Dov Lerea
Dov Lerea

The idolatry of a big lie

Ki Tissa
22 adar 57781
March 5, 2021
Parashat Ki Tissa might be the most powerful portion in the Torah. Bene Yisrael just stood together at Mt. Sinai with one mind and one heart. They received the Torah and declared, “All that Hashem commands us, we will do and we will understand!” They were overwhelmed with awe by God’s presence and pleaded with Moshe to approach God on their behalf. God had also started to instruct Moshe in the construction of the Mishkan, the sacred structure that would enable Israel’s camp to be organized around God’s presence. The Mishkan would also ensure that God’s voice would continue to resonate with the people in the continuous transmission of revelation as they traveled life’s journey towards the promised land.
Indeed, Ki Tissa opens with more details establishing boundaries that further defined the covenant between God and the people. God commanded Israel to donate a half-shekel of silver for atonement so that they could live in purity. That silver would in turn become part of the Mishkan’s foundation. God also taught Moshe how to manufacture the pure olive oil for the golden Menorah, and the recipe for the incense to be burned on the golden altar in the kodesh. In order to perform the sacrificial service, the priests would have to wash their hands and feet, and Hashem instructed Moshe on the construction of the kior, the great laver that would stand in the courtyard of the Mishkan. And then, an alternative construction project emerged as an interlude. In the middle of these instructions preparing Bene Yisrael to live in a sacred covenant with the Creator, dedicated to preserving and protecting God’s creatures and the world, the people become nervous and afraid and impatient.
The construction of the Mishkan is interrupted by an interlude of an alternative construction, the fashioning of an idol to replace Moshe. The two constructions were inverse images of each other. The Mishkan was gold, and the calf was gold. The letters of the ten commandments were engraved, charut, in the stone, and Aharon used a cheret, a stylus, to fashion the calf. God’s voice emanated from between the golden cherubim over the aron kodesh, and Moshe heard the voices of the people worshipping the calf. The commentary of the Tur haAroch by Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, 12th-13th centuries Germany and Toledo, Spain, corroborates this reading. He wrote:
The Torah says, “they removed their gold.” They did not donate any other substance, because gold symbolizes judgment (middat haDin). Furthermore, gold glows like fire which is why the sanctuary of offerings to God was manufactured of gold, as well as the incense altar and the cherubim over the aron kodesh were all made of gold. This is why the calf was made of gold and not silver. (Shemot 32:1)
Of course, replacing Moshe is in reality a pretext for rebelling against God, and that is precisely what the Torah says. They approach Aharon, Moshe’s brother and High Priest, and declare, “We do not know where this fellow Moshe has gone! Make us a god who will lead us!” They conflate Moshe and God explicitly in their request to Aharon. From that moment on, Bene Yisrael lost their innocence. Their behavior had all the signs of teenage rebellion. They wanted their own god. Aharon does not know what to do, so he tried to procrastinate: “Give me your gold jewelry!” He hoped that with time, the people would see the fallacy of what he was doing and calm down. Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar says as much:
“Aaron told them to bring all of their gold jewelry. He told them to bring it themselves, and not send it through others. He told them to bring it to him directly, and not deposit it somewhere. He had holed to procrastinate and buy time.” (Or haChaim, Shemot 32:1)
The Bechor Shor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Bechor Shor of Orleans, France in the 12th century wrote that Aharon had the best of intentions:
“Aharon had the best of intentions [and deliberated on the mounting tension.] He thought to himself: If I appoint Calev ben Yefuneh, or Nachshon ben Aminadav, or one of the other great leaders, then when Moshe returns they would not want to relinquish their power, resulting in an insurrection and bloodshed. If, on the other hand, if I refuse to appoint a new leader, then the people will appoint someone on their own, with the same result. If I appoint myself, that will cause tension directly with Moshe himself. Therefore, I will filibuster with words and engage them in a meaningless project until Moshe returns. Once Moshe returns, the entire enterprise will then fall apart of its own accord. Therefore, that is what Aharon did! Aharon initially requested the jewelry from the women only, knowing that they would refuse, further prolonging the outcome.”
This same interpretation was proffered by the Da’at Zekanim, the commentary on the Torah by the Ba’alei haTosafot from Allsace-Loraine in medieval France and Germany in the 12th-13th centuries, as well as the Chizkuni, Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach of 13th century France, the Ramban, and the Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 19th century Poland. Nobody believed that the people would really regard the calf as their god and leader. This was a temporary condition, an understandable deficiency of resilience on the part of an enslaved people. Certainly, the populace would come to their senses after recalibrating their perceptions of their situation. How could so many people actually believe such a blatant falsehood? How could such a big lie intoxicate the intuition, the rationality, and the experiential knowledge of so many?
