Shattered Tablets And The Calf Of Gold I
Shattered Tablets And The Calf Of Gold
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Forty days after the Israelites receive the Torah and pledge undying loyalty to God, they suddenly turn away and begin to worship a false idol, a golden calf. It’s bizarre – and stranger yet is Moshe’s response, to shatter the tablets God has given him.
In this 12-part series, Rabbi Fohrman dives into a deep study of the Golden Calf story, and asks the questions we often forget to think about – why a calf, of all things? How could Israel possibly believe that the calf brought them out of Egypt? Only once we really understand the perspectives of Moshe, the Israelites, and God, can we finally understand the true story of the Shattered Tablets and the Calf of Gold.
Shattered Tablets and the Calf of Gold
Golden Calf Lecture 1 Powerpoint
Golden Calf Lecture 2 Powerpoint
Golden Calf Lecture 3 Powerpoint
Golden Calf Lecture 4 Powerpoint
Golden Calf Lecture 5 Powerpoint
Golden Calf Lecture 6 Powerpoint
Golden Calf Lecture 7 Powerpoint
Golden Calf Lecture 8 Powerpoint
Golden Calf Lecture 9 Powerpoint
Golden Calf Lecture 10 Powerpoint
Golden Calf Lecture 11 Powerpoint
Golden Calf Lecture 12 Powerpoint
We're going to be looking at the story of the Golden Calf – in my mind one of the really very difficult stories to understand in the Bible, and in a few minutes I'll get to exactly why it is that I think it's so difficult.
Let's dive in – if we can – to the Golden Calf issues; I'll tell you where it is that we're going to be looking at. Primarily, the story of the Golden Calf is told in Exodus, in Parshat Ki Tisa and that appears in, let's see, that would be Chapter 31 or so, well no, actually it's Chapter 32. Actually that confusion is really a point which is well worth, I think, thinking about for a second, where really does the story of the Golden Calf begin?
The Debate: Where Does the Golden Calf Story Begin?The story of the Golden Calf, of course, is the famous story of the Jews, they're standing at the foot of Mount Sinai and while Moses is up at the top of the mountain receiving the Torah, the people are at the bottom of the mountain and they're worshiping this calf. Now this story is recounted in Exodus, its placement in the Bible is a little strange and the Medieval Commentators struggle with this a little bit. The story appears right in between two sections of a much larger piece of Exodus, which deals primarily with the laws of the Tabernacle – the Mishkan, the vehicle which G-d had set forth for the Jews to be able to communicate with Him and have this relationship with Him. That G-d would somehow dwell among them and would create this traveling Temple, as it were. When the Jews would come into the land of Israel they would build a permanent Temple, but in the desert they had this Mishkan or the Tabernacle.
The laws of the Tabernacle are set out just before the story of the Golden Calf for a while and just after the story of the Golden Calf for the while. And then that story is interrupted for some reason and we have the story of the Golden Calf, which really chronologically there's some question about exactly when it is and where it takes place. Some people say it took place actually before the command of the Mishkan, and it was sort of out of place here. Some people say it took place afterwards. But for some reason it's taken out of its natural, if I was [reading/writing 2:09] the Bible I would have probably written it right next to the story of Moses going up to Mount Sinai, which appears earlier – a few chapters earlier in Exodus, in the end of Parshat Mishpatim. I'll try and put it in on your source sheets. But it's not, it has shifted over here.
I don't have a really good explanation. Again, the commentators struggle with it, but that's sort of the background of where the story is.
But the question which I'm really putting to you, is even within this sort of limited context of okay, fine, this is where the story is, but where exactly does the story begin? If you look at the end of Chapter 31 and the beginning of Chapter 32, so which verse would you say begins the story? So obviously the person who put the chapters together probably thought it began at Chapter 32, verse 1, that's why they ended Chapter 31 where they ended and began Chapter 32 where they began. By the way, the chapters are a much later edition, probably a non-Jewish edition to the Bible.
But whoever it is put the chapters in probably thought it began with Chapter 32, verse 1, which is; Vayar ha'am ki boshesh Moshe la'redet min ha'har – and the people saw that Moses was late coming down the mountain and they gathered against Aaron and they said, come make us a calf. That sounds like a reasonable place to begin the story. If you look though, you'll find that there is a verse immediately before this – the last verse in Chapter 31 – which could qualify as a candidate, perhaps, for the beginning of the Golden Calf story. That verse begins; Vayiten el Moshe k'chaloso l'daber ito b'Har Sinai shnei Luchot Ha'eidut, luchot even ketuvim b'etzbah Elokim – that G-d gave to Moses as He finished talking to him on Mount Sinai, He gave him two tablets, two Luchot Ha'eidut – two tablets of destiny, Luchot Even – tablets made out of stone, written by the hand of G-d. Then we have the verse: And then the people saw that Moses was late coming down the mountain – and the story of the Golden Calf really begins.
