Naomi Graetz

Parshat Ki Tisa: Idolatry and the Golden Calf

Egyptian Idols
Egyptian Idols

I’m not a great fan of idolatry of any sorts: be them movie stars, Wall Street, cell phones, edifices such as churches, temples and mosques; the city of Jerusalem, political leaders, representations of God and His/Her manifestations. So that writing about the Golden Calf and its aftermath should theoretically not elicit in me any sympathy for those needing to worship a substitute for God. Having been raised, like so many little Jews who went to Hebrew and Day schools on the midrashim surrounding Abraham who smashed his father’s idols, I was taught to identify with the smasher and to mock those who believed in idols. Yet the need for idols is pervasive, that cannot be denied.

The second commandment forbids us to depict God in a physical representation and tells us that if we do make images, we should not worship them. Clearly, people’s need for an image of their deities has been around since time immemorial, and only monotheistic Judaism and its offshoots denied it.

This week’s parsha Ki Tisa, narrates the story of the golden calf. And as we read in the parsha, Moses destroyed the Golden Calf, after the receipt of the Ten Commandments, which started off by the injunction to have no other Gods.

Killing off images began with Abraham. According to the well-known midrash, he smashed Terach’s idols which qualified him to become a religious leader (Genesis Rabbbah 38:13). His grandson Jacob destroyed the alien gods in his midst at Bethel and was rewarded with God’s blessing and a name change: Jacob became Israel, a nation with only one God (Gen. 35: 2-15).

Moses was up on the mountain and the people were anxious when he did not return. To them, perhaps Moses was their idol—or at least their conduit to God. Clearly it was fear of the unknown and the loss of the comforting Moses, their primary attachment figure, that led the people to gather around Aaron, the next attachment figure-in-command, and order him to make them a god, to compensate for Moses’ 40-day disappearance (Ex. 31:1). With Moses (ish ha-elohim, man of God, their stand in for the Deity) gone, they had nothing visible to worship.

But why was Aaron so willing to do his best to accommodate the people? Did he think it unnecessary for God to command mankind not to make any graven images of Him? The people told Aaron to make them a God: “Arise, make us gods (Elohim is plural) who will go (yelchu in the plural) before us” (Exodus 32:1). Aaron, who perhaps should have reassured the people that they do not need a substitute for Moses, readily agreed. He was pretty quick in acquiescing to their will. He told them to collect their gold jewelry and made them the gold or masked calf (egel masecha): “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me” (Exodus 32: 2), he ordered, and then produced the Golden Calf which the people worshiped. The people then said, “these are the gods of Israel, who took us out of Egypt (Exodus 32: 4).

Aaron sees this and, again without any protest,  he goes one step further and builds an altar and declares the next days to be a holiday.  The people get up the next day and sacrifice and then sit down to eat and drink and then get up to play (le-tzahek, which might mean play games, dance, play at idol worship; but is understood to mean fornicate at least by Rashi).

We have two guilty parties here: the people and Aaron. Surely Aaron could have stopped this building of an idol in its tracks.  We can excuse the people; they didn’t know any better. But Aaron!!!  Shouldn’t he have been punished for this cardinal sin (whose penalty is death). Also, what kind of a leader follows the crowd’s lead, rather than reassuring them. Rather than divert the people from this evil act, he chooses to keep the peace. And sure enough, Aaron is associated with peace making: as the adage goes from the Ethics of the Fathers (pirkei avot): “Hillel says: be a student of Aaron, a lover of and chaser after peace, lover of humanity and bringer of them to the torah” (Avot 1:12) This is also a lovely song that every child knows who attends a religious school about peace loving Aaron.

הלל אומר, הוי מתלמידיו של אהרן, אוהב שלום ורודף שלום, אוהב את הבריות ומקרבן לתורה.

Rather than castigate Aaron, Rashi has an interesting take on this story. He argues that Aaron built the ark for “the sake of heaven.” That he actually tried to avoid doing this. He assumed that when the people were asked to remove their jewelry, they would refuse and give him some time to reason with them:

באזני נשיכם [BREAK OFF THE GOLDEN PENDANTS], WHICH ARE IN THE EARS OF YOUR WIVES — Aaron said to himself: women and children have a love for their ornaments; perhaps the matter will be delayed because they will hesitate to give their ornaments, and in the meantime Moses may arrive. They (the men), however, did not wait until the women and children made up their minds but they took the ornaments off themselves (cf. v. 3: they took off the pendants which were in their ears; there is no reference to the pendants belonging to the women) (Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 21).

