Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)
Rabbi David Stav
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
Parshat Ki Tisa centers on one of the most formative events in the annals of the Jewish People – the Sin of the Golden Calf. The Jewish People are eagerly awaiting Moshe’s return from Mount Sinai, but Moshe is late in coming, so the Jewish People decide to turn to Aharon, beseeching him for an alternative. Aharon orders them to remove all of the gold they were wearing (they were apparently wearing quite a bit of gold), and carves a calf out of the gold. His actions are described with these words:
“And he made it into a molten calf” (Shemot / Exodus 32:4)
The nation then proclaims, with great fanfare:
“These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (ibid.)
Hashem becomes angry with His nation’s quick betrayal after all He had done for them since they had left Egypt, and wishes to wipe them out and replace them with another nation, comprised of Moshe’s own progeny. Moshe pleads with Hashem, begging Him to forgive the nation, and Hashem finally relents.
One of the questions that have long puzzled commentators is how could it be that the very nation that had witnessed all of the signs and miracles in Egypt and Mount Sinai could entertain the thought that a calf had taken them out of Egypt?
The simple answer is that it is hard to root out a culture and mindset, even after all of these miracles. Anyone who had been born into a world of idol-worship in Egypt would be incapable of changing his or her mindset in the blink of an eye. Anyone who had been accustomed to seeing an ubiquitous idol symbolizing fertility and bounty would naturally resist substituting the deity with something so utterly abstract.
On a deeper level, it is in this week’s parsha that the expression “Egel Masecha”(“molten calf”) appears for the first time in the Torah, and the word “masecha” can be interpreted in a number of ways.
The “masecha” could be a type of metal, and if so, the “Egel Masecha” would be a metal calf, or more precisely, a calf that had undergone the process of melting, since it was made out of many pieces of gold that needed to be fused together.
“Masecha” can also be interpreted as a “Masach”, an object usually used to conceal other objects. This type of “Masecha” conceals anything hidden behind it (see Yishayahu / Isaiah 25:7). This is also the meaning of the “Masecha” we wear on Purim, which covers our faces.
Is there any connection between a “Masecha” used for idol worship, named for the melting process used to create it, and a “Masecha” used to cover people’s faces?
Our world is covered in masks. Some are man-made, while others are Divine. Jewish linguists linked the world “Olam” (world) to the word “He’elem” (hiddenness) – an object within which Hashem is concealed, as it were, or an object that serves as a “mask” for Hashem.
In ancient times, idol-worshippers believed that the sun or the moon ruled over the Earth, while others believed in the superiority of various forces of nature that could destroy the world. It isn’t easy to teach a nation that an internal force that rules the world is concealed under all of these layers.
Nature isn’t the only phenomenon that serves as a “mask” for Hashem – political history is another reveler in this masquerade. There were a great many masks in Shushan, the capital of Achashverosh’s kingdom, where the terrible decrees calling for the destruction of the Jewish People were created. Who is against whom, and why? Was Achashverosh aware of Haman’s plans? Why did it take the king so many years to remember that he needed to repay Mordechai for having saved him from an assassination attempt? These aren’t the only questions we face. The Megillah reveals to us that the Master of Creation is concealed under this big mess, guiding worldly forces to saving His nation.
A thorough study of global political events reveals even more of these masked events. Before the vote on the United Nations resolution on the creation of the State of Israel in 1947, the outcome of the vote was completely unclear. Many countries were influenced by pressures exerted by Arab countries. Most of all, it was unclear what the two superpowers of the day – the United States and the U.S.S.R. – would do. Their decisions could seal the fate of the entire vote.
Once World War II ended, these two countries resumed their traditional rivalry. The relationship between them was engulfed in conflict and a bitter struggle for domination and influence, a conflict that would later evolve into the Cold War. In those days, there wasn’t a single matter that the two superpowers had voted on identically. Moreover, the Soviet Union opposed Zionism, having combatted the movement for years. Nevertheless, both superpowers voted in favor of the resolution, out of various considerations tied to their domestic and foreign policies, which were, in turn, influenced by a one-time confluence of circumstances.
This paved the way to the establishment of the State of Israel. A vote that was ostensibly a rather ordinary event was, in fact, a mask that concealed the Ruler of History. This is the world’s mask – a mask that prevents us from penetrating and peering further into the inner nature of reality.
We also wear masks in our personal lives, but these masks are usually transparent, making them harder to identify.
The story of the Golden Calf serves as a warning against worshipping a “Masecha”, be it an idol made of molten metal, or yet another way of concealing the Almighty within the “Olam” (world) of “He’elem” (hiddenness). It is a beacon that prevents us from forgetting a truth concealed from view.
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