Now why do I say that this last verse of Chapter 31 might in fact be the beginning of the Golden Calf story? It doesn't appear to be the beginning of the Golden Calf story, it's talking about the Tablets and the Tablets aren't the Golden Calf. Well there's two reasons for that. One reason is, is that traditionally, Jews have a much more ancient system of defining where it is that paragraph or sections begin and end in the Bible. That method is known as what we call Parshiyot Petuchot and Parshiyot Stumot – which is that if you look at a Torah scroll, you will find that there are occasionally open sections, blank sections, where there's no text. These blank sections – sometimes it's a blank section in the middle of the line, sometimes it's a blank section all the way from the middle of the line to the end of line – these blank sections indicate a new idea or a new paragraph, as it were.
It just so happens that there is one of these blank sections that appears in the very last verse – just as the last verse of Chapter 31 begins: And Moses was given by G-d, as G-d finished talking to him, these two Tablets. That verse is preceded by one of these blank sections, suggesting that it's the beginning of a new topic, suggesting that this really is the beginning of the Golden Calf story.
And it's strange; you might say well, what does that have to do with the story of the Golden Calf? And one explanation comes to mind which is that well Moses does smash the Tablets – as you probably know – so maybe that's why this story has to do with the Tablets. Maybe Moses smashes the Tablets, so it's kind of neat, we hear the story in the very beginning that Moses got the Tablets, he smashes them in the middle. But that sounds a little contrived and not really all that convincing.
So I do want to mention, just at the outset, I was reading a very interesting essay in Hebrew by a fellow by the name of [Rabbi Samet 6:01] who has an essay on the Luchot – on the Tablets, and on the Eigel – on the Golden Calf. I'll get to some of the points that he makes a little bit later. But he argues that there's a very close correspondence, a very close connection between the idea of these Tablets and the Golden Calf. It is not that they are just apples and Cadillacs, just something that have nothing to do with each other, but he argues that they are almost mirror images of each other, the Tablets and the calf. And he doesn't quite explain – at least maybe I haven't read the essay carefully enough – but I didn't think he exactly explained why, and I'll try and work that out with you, why. But he does point to a couple of really interesting things.
Connecting the Golden Calf Story and the TabletsHe points out, for example, that if you look throughout the text of the story of the Golden Calf the word calf – or in Hebrew Eigel – appears a grand total of seven times. Actually it appears six times, the seventh time that it appears it appears in euphemism, but essentially it appears seven times. And if you look at the appearances of the Luchot; Luchot in fact in the story of the Tablets also appear seven times. At the very end of the career, as it were, of this calf, the calf is destroyed, and at the end of the career of these Tablets, the Tablets are destroyed, and they're both destroyed a verse from each other.
The question is, is there any correspondence between these? And maybe if Samet is right, maybe that goes some way towards explaining why this really would be the opening verse of the story of the Golden Calf, this idea that Moses got the Tablets. Because at face value it's a very strange topic sentence, it doesn't seem to have to do much with the story that follows. But perhaps it does have to do with the story.
So one of the things I want you to keep in the back of your mind as we begin to talk about some of the big issues here in the story of the Golden Calf, is keep in mind the Tablets in the back of your mind; what does that have to do with the story of the Golden Calf?
And just one last thing, while we're talking about Tablets, to think about, do you know what these Tablets are called? What are they called? So you might say they're called – well sometimes they're called the Luchot Ha'brit – the Tablets of the Covenant, but in this story that's not what they're called and for most of the time that they're referred to throughout the Bible they're called something else. They're actually called Luchot Ha'eidut. What exactly do Luchot Ha'eidut mean? Well if you translate it literally it means Tablets of Testimony. Now one question I'd like you to think about is what are they testifying about? I mean if you have Tablets of Testimony, the question that is obvious is you can't have testimony without testifying about something. These Tablets are meant to make a statement, what statement are they making? What's the point? What are they testifying to?
And it seems a very crucial point – getting back to the idea of the Mishkan, of the Tabernacle – the story of the Golden Calf interrupts the story of the Mishkan. I mean it just so happens that the centerpiece of the Mishkan, of the Tabernacle, is what? Well guess what? If you've seen the movie Raiders of the Last Ark you know the answer to that. It's the Ark – the Ark of the Covenant. But not really the Ark of the Covenant, as it's sometimes referred to in the Bible, and that's the way they call it in that movie, but the Ark of Testimony, which is what it's really referred to. It's the Aron Ha'eidut, it's the Aron which has the Eidut, which has the Luchot Ha'eidut in them. So the real centerpiece, what makes the Mishkan be a Mishkan, what makes the Tabernacle be the Tabernacle, is this Ark and inside the Ark is this Eidut, and somehow in the middle of this we have the story of the Golden Calf, preceded by the story of the giving of the Eidut which is really what makes the Mishkan go, the Tabernacle go.
