G-d coming down the staircase

In the extraordinarily hot summer of 1995, my husband Noam and I moved to Skokie and we bought a home on Doctor Korczak Terrace. Our new street name was a bit unusual, a mouthful to say and had to be constantly spelled out — ( I always love when long time Skokie-ites tell me they never heard of my street and ask me if I am sure that I am truly living on it — this still continues after living here for over 20 years!). But as soon as we learned about the actual Dr. Janusz Korczak, we felt incredibly proud and honored to live on his namesake’s street.

So who was he? Dr. Janusz Korczak was the pseudonym of Dr. Henrik Goldschmidt. Dr. Korczak/Goldschmidt was first a popular author in Poland who later became a pediatrician. In the early 1900s he went to study child development in Berlin and eventually became the founder and director of Jewish orphanage in Warsaw. This orphanage was run according to the new ideas of moral education and incorporated the orphan’s autonomy in setting up the rules and their enforcement. A number of Dr. Korczak’s ’children’ were early pioneers in Palestine, later Israel. The NYT a number of years ago described a reunion of these pioneers in Israel. They recalled some of their sweetest memories of the orphanage and of Dr. Korczak.

One story described not only the love Dr. Korczak had for his children but the moral education he instilled in them. The rules for the orphanage were formed by the children and were enforced by their own court. One of the rules in the home forbade sliding down the bannisters. One day, Dr. Korczak decided he would slide down the bannister. He went to the children’s court to admit his crime and subjected himself to its rule. Thankfully, Dr. Korczak received only a warning from the Children’s Court. The children (those that were left were all in their 80s or older) fondly remembered their leader coming down from on high — literally sliding down the banister– to work with them.

When the Nazis invaded Poland, Dr. Korczak’s orphanage was moved to the Warsaw Ghetto. The Nazis in 1942 began to liquidate the Ghetto and Dr. Korczak himself was given refuge to escape the death camps. He, however, refused to leave his children and went with them to Treblinka.

Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child, without a hat, a leather belt around his waist, and wearing high boots. A few nurses were followed by two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as they were being carried to the altar..? Joshua Perle, Holocaust Chronicles [14]

While Dr. Korczak’s martyrdom is often what is most remembered, for me his legacy of cooperative governance–of children and adults working together to form a moral community is most compelling. Dr. Korczak believed that if the rules only came from on high—(picture Dr. Korczak at the top of the stair case) without the buy-in and cooperation from the children, the legitimacy and purpose of his institution–to love and nurture orphans and equip them for life outside the orphanage’s walls–would completely fall apart.

While perusing this week’s Parasha, Ki Tissa, I was struck by this theme–governance from on high versus governance that incorporates a dynamic from above and below, from Gd and B’nai Yisrael. Seeing the Parasha from this lens, led me to two questions: 1) What exactly led B’nai Yisrael to Sin? and 2) What corrections are put in place after the Khet to prevent a transgression such as this from ever happening again?

Let’s try to tackle question #1-What led B’nai Yisrael to Sin?- The classic commentators focus on B’nai Yisrael’s anxiety regarding Moshe’s return from the top of Har Sinai. In פרק לב: א, states:

וַיַּרְא הָעָם כִּי־בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן־הָהָר וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל־אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה־לָנוּ אֱלֹקים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ כִּי־זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה־הָיָה לוֹ:
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.

Rashi suggests that B’nai Yisrael expected Moshe after 40 days. They miscounted and believed his delay was a sign that he had left them and was never coming back. Their link to the divine was gone and this tired, frightened, essentially slave population seemed even more lost in the desert than before. This, according to the Midrash, compels B’nai Yisrael to find another Gd.

But is Moshe’s supposed/mistaken delay really the impetus for the people to create and worship the Golden Calf? Remember, this group had personally seen Gd’s miracles in Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea. They had put their trust in Moshe and perhaps should have given him the benefit of the doubt that he would indeed return.

I would like to suggest that the seeds of this sin were sown before any Golden Calf shows up and the causes of the sin are far greater than any schedule discrepancy.

Up until now (keeping in mind that our text here is clearly not in chronological order), B’nai Yisrael have experienced Gd from on high through Moshe. They have seen Gd only above them and really haven’t had a chance to reciprocate the dynamic in a meaningful way.
This top-down set up seems to be all too overwhelming for B’nai Yisrael.
In Parashat Yitro at the moment of being overwhelmed by Gd they say:
שמות-כ:טז  וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה דַּבֶּר־אַתָּה עִמָּנוּ וְנִשְׁמָעָה וְאַל־יְדַבֵּר עִמָּנוּ אֱלֹקים פֶּן־נָמוּת:

“You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not Gd speak to us, let we die.”

They say to Moshe, you are linked to Gd and you talk to him because this whole experience is too overwhelming. Perhaps, they are also saying, that Gd’s presence is so encompassing that there is no room for them to have a conversation or relationship with Gd under these conditions. Although the people say ‘’נעשה ונשמע- we will do and we will obey- the classic midrashim view this as not a voluntary response but rather one said out of fear. This answer therefore is not a result of a cooperative discussion but simply a reaction to a powerful Gd.

