Naomi Graetz

He’ll Be Coming Down the Mountain: Parshat Ki Tisa

The people waited and waited and said to themselves, he’ll be coming down the mountain and said it over and over as a mantra. But Moses did not come down; perhaps he died up there! After all, he wasn’t a spring chicken! When the people saw that Moses was so long (בשש משה לרדת מן ההר) in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and told him to do something. That is what people expect from their leaders. But what to do in a world where leaders don’t lead; where they are only interested in themselves; where they promote divisiveness. “We are living in a world where we are constantly told to choose sides, and to rule out the legitimacy of the other. Our new world order is both constrictive and dangerous. Let us all pray that my pessimistic observations are wrong.” This is how I ended my blog last year. Unfortunately, my pessimism was justified and the situation has gotten even worse. And speaking of pessimism, how is this quotation from the editor of TOI who ended his weekly opinion piece like this:

And, finally, we recognize that Ramadan is barely a week and a half away, and that its advent  — and especially the potential for violence at the Al-Aqsa compound atop the Temple Mount, and for that violence to spread deeper into East Jerusalem, and to every other internal, adjacent and regional front — has the potential to rewrite everything we know and think we know.”

A feminist spokesperson for liberal causes, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, wrote about how “Right Now, the Political Is Personal.” In the early days of feminism, she said the slogan was “the Personal is the Political”. But the way she is feeling today is the opposite. What eats her up at night and makes her unable to sleep is what is happening outside, in the political realm and has now become personal. On the one hand, I agreed with much of what she said about her feelings, but as an Israeli and a grandmother of soldiers (which she is not), I have different issues that make me unable to sleep. But I do agree with her that today political concerns definitely impinge on the individual. An example today is actually in the US, where the issue of where does life begin, is a major issue.

In Israel, one’s political stance impacts where we stand on the hostage issue. One would think that all relatives of hostages would do anything to get them back, yet there are some who feel differently and their political views that the fight must go on, until the bitter end, inform their opinions. Many people have taken to the streets these past two years. Some of my closest friends—in their 80s — have regularly gone out every Saturday night to protest the government—and continue to do so. Although the focus has also changed to include bringing back the hostages. The political has impinged into their personal lives. This brings me to this week’s parshat ki tisa.

Parshat Ki Tisa

The leader of the nation, Moses, has distanced himself from the people, he is on Mt. Sinai talking to God. He gets all sorts of laws, culminating in the Sabbath laws:

The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day [God] ceased from work and was refreshed. Upon finishing speaking with him on Mount Sinai, [God] gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God (Exodus 31: 13-18).

Meanwhile back on the ranch:

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 fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” Aaron said to them, “[You men,] take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 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!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron announced: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of God!” Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to make music (Exodus 32: 1-6).

While he is up there, the people take it upon themselves to take things into their own hands. They are afraid. What is he doing up there? They need and want a God they can see!  They want protection. What’s amazing about all this is that ALL the people donated their golden earrings to build the calf and that Aaron is an eager party to this. He not only goes along with this, but suggests the festival. And then the next day, the people do indeed celebrate, not only do they eat, but they sing.

God’s reaction to this is as to be expected: the people are choosing another god over Him. And He wishes to destroy the people. Moses diplomatically tells God that it’s not a good idea, and moreover the rest of the world will say about God ‘It was with evil intent that he delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.’ And he convinces God to renounce his blazing anger against the people. Moses comes down from the mountain and meets up with Joshua, who tells him “There is a cry of war in the camp.”  And now it is Moses, who in an about-face is upset. In theory when he was arguing with God about saving face, he saved the people from God’s wrath. When coming down the mountain with the two tablets in his hand, he sees what is going on with his own eyes:

He became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it.

He yells at Aaron: “What did this people do to you that you have brought such great sin upon them?”

Rather than take full responsibility for his own initiative in creating the golden calf

Aaron said, “Let not my lord be enraged. You know that this people is bent on evil. They said to me, ‘Make us a god to lead us; for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’ So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off!’ They gave it to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!”

It is clear to Aaron that Moses is to blame for leaving him alone to deal with the people and it is equally clear to Moses that Aaron is responsible:

Moses saw that the people were out of control—since Aaron had let them get out of control—so that they were a menace to any who might oppose them.

But rather than attack Aaron and remove him from his position as high priest, he takes his anger out on the people:

Moses stood up in the gate of the camp and said, “Whoever is for God, come here!” And all the men of Levi rallied to him. He said to them, “Thus says God, the God of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay sibling, neighbor, and kin.” The men of Levi did as Moses had bidden; and some three thousand of the people fell that day.

Not only do Moses’s kinsmen, the tribe of Levi, kill 3000 people, but, to add insult to injury, God also gets into the act and sent a plague upon the people, for what they did with the calf that Aaron made. With leaders like this: Moses, Aaron, and God one wonders what are we to make of this story.


At least we are not killing each other–YET! We just had municipal elections on Tuesday. Despite the dissatisfaction with the government, there was a dismal turnout. I bumped into someone in the pool and she said, why bother to vote, what’s the point. People went shopping in the malls or went on picnics with their families. As to those who did vote, it seems that people, with a few rare exceptions, voted for those whom they already knew, rather than take a chance on someone new. People preferred the platforms of military security over the platforms of social security. This is understandable in the time of war. Personal fear certainly informs our political views. In our own town of Omer, this is indeed what happened. Despite all of the volunteerism and community activism that came from the party that ended up losing, people preferred a person, who was a general in the army, and who stood for enhancing the physical security of our town, especially in light of October 7th.

People want to be sure; they want to trust their leaders and they also want them to behave responsibly. Yet both Moses and Aaron do not accept responsibility. Moses does not seem to have understanding of how important the presence of a leader is to people who feel vulnerable. He secludes himself with God. Aaron is left to deal with the people, and rather than convince them that there is nothing to worry about, and comfort them with words like, “don’t worry, Moses will come back soon”, he takes the easy way out. Perhaps he too has no faith that Moses will return. But he is never punished for making the golden calf. One could argue that the death of his two sons Nadav and Avihu (Leviticus 10: 1-2) who also act spontaneously and offer up a strange fire, will be his eventual punishment.

When I think of the people who are governing us today on the national level, who are afraid to show their faces in public, who still refuse to take responsibility, it affects me personally. The political today is indeed the personal. We are stuck. The fact that we are a democracy has made this possible. We have to maneuver and somehow live with it. But that does not mean that we have to silence our voices. We can continue to go out on the streets and protest with the hope that eventually change will come. The new normal has become protest: dissatisfaction with the status quo. What might have in the past been considered abnormal behavior has been normalized. Everyone is choosing sides. We are afraid of the other and often don’t want their ideas/ideologies to influence us–so each side talks AT each other rather than TO each other. Does the fact that we are mostly monotheists, make it difficult to accept the other? Does God’s demand that we worship only Him trickle down to us so that we choose only one Deity, one way of doing things? Has it made it difficult for us to see alternatives? Does this monotheistic view teach us something about our own character? We are living in a world where we our constantly told to choose sides, and to rule out the legitimacy of the other. Such a world is restrictive and will self-destruct. Unlike Aaron, I don’t have answers. But I know for sure that, the political has made me personally very angry or to quote the words from Network, “I’m Mad as Hell, And I’m Not Going to Take it Anymore”.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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