One of the difficulties in reading Parshat KiTisa is the inculcated impression that we all know the details of the “Golden Calf” story all too well. This bias can often lead us to pay less attention to the actual text. The conventional narrative, that Bnei Israel sinned by committing base idolatry, leaves open the question of what idolatry actually consists of. By assuming we know the answer, we sometimes obscure the poignancy of the story, and its potential relevance to our lives today.
As I often like to do, I want to suggest that once we peel away the layers of Rashi, Midrash, and “common knowledge,” we may discover another layer (and another story) embedded within these few Psukim (lines). To do this, I want to start by pointing out two elements of the narrative: similarity and incongruity. But in order to appreciate these elements, it is important to try to empathize with the cognitive state of people who did not have the benefit of hindsight like we do, did not know the story of the Golden Calf, did not know how the Biblical narrative would unfold, and certainly did not have the benefit of Rashi’s insight into Humash.
I want to suggest that for Bnei Israel who were about to make the Egel, it was very reasonable to feel that they were performing the command of God himself. The gist of the previous two Parshiot (Truma and Tezave) is thus: God asks for Bnei Israel to instigate the building of the Mishkan “ve asu li mikdash;” to make donations (bring Truma “mi kol ish asher nidvenu libo”) of, among other things, gold; and to fashion a series of objects with which they will perform Avodat Hashem (Korbanot). What Bnei Israel do in Parshat KiTisa is instigate the building of the Egel, bring donations of gold, and perform Korbanot using the Egel. To us it is perhaps completely obvious that Egel Hazahav is idolatry whereas Aron HaKodesh is Avodat Hashem, but lets consider for a moment that for an impartial observer at the time there may not have been an obvious, intrinsic, or objective difference between the Egel and the Aron. You say two Kruvim and some animals, I say Egel. The people ask for a “…God who will walk before us” and in fact this is what Hashem promises them later he will do “ani ve lo malah.” They proclaim “here is God who took us our of Egypt” and indeed God did take them out of Egypt (many have argued that Bnei Israel frequently sinned by implying, in various places, that Moshe took them out of Egypt, but in KiTisa they correctly credit God with the miracle).
This brings us to the incongruity of several narrative elements with a reflexive interpretation of the Het HaEgel as a mass decision to devolve, overnight, into paganism. The most obvious incongruity is the stark complicity of Aaron HaCohen, the brother of Moshe, in every aspect of Het HaEgel. Ignoring for a second apologetic commentators who, justly I think, want to maintain Aaron’s Tzadik status, and wish the complicity away, the text clearly tells a different story. People come to Aaron and ask him to do something such that there will be a God who will lead them. He does not protest for a second, he does not even ask follow up questions. He asks for Trumot, same as for building the Mishkan. After the Egel is made, he is the one who constructs a Mizbeah (an altar) before it, proclaims a “festival of Hashem” the next day, and as best anyone can tell is a willing if not enthusiastic participant in what follows. It almost seems that in Aaron’s mind as well, he was doing something entirely in the spirit of what God had commanded just then in Parshiot Truma and Tezave.
And then, there is another curious element of similarity between the instructions for the Mishkan and the building of the Egel. If you look at Truma and Tezave, one of the words that keeps coming up is “tabaat or tabaot” – rings. Rings are all over the place in the Mishkan and on the clothing of Aaron HaCohen, and these rings are made of gold. Interestingly, when making the Egel, Aaron also asks for rings as donations: “Nezem” is the word used for “nose-ring.”
I think that this is pointing to an un-orthodox idea, but one for which we can find some weighty evidence in the text. The word Egel (the letters Ain Gimel Lamed) doesn’t just mean Calf in Humash. It also means “circle” (Igul), or in other words Ring(!!!) Let’s look at it this way: when Aaron is justifying his actions to Moshe he tells it like this: “I took the gold (that the people donated) and threw it into the fire, and out came this very Egel.” Now, there are a few possibilities here: either Aaron is lying to cover his tracks (highly unlikely), or he threw the golden rings into the fire and Hashem brought about a pretty serious miracle just to lead His people down the road to idolatry; OR Aaron casts thousand of gold rings into a fire and once the fire dies down he is left with a circle of sorts or a big ring. The last options does sound pretty plausible, doesn’t it?