This theme of top-down only control continues in our Parasha. Just before the text begins to relate the story of the sin, if states:
שמות-כ:יח  וַיִּתֵּן אֶל־מֹשֶׁה כְּכַלֹּתוֹ לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ בְּהַר סִינַי שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת לֻחֹת אֶבֶן כְּתֻבִים בְּאֶצְבַּע אֱלֹקים:
‘When He (Gd) finished speaking with him (Moshe) on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of Gd.’

Everything for this Exodus generation has come from on-high. There is no development of a dynamic relationship between Gd and the Jewish people. Basically, the Jewish people at this point have no personal stake, no buy-in into this new enterprise. They feel there is no room for them at all–Gd is in charge, all is from on high, this relationship is frightening and there is nothing in it for them. . So B’nai Yisrael goes to build something for themselves- something they can call their own and have a genuine stake in.

So they assemble, build a Golden Calf and worship it. Then the text describes a most interesting conversation between Moshe and Gd-
God first tells Moshe to hurry up because the people have rejected Him (Gd) and have replaced him with all things, a Golden Calf. With bitter irony, Gd tells Moshe that the people have had the ultimate chutzpah to say said that this Idol, not Gd, had rescued them from Egypt! Gd is understandably very angry and tells Moshe that he plans to destroy this ‘stiffnecked people’- עם קשה ערף and begin again with a new nation starting with Moshe.

Moshe’s brilliant response to Gd highlights the true nature of the sin and essentially calls Gd on Gd. He not only takes B’nai Yisrael to task but Gd too.

Let’s look closely at Moshe’s words:
שמות:לב:י א וַיְחַל מֹשֶׁה אֶת־פְּנֵי ה’ אֱלֹקיו וַיֹּאמֶר לָמָה ה’ יֶחֱרֶה אַפְּךָ בְּעַמֶּךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בְּכֹחַ גָּדוֹל וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה:
But Moshe implored the Lrd his Gd saying, “Let not your anger, O Lrd, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand.’

Moshe is telling Gd — hey, remember why you showed up? You heard their cries- As we saw in the beginning of Shemot
שמות:ב:כד וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹקים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָם….
And you remembered your Brit with Avraham, Yitzkhak and Yaakov.
וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹקים אֶת־בְּרִיתוֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָם אֶת־יִצְחָק וְאֶת־יַעֲקֹב: כה וַיַּרְא אֱלֹקים אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֵּדַע אֱלֹקים:

And Moshe then goes on in our narrative and says:
יב לָמָּה יֹאמְרוּ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר בְּרָעָה הוֹצִיאָם לַהֲרֹג אֹתָם בֶּהָרִים וּלְכַלֹּתָם מֵעַל פְּנֵי
הָאֲדָמָה שׁוּב מֵחֲרוֹן אַפֶּךָ וְהִנָּחֵם עַל־הָרָעָה לְעַמֶּךָ:
‘Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He (Gd) delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.’ Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people.’

Gd (Moshe says)- you remember why you showed up. You came because you had a relationship with the Jewish people. Remember you redeemed your people because of your promise and to show the Egyptians that you are the true Gd and not Pharoah. And then Moshe invokes the clincher–the Brit, the covenant that Gd made with Avraham and renewed with Yitzchak and with Yaakov. This covenant, that binds the Jewish people to Gd forever and also the reciprocal, that binds Gd to the Jewish people –forever. The Brit, that is supposed to embody a dynamic- a relationship, a conversation between two parties, Gd and the Jewish people.
יג זְכֹר לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לָהֶם בָּךְ וַתְּדַבֵּר אֲלֵהֶם אַרְבֶּה אֶת־זַרְעֲכֶם כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמָיִם וְכָל־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָמַרְתִּי אֶתֵּן לְזַרְעֲכֶם וְנָחֲלוּ לְעֹלָם:
Remember Your servants, Avraham, Yitzchak and Israel, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke to possess forever.’

Moshe says to Gd — Remember that Brit? — it was supposed to be a partnership! It wasn’t supposed to be only coming from you Gd. It wasn’t supposed to be only from on high. It was supposed to be from below as well–a dynamic from the top to the bottom and from the bottom to the top.

Essentially, Moshe pleads for Gd’s mercy by citing Gd with Gd- using Gd’s own words to convince Him. And it seems to work.
יד וַיִּנָּחֶם ה’ עַל־הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ:
And the Lrd renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people.

Once this exchange is over — the Tablets are again described:
לב:טז וְהַלֻּחֹת מַעֲשֵׂה אֱלֹקים הֵמָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּב מִכְתַּב אֱלֹקים הוּא חָרוּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹת:
The tablets were Gd’s work, and the writing was Gd’s writing, incised (etched) upon the tablets.

After Moshe’s discussion with HKBH however, perhaps we can have a slightly different understanding of what Moshe does next–when he breaks these tablets of Gd.

לב:יט וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר קָרַב אֶל־הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיַּרְא אֶת־הָעֵגֶל וּמְחֹלֹת וַיִּחַר־אַף מֹשֶׁה וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ מִיָּדָו [מִיָּדָיו] אֶת־הַלֻּחֹת וַיְשַׁבֵּר אֹתָם תַּחַת הָהָר:
As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.

