loved only that day have been credited with redeeming them from slavery? Even worse: How could they have fallen so far from the pinnacle of spirituality they had achieved 39 days earlier? They had heard two commandments spoken directly by God, and theirs words and actions lay those two commandments to waste: “I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt; you shall have no gods other than Me. Do not make an idol or any graven image…” How were they capable of fine-tuned cognitive dissonance? How had they managed to so quickly, so completely, almost purposefully negated the awe-inspiring Revelation? Their about-face seems all the more absurd when we remind ourselves that these same people had eaten manna for breakfast that very morning! How outrageous it seems that, as they wiped the last bits of manna from their mouths, they expressed disbelief in Moshe’s ability to survive up on the mountaintop without food or water! With the evidence of God’s miracles still between their teeth, how did they, how did they lose faith in God so quickly?
The people seem determined to counter each and every element of the Sinai experience with a counterfeit, contradictory gesture: At Sinai, they had brought offerings as part of the covenant forged with God; now, they brought offerings to the calf. In an unmistakable gesture, they made an exchange, an “upgrade:” In place of the God who had redeemed them from the bondage of Egypt, they had a golden calf. Instead of offerings to honor and praise God, they brought offerings to celebrate the idol they had created with their own hands. In the words of King David:
They made a calf at Horev, and worshipped a molten image. Thus they exchanged their Glory for the likeness of an ox that eats grass. (Tehilim 106:19-20)
And then, Moshe returned. Tragically, instead of greeting him with songs of praise and joy, instead of honoring the Tablets of Testimony Moshe had brought down from the heavens, they serenaded their calf in a frenzy of idolatrous revelry. Moshe entered the camp unnoticed and, strangely, alone; taking in the outrageous spectacle, he threw the Tablets to the ground, and the shattering sound brought an abrupt end to their orgy. They had been unfaithful, and were therefore subjected to a process not unlike that imposed upon a wife accused of infidelity: Moshe melted the calf, ground it into a fine powder, and had them all drink the potion made of their “deity.”
Moshe called out, rallying those who were faithful, those who were devoted to God. Those who answered his call, those in whom the spirit of God was reawakened, were called upon to take arms and purge the community of sinners. This was the final step: The holiness they had achieved at Sinai had been defiled, their covenant with God had been trampled; God had been exchanged for a calf. And now, the unity and friendship they had achieved was exchanged for the sword, as families were torn apart, and brothers turned against one another. The memory of Sinai, the entire Sinai experience, was ruined. The words they had heard had been twisted, the offerings had been rededicated to idol worship, and the sense of brotherhood dissipated. Had they only been able to wait for Moshe to descend from the mountain, they would have danced with the Tablets, etched by the hand of God, in an unforgettable “Simchat Torah.” A little more faith could have brought them a great deal of love.