Ki Tissa: False gods

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2023 

ד  וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם, וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט, וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ, עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה; וַיֹּאמְרוּ–אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4) 

Things get complicated in this week’s parsha, but as usual these days we’re going to focus on one little detail to see what we can learn from it. To summarize the story so far: after leaving Egypt, the Israelites come to the base of Mt. Sinai, where they have a great revelation. Moshe stays up on the mountain to receive more commandments, including how to build the Mishkan, and on the 40th day, the people get anxious wondering where he is and what’s going on. 

That’s when they gather against Aharon, at the beginning of chapter 32, wanting answers. So Aharon gathers up their gold and makes the Golden Calf, perhaps just wanting to delay the forthcoming rebellion, but things quickly spin out of control. Look at the verse above: it begins with “This he took from them and cast in a mold”- that “he” is clearly Aharon. Then in the next clause, “they said: this is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” 

Who is “they” who said “this is your god?” Rashi and others point out that it says “your god,” not “our God,” and quotes an earlier midrash to suggest that it was the erev rav, or “mixed multitude” of non-Israelites who left Egypt during the Exodus. That would explain “your god;” a group of people who came from a culture of polytheism and religious images could easily revert to their previous beliefs when they thought that Moshe had abandoned them. As several commentators have suggested, they probably thought Moshe himself was a divine figure and were making a replacement for him. 

Now, on the one hand, blaming the Golden Calf on non-Israelite fellow travelers seems a bit too convenient in getting the Israelites off the hook. After all, it was just 40 days earlier that they’d heard the command at Sinai not to make any graven images or bow down to other gods, and here they are, caught in the act! It seems to me that an important point of this story is the universal human capability for error, fallibility, self-justification and false consciousness, even just a few weeks after a literally earth-shaking revelation. 

On the other hand, maybe Rashi has a point. We don’t want to blame others for our own misdeeds (like making idols), but it’s also true that there are always people who take advantage of anxiety or fear, and say, “this is your god,” for their own purposes. “This is your god” can mean “this will solve all your problems if you only obey me,” or “this is the only way to think about things,” or “this should be your ultimate allegiance.” Think of all the advertisers who take advantage of human insecurities about appearance, wealth, or social standing, and sell them the false gods of materialism, status-seeking and impossible standards of physical perfection. Even worse, think of all the times throughout human history when dividers and demagogues took advantage of social anxiety and stoked it with fear of the other, with hatred of another nation or people, with ugly or violent rhetoric, pushing people towards the false gods of nationalism, nativism, religious chauvinism, irredentism or ideological extremism. 

This is your god is a timeless trap, sprung on the vulnerable whenever we let our guard down. We must resist not only being led astray by the idolaters of our day, but also the temptation to take advantage of another’s anxiety or fear by offering easy but illusory answers to life’s difficult problems. We can never fix the problems within ourselves by grasping easy answers or ideologies which circumvent the painful and slow work of cultivating virtues. Back in the desert wilderness, the people feared the journey without the leader who brought them there, but just a smidgen of patience and faith would have kept them going till Moshe got back. How many false gods have we accepted in our lives, false gods we would have rejected with just a bit more clarity of conscience and ability to abide uncertainty? That’s faith in action, and it clears out the idols from before us. 


  1. Marcia Weinstein Steinbrook said

    Actually, a member of my Torah study group wondered why Aaron (I’ll add, or Miriam) wasn’t nominated to take over as interim leader when Moses didn’t appear on schedule. Your thoughts?

    • rabbineal said

      Hi Marcia great to hear from you. Great question. I think, from the standpoint of the internal narrative of the Torah, Aharon and his descendants were destined for the priesthood, so they couldn’t be both judge (as in lawgiver/leader) and priest. There’s a clear
      idea of separation of powers in ancient Judaism: the king can’t be the priest, the priest can’t be the king, and the prophet is usually neither. This is why the Hasmoneans eventually lost credibility, because they usurped the kingship even though they were of priestly descent. As for Miriam, that’s an even better question, because we can’t just say, “sexism,” because Devorah was a prophet and judge in later generations. I have no answer for that one.

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