Ki Tisa: Idolatry from Forgetting

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tisa 

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him.’ ” (Shmot/ Exodus 32:1) 


I hope those who just celebrated Purim had a most happy one! Sorry about the lapse in parsha output last week; things got away from me but we’re back on track. This week’s portion, Ki Tisa, is one of the dramatic highlights of the entire Torah: after laws concerning the vessels of the Mishkan and the commission of Betzalel to be its chief craftsman, everything goes kablooey. (This is the technical theological term.) 

As per the verse above, the people are worried about Moshe not returning from the mountain where he is receiving the laws of the Torah, and in their confusion and anxiety, they press Aharon to make a golden calf as their leader or idol- not a good idea. Moshe returns and the idolatry and its repercussions tear the people apart; the God almost rejects Israel after they build the idol. Moshe intercedes on their behalf, but the episode leaves him so weary and discouraged that he needs his own powerful spiritual reorientation. 

What could cause the people to build the golden calf a mere 40 days after Sinai- which, after all, was only a few months after the Exodus from Egypt, with its signs, wonders, plagues and the splitting of the sea? How is it possible that the people’s faith lasted only five weeks after such amazing experiences? 

The ancient rabbis offer a midrash which complicates matters even further: 

when the people saw that Moshe was so long in coming. . . don’t read this word as boshesh [late] but “bo shesh” [the sixth has come]. When Moshe ascended [to the mountain], he said to Israel: ‘At the end of forty days, at the beginning of the sixth hour, I shall return.’ At the end of forty days, Satan came and confused them, saying: ‘Where is Moshe? . . . the sixth hour has come and he has not returned!’ ” (Talmud Shabbat, 89a, quoted in Torah Temimah.

Let’s unpack this. The rabbis are suggesting that the anxiety and confusion which led the people to act in such a desperate way was not after days or weeks without their leader- but after “the sixth hour has come,” when Moshe has been delayed only an hour, maybe less. Granted, they’ve been 40 days without the faithful guide who brought them out of slavery, but still, after all the miracles of the previous few months, you’d think they would have enough trust to wait an hour before their anxiety overwhelmed them. 

The story of the golden calf is often understood as a parable of good versus evil, with villains among the people just waiting for the chance to turn them towards idolatry. Yet the rabbis seem to reject harsh judgment of the Israelites by giving us this midrash, with its image of idolatry arising not out of wickedness, or heresy, or spite, but out of confusion, anxiety, despair, and fragility, all of which are universal human experiences. This is the symbol of Satan, who is not some character “out there” but is that part of each heart and soul which trips us up and brings us short of the mark. The people may have seen miracles, but they had been slaves for years – who can blame them for wanting the security of clear leadership? That they turned towards idolatry after Moshe was delayed only an hour suggests that the rabbis understood how close we all are to turning away from our values when we feel threatened, frightened, or without hope. 

In these uncertain times, with the weak economy, when environmental and political issues loom large, as conflict between neighbors and nations seems just around the corner, we need to remember how easy it is to forget the important things. A society can turn towards idolatry- or demagoguery, or ethnic hatred, or violence, all forms of idolatry in themselves- quicker than we care to imagine. The lesson of the golden calf is not about Moshe being late one hour or one day; it’s about how easy it is to leave our best selves behind when negative emotions cloud our values and vision. The golden calf warns us: be calm, stay true, see clearly, for fear itself is a danger. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


1 Comment »

  1. […] days, including the night, so the day he left was not the first day of the counting. (We discussed another midrash last year related to Moshe’s delay.)   Well, fine, that explains why they thought he was delayed- […]

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