Parshat Ki Tisa: The calf – a leader or an idol?

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Ki Tisa, we read about one of the most distressing events that occurred at the beginning of the Jewish nation’s history, known as “The Sin of the Golden Calf.”

Torah scroll (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Ki Tisa, we read about one of the most distressing events that occurred at the beginning of the Jewish nation’s history, known as “The Sin of the Golden Calf.”
Only a short while after Ma’amad Har Sinai where the entire nation experienced the transcendent Divine revelation, Moshe Rabbeinu, the leader of the nation, ascended Mount Sinai alone. There, he experienced another revelation meant only for him. Moshe stayed up on the mountain for 40 days. During those days, the masses waited at the foot of the mountain for the return of their vanished leader. Only one day before he returned, large segments of the nation lost patience and they decided to create a golden calf.
The question that arises here is: What was the purpose of the golden calf in the eyes of its creators? It seems that the answer to this is complex since the Torah itself presents two parallel, and perhaps contradictory, interpretations.
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The motivation for creating the calf was the disappearance of Moshe, the nation’s leader, as is described in the Torah: “When the people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him...” (Exodus 32:1) Amazingly, however, the continuation of the verse points to a different motivation influencing the creators of the calf.
“... and they said to him, ‘Come on! Make us gods that will go before us...’” If Moshe disappeared, they must request a new leader.
Why then are they requesting new gods? Especially since they themselves explain their request with the following words: “... and they said to him ‘Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don’t know what has become of him.’” Here, the reader is likely to lose focus. Moshe disappeared.
The nation wants a god and rationalizes this with the fact that Moshe disappeared. Moshe or G-d? Even after the golden calf is created, the Torah describes the nation’s call before the calf: “... made it into a molten calf, upon which they said: ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!’” (Exodus, 32, 4) The impression that the perplexed reader gets is exactly that which comes from this story, because not only is the reader confused, but the creators of the calf themselves were perplexed and did not distinguish between Moshe and G-d. From their perspective, the calf that is supposed to fill Moshe’s place is itself a god.
In another place in the Torah, we find a special emphasis meant to eradicate this mistake. At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the exile to Egypt is described, and when the Torah gets to the description of Moshe arriving in Egypt in order to liberate the nation, the Torah moves onto a description of Moshe’s family, as in this following verse: “Amram took Jochebed, his aunt, as his wife, and she bore him Aaron and Moses.” (Exodus 6, 20) This emphasis is meant for those who might err and blur the distinct line between man, born to a woman, mortal, capable of making mistakes and sinning, and G-d, Who has no beginning or end and is huge and formidable in every way.
The Sin of the Golden Calf did not stem from wickedness.
It came as a result of a misconception which blurred distinctions, a conception which might have confused Moshe with G-d; a man who is born, gets married, becomes a shepherd and teaches Torah who is ultimately going to leave the world, versus an eternal G-d, the one, the only, and the unique.
The clear distinction between the physical and metaphysical, between the limited and the complete, between the material and the spiritual – this is what was lacking among the creators of the golden calf. The materialization of G-d and the deification of man are intertwined, and this mistake is what brought them to create the golden calf and proclaim: “These are your gods, O Israel.”
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.