So Moshe sees the Jewish people and their complete disconnect from Gd and he smashes the tablets. This shocking moment stops the Jewish people from their prohibited ritual.

Moshe is angry- but is he angry at the Jewish people, at Gd or both? He is angry at the Jewish people who have strayed. His action is perhaps meant to shock them–to bring them back to their senses. But remember, Moshe is breaking something that Gd had made and Gd himself had inscribed. This breaking shows his anger towards Gd –anger that Gd selected him Moshe for this job and didn’t follow his promises–that He, Gd did not allow room for a real relationship with the Jewish people that he promised in his Covenant, in his Brit.

Although Moshe’s smashing of the tablets is shocking and came from justified anger, there is a sense among the Chachamim, that this action–as a reaction to the grave sin–was actually a necessary and good thing.
In Talmud, Masachet Shabbat 87a is states: We have learned in a Baraita: Three things did Moshe do of his own mind and the Holy One Blessed be He gave it His blessing….he broke the tablets…where do we know that the HKBH gave it his blessing? From the text 34:1, asher shi-barta (which you did break), yishar kokhakha she-shibarta (more power to you Moshe for having broken them).

Why is Gd giving Moshe a Yasher-Koach for breaking the tablet that He, HKBH, had created and inscribed? Perhaps Gd is rewarding Moshe for keeping Gd to his own word and making sure his Brit with the Jewish people will indeed last forever. A everlasting Covenant that requires for its survival Gd’s participation and real, voluntary participation from the Jewish people–as cooperative arrangement that can be possible from Gd on-high to his people down below.

So now back to my second question — in the aftermath of the sin, what corrections are put in place to prevent a transgression such as this from ever happening again?

As our narrative continues, we see a classic two-pronged approach: Punishment followed by rehabilitation.

Moshe grinds the calf into a powder and makes them drink it. The Leviim then amass and kill those who directly worshiped the calf. Gd also brings a plague that presumably kills the rest of those who sinned.
As for rehabilitation–it first begins with the reconstitution of the Brit and the relationship between Gd and Moshe and Gd and the Jewish people. Moshe pleads for Gd to have mercy, again reminding him of his Brit , his ultimate promise. Moshe also brings basically an ultimatum to Gd that

He (Gd) must continue to lead the people in the desert. This re-negotiation concludes with the expression of the renewed dynamic relationship between Gd and Jewish people.

This time we see:
לד:א וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה פְּסָל־לְךָ שְׁנֵי־לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִאשֹׁנִים וְכָתַבְתִּי עַל־הַלֻּחֹת אֶת־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ עַל־הַלֻּחֹת הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ:
The Lrd said to Moshe; “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.”

The Midrashic commentaries explain this verse to mean that Moshe would carve the tablets and write/etch on them what Gd dictated to him. This do-over would not only come from Gd. It would now be a partnership with someone down below.

Moshe goes back up the mountain and his pleading with Gd reflects this new relationship. For this to work Gd, Moshe seems to say, you must understand that we will sin, but we have to find a way to talk to each other and prevent You Gd from breaking your everlasting covenant with us. Remember Gd that you are:
לד:ו ….ה’ ה’ אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב־חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת: ז נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה…
….Hashem, Hashem! A Gd compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness – (7) extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin…
Gd– we have to find a way to talk to one another. Through prayer and repentance we can have a way to keep our discussion and relationship everlasting. Even though we are a tough people (–face it, the Jewish people are the worst behaved tour group to Israel EVER!), you have to maintain the lines of communication and keep us.
לד:ט…כִּי עַם־קְשֵׁה־עֹרֶף הוּא וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲוֹנֵנוּ וּלְחַטָּאתֵנוּ וּנְחַלְתָּנוּ:
Pardon our iniquity, and our sin, and take us for Your own!

And then a new reinvigorated Covenant is made with Gd again promising his protection and the land of Israel to the Jewish people.

Unlike the previous iterations, this new Brit has not only the top down promise of Gd but the particulars, the specific things the Jewish people have to do to show loyalty to the Covenant, namely the mitzvot.
With this dynamic Covenant, the Jewish people not only have a real buy-in , a real stake in their relationship with Gd, they also now have the mechanism of tefillah and teshuvah, of prayer and repentance, to repair the relationship in the inevitable event of them transgressing in the future.

This new arrangement allows for Gd to come down from on-high–to slide down the bannister at the great Dr. Korczak’s orphanage so to speak- and meet his beloved people. This renewed relationship makes room for both parties. It is also important to remember that the beautiful language in today’s Parasha becomes the very essence of our tefillah and t’shuvah today. Somewhat paradoxically, the Sin of the Golden Calf has given us the ability to connect to HKBH in a dynamic fashion. In the same way Dr. Korczak’s moral education brought him from the top of the stairs to meet with his children, perhaps the lesson from this Parasha is that Gd’s torah and new Brit has given us all the opportunity to meet Gd at the foot of our stairs and join with him to go up the stairs together, to go up in holiness — together!

Shabbat Shalom!

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.
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