Ki Tisa: What We Do is What We Can Become

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tisa

The Torah portion Ki Tisa begins with further instructions for the maintenance
and ritual of the Mikdash, or portable Sanctuary. This theme is interrupted by
the story of the Golden Calf and Moshe’s reaction to it. After Moshe punishes
the people who built the golden idol, he goes back up the mountain and
pleads for a vision of God’s Presence, and has a powerful spiritual
experience of God’s merciful nature.

The story of the Golden Calf is endlessly instructive, but many, if not most,
interpretations focus on the social, spiritual, or psychological dynamics which
led to its creation. Less attention is paid to the aftermath, but here too there
is much to consider: after Moshe comes down the mountain to find the people
dancing around the idol of gold, he takes the Calf, burns it, grinds the ashes,
puts the ashes in water, and makes the people drink the mixture. (Cf. Shmot/
Exodus 32:20)

Our teacher Rashi, along with many other commentators, compares Moshe’s
actions to the “sotah,” or test of a woman suspected of adultery, which also
involved drinking “bitter waters.” (Cf. Bamidbar/ Numbers 5:11-31). In this
interpretation, God is like a loyal husband who find out that his wife (in this
case, the people Israel) has betrayed his trust (because they have given their
loyalty to the idol.) It is a plausible comparison, since the action of giving
an unfaithful people a bitter mixture to drink is so extraordinary and has clear
similarities to the ritual described in Numbers.

However, one can also ask a different question: if the Golden Calf, and the
idolatry it represents, was such a bad thing, why didn’t Moshe get rid of every
trace of it, purifying the camp of its noxious presence? A possible answer
comes from thinking about the act of consumption as a physical process:
whatever you eat or drink is quite literally taken into you, becomes part of
you, down to the molecular level. Moshe may not have understood what a
molecule was, but when he made the people drink the ashes of the Golden
Calf, I think he was showing them, in the most palpable, dramatic way
possible, that this breach of covenant will stay part of them – should, in fact,
stay part of them- for a lifetime.

We all carry our histories with us, and in this case, whatever it was that
caused the people to sin by making the Calf is now something they mustn’t
forget. The people have to ingest the lesson – both literally and symbolically-
that a covenantal relationship is a fragile thing, easily ruptured by
temptations, anxiety, fear, self-centeredness, or ego. By making them drink the ashes of
the Golden Calf, Moshe teaches the people a basic human truth: spiritual
growth necessarily involves “taking in” our experiences, carrying them with
us, reflecting on them, and using them to become conscious of the emotions
or inner needs that may lead to doing things which seem out of character, if
not self-destructive.

I take it for granted that most people are good, but everybody does things
they’re not proud of. A plausible religion therefore offers a framework for
struggling with and becoming aware of those inner forces which lead us to do
things which fall short of our ideals – like building a Golden Calf, or putting
any material object or human creation or ideology above the highest spiritual
values. The Torah doesn’t pretend that life can be lived without error or
imperfection, but offers a model of redeeming those errors for the good. Thus,
to me, this act of drinking the ashes of the Golden Calf is not a punishment,
but something which can turn the sin into its opposite: greater consciousness
and self-awareness, without which we cannot effectively be of service to
ourselves, God, and others.

PS- My interpretation of the act of drinking the ashes is partially based on an
idea found in Aaron Wildavsky’s book “The Nursing Father,” which is a study
of Moshe as a political leader. I haven’t read the book in its entirety, but
I’ve perused it enough to put it on my “must-finish” list.

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