Parshat Ki Tisa: Confusing the Means with the Maker

The Lord spoke to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely,” (Shemot 32:7).

The sin of the Gold Calf is such a difficult incident to understand. How could the nation that saw the plagues and experienced the miracles at the sea fall so quickly into idol worship? How could the same people who stood at Mount Sinai and heard God speak the second commandment of, “there shall be no other gods before me” turn around and betray God so completely? 

The Sages offer a potent image to illustrate the severity of the sin of the golden calf: a bride who had an adulterous affair under the chuppah.

But were they really looking to exchange God for these idols of gold? What was the nation really asking for?

“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,” (Shemot 32:1).

Here we see great confusion. Am Yisrael expected their leader to return, but now they were left alone. They then made a strange request of Aaron: make us a god who will go before us. We would have expected them to request a leader who will replace Moshe, not a new god who will go before them. 

The end of the passage explains their strange request: “for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” According to them, it was Moshe, and not God who brought them out of Egypt.

Moshe is so exalted in the eyes of the people that he is seen as a god himself. He is no longer understood as a part of the nation; he is the one who brought them out of Egypt, and without him, they are lost without hope in the middle of the desert. 

And so God tells Moshe, Go Down; the simple meaning is that Moshe should descend from Mt. Sinai to deal with the idolatrous behavior that is happening in the camp. But it also connotes Moshe’s need to step down from the pedestal on which the nation has put him. 

The nation’s confusion is rooted in a fundamental mistake; they have confused the means with the maker. 

And this is how Rebbe Nachman of Breslov reads the story; he claims that the sin of the golden calf is that the people are serving the  intermediary, as opposed to serving God. This idea has profound and practical applications for us today. 

What is the source of our livelihood? Does it come through our own hard work? Of course, but that is only because God decreed it to be that way. It could have been otherwise if God desired it to be. 

How does medicine heal? Only because God decrees that it will heal. We should not worship the medicine; we thank God for the medicine as the means for our healing.

This doesn’t mean that the means are inconsequential. The means are critical. But they are still the means, and should never be confused with the Maker. 

This is the great teaching of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa from the Talmud; one erev Shabbat his daughter accidentally filled the Shabbat candles with vinegar instead of oil. When it was discovered, he simply said, “The One who makes the oil burn should make the vinegar burn.” And so it did.

In our modern world filled with incredible human innovation and miraculous medical breakthroughs, we too can confuse the means with the Maker. Appreciating God as the Root Cause doesn’t have to lessen our appreciation of the means. As a matter of fact, it can even help to increase our appreciation of them. But as long as we put them in their proper place,  we too can keep ourselves from falling prey to something of the sin of the golden calf.

So what do you think? Do you see your livelihood as emanating from God, or from your hard work? Or maybe both? Does the medicine make you well, or is it God who heals?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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