KI TISA: Feet of Flesh

When the people saw that Moses had (apparently) delayed to come down the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him: Up with you, make us gods that will go in front of us – because as for this man Moses ……we don’t know what has happened to him  (Exod 32:1).

 A striking puzzle presents itself here.  The people are ostensibly asking for a figure to ‘replace’ G-D (elohim is the word the people use). Yet they clearly state that the reason for their request is that Moses has departed from them – in which case they seek to replace not G-D but Moses.

The consensus of our rabbinic sages is that the people indeed are seeking a replacement leader for Moses. Then why do they use the word elohim?

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch provides us with the key.  Emphasising the words asei lanu (“make for us”), he declares that one of the most delusional ideological concepts animating mankind – diametrically at odds with the Torah standpoint –  is that man can fashion a figure and invest it with divine qualities. As the prophet Jeremiah mused rhetorically centuries later: “Shall a man make for himself gods? None of them are G-D!” (Jer. 16:20).

This is what the frenzied mob, spearheaded by the eruv rav, (mixed multitude of non-Israelites who joined the nation at the Exodus) sought to do.  They desired to create a new ‘leader’ and place it on a pedestal so that it would become, as it were, a god.  But the powers attributed to this ‘god’ were invested in it wholly and solely by the people.

We have uncovered here a secret which helps elucidate the all-encompassing lure of idolatry.  Idolatry is, at root, just what its English name serendipitously expresses. I-dolatry. Worship of self.

R’ Hirsch wrote his groundbreaking commentary on the Torah a century and a half ago.  Were he still living today he would be unsurprised that nothing has changed. If anything, in our contemporary world, I-dolatry is more pronounced.  Modern man seeks desperately to create for himself godlike figures in his image – whether in the domain of politics, sport, popular music or indeed religion (more on that later) – mainly because he finds it so challenging to submit to the authority of an omnipotent G-D.

When the inevitable happens and the gods man has fashioned for himself fail him, one of two reactions can ensue.  Either there is cognitive dissonance and denial.  Or there is fury and disillusionment. In the 17th century, both reactions erupted simultaneously in the Jewish world with the disastrous downfall of false messiah Shabbatai Zvi.  In today’s so-called secular world. it is more likely to happen with a charismatic Anglo-Australian entertainer who turns out to be a grubby paedophile, a heroic champion cyclist exposed as a cheat or a winsome Israeli president convicted of rape. It is several notches more shocking when a popular chareidi author, radio host and therapist is outed as a serial sex abuser and opts for suicide.  The denial/disillusionment dichotomous dual-reaction is invariably of the same ilk. Yet people unable or unequipped to access the Real Thing (no irreverence intended) do not stop frantically searching for ersatz.   Why else, for example, has a certain successful Portuguese soccer coach been dubbed by fans the world over as “The Special One”? (yes, replete with capital letters)?  He too is seen to have feet of clay as the winning touch deserts him and he is dethroned as a god..

In the Torah world , we must be especially careful.  A rabbi is first and foremost a teacher; it will be to the good if he proves a dynamic or even charismatic leader.  But whether Rav, Rabbi or Rebbe, there is a danger that his devotees may try to build him up in their image and idealise him.  Not only is this ill-advised it is also dangerous.  The Catholic Church is in some disarray due to so many priests having fallen so spectacularly from grace. Sadly, as we have seen, the Jewish world has not been immune.  But while the doctrine of papal infallibility is sometimes seen by simple-minded disciples to extend to cardinals too, there is no such concept in Judaism.  Rabbis are accountable to G-D and to their constituents.  Moshe Rabenu knew it only too well!

Maybe we have here a rare hint as to why Moses broke the lukhot (tablets of stone) (Exod. 32:19). If the people were looking for a godlike, perfect leader, Moses wanted to make it crystal-clear to them that he did not fit that bill. The people thought he had become an angel in heaven, so they made a god in what they perceived to be his image. So, Moses showed them that he still had, if not feet of clay, then certainly feet of flesh.  He was human.  He purposefully broke G-D’s lukhot. The Talmud (Shabbat 87a) derives from various Scriptural sources that G-D on this unique occasion, taking motive into account, approved of the (mis)deed – indeed He commended him for it saying “more power to your elbow for breaking them!” Rashi (to Deut 34:12) redacts this as his very final comment on the Torah.      

The Talmud (Berachot 19a) says: “If you see a real Torah scholar sin at night, know that by morning he will have done teshuva”.  The Talmud mandates us to judge a tsadik favourably.

But that does not mean denying reality. If you without doubt witness him sin, then for sure he has sinned.  Nor may you deem him a Moses with Divine mandate‘ to do as he thinks fit.  ‘Judge him favourably’ means know (don’t just think) that, if he is indeed a tsadik, he will certainly repent.   But know too that he is a human being with feet of flesh. And be saddened but not surprised that he can fall.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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