So something is going on here with the connection, I think, between the whole Tabernacle story and the Eigel story – and the calf story, and particular, the connection between the Luchot. And I think it has something to do with what the Luchot – what the Tablets, are testifying to. This mysterious message which they convey. What is that message? So that's something which I do want to get to back to throughout the story of the Golden Calf.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves, these are almost details. I want to pull back the zoom lens and just talk in very broad terms what happens in the story, and if we are going to look at this, what are the main things that we want to focus on when we look at the story of the Golden Calf. So let's take a minute to look at that.
Questioning the Story of the Golden CalfOkay, whenever we begin to look at any story in the Bible I think it's helpful to ask ourselves what are the difficulties? What are the problems? Often we're so used to just reading stories and not thinking about the problems that we can just assimilate what's going on in the story without even bothering to really think about it. But I do think that one of the techniques, as it were, that the Bible gives us to understanding what's going on, is the sort of intentionally placed, hit-you-in-the-face questions, that any intelligent reader if he's really thinking about what's going on just has to ask. I think there's big questions you can ask and there's little questions you can ask.
The big questions are the questions that should keep you up at night, the questions that are so fundamental that if you don't really have an answer to these questions you just aren't really understanding what's going on. What are the big questions? Are there any big questions in the story of the Golden Calf? What really bothers you in the story? So I'll tell you what bothers me – at least when I read the story, what I think the really crucial, central questions that you need to deal with are. And in my mind I guess there are probably two of them.
Question 1: Why Worship the Golden Calf at Sinai?Question number 1 would have to be placement of this story – and by this I don't mean placement necessarily in terms of the Tabernacle, but chronological placement. When did this happen? We're told at the beginning of this that this happens when Moses is at the top of the mountain and he's up there and he has been there for 40 days and he's got these Tablets and he's going down the mountain. Now if you think about what's happening here; so Moses is on top of the mountain, and he's accepting the Torah, he's accepting the Ten Commandments, it's this great moment, and what's happening at the bottom of the mountain? I mean just imagine this for a second.
First of all, you have an event going on of epic historic proportions. There's that funny – not so funny really, because it's done with a sort of tongue in cheek, in a quite serious way – "Chronicles of the Past", I think it is. I'll try and put a link for you in the sources page. It's really fun, it's these newspapers which these folks put together from the times of the Bible, really quite accurate. And the newspapers have these headlines and full stories that go through all these Bible stories. So the number one headline there is: Moses Gets the Tablets at the Top of the Mountain and he's Up There for 40 Days. It's an amazing, amazing event.
If we think about ourselves as religious human beings, we think, oh well you know it's so hard to see G-d in the world these days, if only there was a sign, if only G-d could give us a sign, if only I was around when the Red Sea was split. Well you know, what greater sign, what greater moment would there have been to live for, than this moment? Standing at Mount Sinai, watching the fire and light show, G-d Himself speaking to the people. I mean it's great, it's grand, what more can you ask for? Moses goes to the top of the mountain, and he's up there, he's got the Tablets, he's on his way down, and then what happens?
Just imagine the "CNN" reporter there. There's all these guys covering Moses on the top of the mountain, he's coming down, and then there's this little camera bar on the side of the screen where one reporter is trying to get the anchor's attention. Bob, Bob, I just have to focus your attention towards the bottom of the mountain, there seems to be some disturbance going on. Well what is it, or we can't be bothered, too much happening at the top of the mountain, Phil. No, but Bob, look at the bottom of the mountain, the people are worshiping something, they're worshiping this Golden Calf. I mean it's wild! Of all moments in history to be worshiping an idol – this is it? How could they have done such a thing? If there's any moment where it's clear that there is a G-d in the world, that G-d is giving you the Torah, I mean this is it, and to pick of all moments – I mean now is when the Jews are going to worship the calf? How could they have done this? It is just mindboggling.
So you could imagine, I mean first of all it can't be coincidental, it's like the worst possible time to be worshiping a Golden Calf, but because it's the worst possible time it can't be just it happens to be that they picked this time, it seems to me that there must be something about what they're going through now that explains why it is that they're worshiping a Golden Calf. It's not just that – I mean, it could be – Edgar Allan Poe for example, has this interesting essay – again, I'll try and put this for you in the sources page, called "The Imp of the Perverse". "The Imp of the Perverse" is a fascinating, little idea. He says that there are times when human beings do perverse things for just absolutely no explanation.