The comments of the Tzror haMor, Rabbi Avraham Saba of 15th century Castille provide a way of thinking about these questions. It is particularly interesting to note that R. Saba lived through the expulsion from both Spain and the terrible ordeals of the expulsion from Portugal. He had to flee for his life from Lisbon, and lived out the rest of his days in Fes, Morocco. He wrote:
“It is astounding that Aharon did not reprimand the people immediately upon hearing their request! How could he not have raised his voice, trembling in bitter protest?! How could he not have reminded the people that God saved them from Egypt and fed them Manna and then gave them the Torah from heaven, speaking to them directly? Furthermore, I wonder, how is it that God said nothing after hearing their request, and then hearing that Aharon elicited donations of gold, and then seeing that Aharon threw the gold into a furnace, and then out came the calf, and then noting that Aharon built an altar and declared, “Tomorrow is a festival for God!?” Why did God not tell Moshe to descend immediately upon hearing and seeing those things? Perhaps had Moshe descended immediately, he would have stayed the course of events. Instead, God remained silent until God saw the people rise early in the morning and began offering sacrifices on the altar before the calf. Only then did God speak to Moshe, saying, “Descend, for your people have become perverse.” The question about God requires no response, because this is God’s way with people. God decreed that humanity would be created with freedom to choose their course of action. This truth is reiterated throughout the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. The rabbis also taught that one must guide each person on the pathway he/she chooses for themselves. Therefore, it would have been inappropriate for God to attempt to force the people to behave differently. And in fact, when God heard their request, and saw Aharon request gold, and saw the calf, and heard Aharon declare a festival for Hashem the following day, God was not disturbed. God felt that the people’s intention had integrity and was not evil. They requested a leader to lead instead of Moshe, to walk before them, as an honest, integrous leader. After all, they really did not know what had become of Moshe. Therefore, even making the calf itself was understandable. They made a symbol of God, while God remained in their consciousness. Aharon said, “Tomorrow is a festival for Hashem, for God.” However, when God saw that they actually prepared sacrifices to the calf and offered them on the altar, then God realized that they had become idolaters, and ordered Moshe to descend.”
These comments by the Tzror haMor highlight the fine line between the monotheistic perception of the oneness of the universe and the idolatrous worship of a false god. These comments capture the slippery slope that progresses incrementally until it is indeed too late, erupting in uncontrolled hysteria. In these comments, Rabbi Saba described the profound dignity with which God created humanity. God created human beings with the freedom to choose pathways and pledged never to interfere with the processes that human beings enable and allow to unfold. The God of the Tzror haMor is optimistic about people. God believes in humanity, that people will find their way back to our created purpose. Furthermore, this image of Hashem projects confidence in the human imagination. One cannot see God’s face and live, as God tells Moshe later in the parasha. That would be too explicit; life contains nuance, and grey areas, and mystery. Humanity must imagine God in different ways, as variegated as the diversity of the imagination, depending upon the moment. The liturgical poem ‘anim Zemirot, authored possibly by Rabbi Yehuda heHassid, 12th-century Germany, exemplifies this idea, that God needs us to imagine the divine differently depending upon our circumstances. In the poem, God appears sometimes as an old man, sometimes as a youth. Sometimes as pious, wrapped in tefillin in prayer, and at other times, a warrior. God’s image can never be ossified into a single, concrete image. As God created the world and humanity with diversity, so too, does God hope that people will imagine God with the same creative richness as the natural world itself contains and exemplifies.
Living with nuance, with the intoxicating stimulation and power of human diversity, requires self-confidence. Differences humble. Living with diversity requires people to feel that by forming relationships with people who appear different, they are able to discover and travel their own pathways to righteous, compassionate behaviors. Living with diversity points people towards our common parent in heaven, and challenges us to share the world without aggressions or the avaricious lust for power and control.
Perhaps Benei Yisrael, at this moment, had only the experience of living for centuries in a cruel and oppressive society. They had only suffered. They only knew the life of victimization. Perhaps they had not yet had enough opportunity to imagine themselves with power, and able to show compassion to others instead of cruelty. Sinai was the immediate present, but Egypt remained embedded deep in its psyche. Benei Yisrael had no way of integrating their new reality. Rabbi Zeev Wolf of Zhitomir, 18th century Poland, a disciple of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezhirech, wrote the following in his commentary, ‘Or haMeir (“The Illuminating Light”) that suggests precisely this reading:
It seems to me that we should read the verse, “the entire nation removed the gold earrings that were in their ears” with particular attention to the word, “‘et.” [Usually, that word simply signifies a direct object and is not itself translated.] Here, the meaning of the word, “‘et” is, “with,” [for it sometimes has that meaning as a preposition.] Accordingly, the verse would read, “the entire nation became fragmented with their gold earrings,” insofar as they fashioned a calf and accepted it as a god. That is to say, through this act, the people fragmented and broke their ears, distorting and dismantling the words, “I am the Lord your God” that they heard at Mt. Sinai….Therefore, removing the gold from their ears represented distorting what their own ears had heard and what they had understood, and instead they created their own god. In that way, they disabled their own ears as if they never heard God’s words at Mt. Sinai. (Shemot 32:3)
The golden calf was an objective falsehood, but it served a need. It made life simple. It made their immediate experience accessible. It offered the people something concrete they could hold in their minds. The Torah is teaching us that humanity is more than capable of believing a big lie, one that defies all rational thought. It is teaching us that people will all too easily and dangerously embrace that lie. They will embrace a lie tenaciously. That lie will intoxicate them, it will whip them into a hysterical frenzy, it will turn them violent, and cruel, and self-serving. The Torah is teaching us that humanity will easily turn to a lie, and when people embrace such lies, they have become idolaters. Once idolatrous, society will see enemies everywhere. Anyone who is different. Anyone who thinks differently. Anyone who appears different, or alien, or foreign, or strange. What one learns from this parasha perhaps is that leaders need to say, “No” immediately. Do not let a lie linger, not even for a moment. Otherwise, the falsehood will fester. It will capture the imagination of the masses. It will oversimplify life. It will not allow people to tolerate difference, or ambiguity, or nuance, or mystery, or diverse needs. May we gain this wisdom and bring it into our hearts.
Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Dov
About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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