If this is true, it has serious moral, symbolic, and theological implications. It’s not a coincidence that golden rings have a place of prominence in the Mishkan. A golden ring evokes perfection “shlemut,” power (kings wore rings), beauty (rings were (are) used as decorations), continuity and eternity (e.g. circle of life), we get married using a ring, etc. etc. Lehavdil, the Lord of the Rings stories tap into the symbolism of one ring uniting many rings…. lets not go there. So the idea of Am Israel each taking one of their rings and having all of them melted down into one huge ring for Avodat Hashem is one that seems much more captivating and perhaps praiseworthy than mere pagan idolatry. So why is God so angry with them afterwards?
I want to go just one step further, if I may be permitted some license. Aside from rings, there is another word, or root, that keeps popping up in the story of the Egel. To my eye it appears more frequently than one would expect to see it by chance. The word is “RA,” or evil as it is normally translated (and I am not suggesting a different translation this time). Here’s what Aaron tells Moshe: Don’t be angry with me. You know that the nation is in evil. “Ata yadata et ha am ki BeRa hu.” A few lines later (but also in several other places) Ra appears again in several consecutive words: “veyaRA moshe ha am ki paRA hu ki paRAh Aharon.” I am not suggesting that the primary meaning of these words is different from how we normally translate them, but perhaps the unusually high incidence of RA is hinting at something.
What’s striking to me is that RA is the Egyptian sun god, whose symbol was a circle (Igul) and he allegedly drove around in a golden chariot (Agala). I am admittedly not an expert in Egyptian theology, but from what I understand RA was the most powerful, so to speak, god in the Egyptian pantheon, and that the cult of RA often merged him with other important deities to make Amon-Ra and Ra-Horakhty. Moreover, there’s an anthropological theory that the cult of RA, or sun worship, led to an Egyptian monotheistic tradition.
So, as my speculative idea would have it, in the Egel Hazahav story Bnei Israel were not so much practicing pagan idolatry, as turning Avodat Hashem into a type of sun worship. It might sound silly to us, but in the ancient world worshiping the sun made alot of sense, and probably was somewhat synchronous with Biblical monotheism. What I mean is, worshiping the sun is alot like worshiping science or nature. The sun is the most reliable and consistent thing we can observe, so studying it tells us about the predictability of the natural order. It also provides us with sustenance, warmth, and light. When it’s power subsides (at night or in the winter) people get depressed and want very badly to bring it back. All of this is to say that, to an extremely untrained eye, several thousand years ago, it may have been easy to conflate the sustaining power of the sun with what HaShem was promising and doing for His people.
This seems like an amateur mistake at worst. Why is God so incensed that he threatens to wipe out the whole nation? To put it another way, there are many instances in Humash when Am Israel practice pagan idolatry (e.g. with Baal), yet Het HaEgel is seen as a singularly notorious event. To understand this, I think that we have to look at what specifically is bad about worshiping the sun, and what it is about sun-worship that is particularly at odds with God’s plan for Am Israel in the desert. As someone who knows a few people who worship the sun, I am willing to venture a guess.
To keep it very brief as I am running out of space, worshiping the sun means sitting around and doing nothing. Look at what Bnei Israel do as soon as they make the Egel. They bring Shlamim – the Korban that connotes satisfaction or a sense of being totally satiated and just wanting to say thanks. Where are all of the other Korbanot – Hatat, Ola, etc? Instead of genuinely engaging in Avodat Hashem in all of its complexity, they bring Shalamim, get drunk, and… well, however we want to translate letzahek. If we look carefully at the building of the Mishkan, it is never fully finished. There are always additional layers, intricacies, and elements that must be delivered fresh. The Egel, or Ring, is monolith, golden, perfect, and complete. Right before the Egel, Bnei Israel received the Man from Hashem – no need to do any work, just take what you need for free. They must have felt like they were entering a world where the only Korban they will need is Shlamim, and where all they have to do is sit, eat Man, and enjoy Shabbat. Strikingly, right after the eventual reconciliation between God and His people following the Het HaEgel, God instructs them that they will get up, go, and conquer the land of Israel, driving out its innumerable inhabitants.
So I think that one of the way in which KiTisa can be read, is as a polemic against religion that just makes you feel warm and good, like the sun. There are several definitional elements of idolatry. Obviously making a statue of something and worshiping it is one. Rav Shimson Rafael Hirsh elaborates another, more modern, definition, which is that the key element is the idea that man can engage in a process (other than tfila) whereby he begets control over the divine. I guess I would like to add another element, based on my reading of KiTisa – namely that partaking in a religious experience which does nothing to bring you closer to implementing the will of Hashem and His Torah, and which simply allows you to sit around (perhaps listen to stories) and feel good about yourself, is much more similar to Het HaEgel than one might initially think.