And Rashi goes on to say that by building the altar before the calf, he delayed further.  All of this was done so that Moses could get back in time and then solve the problem.

ויקרא חג לה׳ מחר AND CALLED OUT … TO-MORROW IS A FESTIVAL TO THE LORD — to-morrow, not to-day, for he hoped that Moses might return before they would worship it (the calf). [Aaron also understood] what would happen to him if he offered resistance. A further explanation of וירא אהרן in the Midrash is: He saw what the situation was and said: It is better that the offence should attach itself to me than to them. And yet a further Midrashic explanation of וירא is: He looked into the matter and said: If they build this altar themselves, one will bring a clod and another a stone and the result will be that their work will be accomplished all at once; through myself building it and being dilatory in my work, in the meantime Moses may come.

חג לה׳ A FESTIVAL TO THE LORD — not to the golden calf. In his heart it (the feast) was for Heaven (the Lord). He felt confident that Moses would return by the morrow and that they would worship the Omnipresent (Leviticus Rabbah 10:3).

Clearly Rashi is being apologetic about Aaron’s part in this and bends over backwards to make excuses for him. But he perhaps goes overboard, and clearly against what is written in the text when he writes that the calf was made by itself without Aaron’s intervention:

עגל מסכה A MOLTEN CALF — As soon as he (Aaron) had thrown it (the gold) into the fire in a melting pot the magicians amongst the mixed multitude who had come up with them from Egypt came and made it (the golden calf) by their magic art. There are some who say that Micah the idolator mentioned in Judges ch. 17, was there, who had been drawn forth from the foundations of a building in Egypt where he was nearly crushed. He had in his possession a “supernatural name” (שם) and a plate upon which Moses had written: “Come up, ox, come up, ox!” in order to raise the coffin of Joseph who is compared to an ox (cf. Deuteronomy 33:17) out of the Nile, and he cast it (the plate) into the melting pot and the calf (the young ox) came out (ויצא העגל הזה) (Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 19).

Why all this cover up by Rashi? If a leader is responsible for catastrophe, he should be blamed and punished, not extolled for wonderful leadership (shades of today’s politicians in Russia, the U.S. and Israel).

If we ignore Rashi’s apologetics, it was on Aaron’s own initiative, that he built an altar before the golden calf and announced that the following day would be a feast in honor of the Lord (Exodus 32:2-6). Was Aaron more attuned to the people’s needs than the distant Moses who was talking to God face to face? After all, Aaron was known as the bringer of peace, not Moses. It was God who forced Moses to do a reality check: “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely.” When Moses left the aerie, came down to earth and saw the calf, he furiously shattered the tablets and told the Levites to “… slay brother, neighbor and kin.”

In the name of monotheism, 3,000 people were killed because of their need for a version of God that they could see, feel and touch. The people were punished because they were not ready to accept an elusive essence and call it God. Was it because of a fatal flaw in the people, who had not left the mental state of slavery? If so, then perhaps they needed to be taught to relinquish the comforting visible token of God’s existence. Instead, they were showered with zealous rage in the name of defending God’s reputation. Moses’ motto was: Let the law pierce the mountain. He believed in strict justice and went ahead and slew his brethren. In contrast, Aaron, according to the tradition, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between people (B. Sanhedrin 6b); he was a mediator. Strangely enough, Aaron, the appeaser was not punished. Is there a message in that? Perhaps God and Moses understood that the people needed a physical presence and that living representatives of God should descend from the mountain more often.

I would like to end on a provocative note, namely what’s wrong with the worship of other gods? Does this fear of the other contribute to our banishing other ideas and ideologies from our midst? Does our choice of only one God tell 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. This new world order of ours is both constrictive and dangerous. Our options for change are running out. Despite all the protests, the lights at the end of the tunnel are getting dimmer and dimmer.

Let us all pray that my pessimistic observations are wrong. Shabbat shalom!

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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