Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35)

Rabbi David Stav

No event in the history of the Jewish People serves as a better basis for their collective indictment than the story of the Golden Calf, which is described in great detail in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa. Is there anything that has not yet been said or written about the people who rallied around this idol, exclaiming, “This is your God, O Israel, who took you out of Egypt!” [Ex. 32:4]?

We would be hard pressed to find a harsher expression than those used by our Sages in the Talmud: “How shameful is a bride who has been unfaithful under the wedding canopy!” [BT, Gittin 36b]. Today, we are familiar with infidelity after many years of marriage, even as we condemn it. But what of a bride who betrays her husband within days of their wedding?

Likewise, the nation of Israel could not hold off for even just a few weeks, and even when they were camped at the slopes of Mount Sinai, or the wedding canopy in this extended metaphor, they turn their backs on their God, preferring the intimate company of other deities.

If this is what our rabbis thought of our ancestors in the Sinai wilderness, what could we expect from Israel’s detractors? Indeed, they didn’t miss a beat, taking full advantage of this opportunity to cut the Jews down to size. One of the best examples appears in The Kuzari, a 12th century work written by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi. The book describes an imaginary dialogue between the king of the Kuzarim (Khazarites) with various wise men representing the different religions, as the king endeavored to decide which of those faiths he would espouse.

In one of the king’s conversations with the Jewish scholar – in which the scholar has showered the Jewish people with praise – the king responds: “Take care, Rabbi, lest over-indulgence in the description of the superiority of your people cause you to overlook what is known of their disobedience in spite of the revelation. I have heard that in the midst [of the revelation at Mount Sinai] they made a calf and worshipped it.”

With these words, the king attempted to shatter the rabbi’s argument about the uniqueness of the Jewish people: everyone sins, said the king, including the Jews. The rabbi had praised the Torah of Israel and the Jewish people, which, after having produced the founding fathers of the Jewish people – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – stood at Mount Sinai and eventually received the Torah.

The king’s harsh accusations undermine that premise, and raise difficult questions for us. Were the Jewish people truly virtuous, or were they the horrible people depicted in the story of the Golden Calf? Who are we? Are we the ones who crossed through the sea and witnessed the events at Mount Sinai, or just a bunch of punks dancing around an idol?

Many have offered explanations for how such a thing could happen. Some tried to blame the debacle on the “mixed multitudes”, who weren’t part of the Jewish people, but tagged along with them as they left Egypt. Others claimed that the worshiping of the Golden Calf wasn’t truly idol worship, but rather an attempt to find a physical representation to help them worship the true God.

All of the above may be true, but one fact still stands, and we must contend with it. Parshat Ki Tisa describes how God wanted to eradicate the Jewish people after the sin of the Golden Calf. The Torah reveals the Almighty’s thoughts: “I have seen this people and behold! they are a stiff necked people. Now leave Me alone, and My anger will be kindled against them so that I will annihilate them…” [Ex. 32:9-10].

If the mixed multitudes, and not the Jews, were responsible, and if it was only a minor offense and not exactly idol-worship, why would God have wanted to destroy our people? Why such a harsh penalty for a mere misdemeanor?

Rather, this was no misdemeanor, after all. It was a serious crime, and that is exactly what the Torah is trying to teach us: that even the greatest nation on Earth can commit the most heinous of acts.

Our Sages took note of the words, “Now leave me alone”, when God requests that Moses allow him to “annihilate and destroy” the Jewish people. The rabbis wondered why God would have asked Moses to allow him to destroy the Jews, if Moses had not said anything to begin with. Besides, God clearly could have done as He pleased without getting approval from Moses.

There is another possibility, though. The words “Leave me alone” are an encoded message to Moses, as if to say, “Hold me back, don’t let me do what I want to do.”

If we evaluate a society or a person solely based on past failures, no one would ever be able to face God. Just as with an individual, a society’s main challenge is to learn from its past mistakes and try to correct them. Our Sages are saying that the main reason that the nation of Israel sinned with the Golden Calf was in order to repent for this act. In other words, we may falter and fall, but we must not allow that failure to define us and our future.

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