For example, he writes a whole essay on it, so I'll just give you a more everyday kind of example. Imagine you're cutting this apple and you're cutting the apple and you're clutching the apple in one hand and you're cutting with a sharp knife in the other hand. You're thinking, do you know I really shouldn't be holding the apple like this in my hand, I really should put it down on the counter, because if I hold the apple like this and I'm cutting with a knife I probably will cut myself if I keep on cutting it this way. But of course, what do you do? You keep on holding the apple and you keep on cutting with a knife, and what do you do? You end up cutting yourself. And you think, well that was idiotic, why did I end up cutting myself, why did I do that? I knew that I was going to cut myself if I continued doing that – that is the "Imp of the Perverse", according to Edgar Alan Poe.
He argues that there is some deep-seated urge within humanity, some perverse urge to somehow just do the wrong thing at the wrong time, even though you know you're going to do it and that's just the way human nature goes. And maybe you could explain the Golden Calf as the "Imp of the Perverse" in spades? Maybe that's just what it is? It was THE absolute wrongest time for this, so that's why it happened.
But I think there's a more essential explanation. It somehow must be that it was because of this great moment that the Golden Calf – as weird as it sounds – even became possible. It's just too big of a coincidence otherwise. But the question is how? So question number 1 is how could they have done this? I mean, it just is mindboggling. At this moment in history how could they have done this? Could there be some connection why it had to be now? So that is one issue; how could it happen? Okay, big question number 1.
Let's go to – in my mind – big question number 2. And big question number 1 I'll try to focus our first lecture on and probably our second lecture, and when we get done with that, we'll move onto big question number 2. Let me get to big question number 2, just sort of lay it out on the table for you.
Question 2: The Aftermath of the Golden CalfOkay, big question number 2 in my mind at least, concerns the aftermath of the Golden Calf. And this is something which gets relatively little press I suppose, because when we think about the Golden Calf episode we tend to think about the calf itself, much more prominent than the aftermath. In the aftermath basically what happens is that G-d is ready to destroy the people and G-d is dissuaded from doing so by Moses. But what's interesting about this is that the aftermath takes a very long time.
If you actually compare the amount of verses which are dedicated to the story of the Golden Calf itself and compare the amount of verses dedicated to the aftermath, the amount of verses dedicated to the aftermath far outstrips those dedicated to the sin of the Golden Calf itself. Suggesting almost that the more prominent story is the aftermath, even more than the sin itself.
But it always struck me that the story of the aftermath of the calf had many repetitive elements, it was just very repetitive. It seemed to needlessly take a long time to tell, and it's few chapters long. Basically, I always thought that you could summarize it like this. G-d was ready to destroy the people, Moses interceded, Moses asked G-d to forgive them, and G-d said okay, fine I won't destroy them, I'll forgive them. That's basically it. And it seemed to me that that happened immediately – well at least in the first 10 verses or so – after the story of the Golden Calf. And, as far as I was always concerned, the story could have ended right there. I couldn't figure out why it didn't end right there. It seemed like Moses always kept on going back to G-d, asking for the same thing over and over again; you know, just forgive the people. G-d kept on saying okay, fine. And just it seemed very repetitive. Why does it take so long?
Now I guess this isn't as dramatic a question as the first question: what was going on, how could they possibly worship the calf, but I think it's a very significant question, especially if the story really is about the aftermath. Especially if that, in the Torah's mind, is the more prominent story. So why is that story not repetitive?
Now I'm going to share with you - I'm going to do something which I almost never do, which is kind of give away the store at the beginning. I'm going to share with you a theory that I have, that I'd like to prove and develop over the course of the second half of these lectures. A theory about why these verses, why these chapters, are not really repetitive. The theory is basically this. If you look carefully at these verses of the aftermath of the Golden Calf I think you'll find that there is a process unfolding. It's not all or nothing, it's not black and white, it's not like being either pregnant or not pregnant, there's a process unfolding here. The process begins with G-d really being ready to destroy the people and the process ends with forgiveness at some level. But there's many, many stages in the process. And I think if you read the verses carefully you can break the verses up into stages.
You might want to try doing this. Go through the aftermath of the Golden Calf – you have some time between now and next week, we probably won't get to it for another week or two – and just try and see if you can break them into sections and give each section a headline.
I'm going to argue that there were at least 10 different stages, and what was happening here was that there was a slow process of rehabilitation in the relationship between G-d and the people. It wasn't just about not destroying them, it was about can this relationship be rehabilitated? Can it be brought back to life? And I think it's really fascinating because there are very significant ramifications to this. What really happened between G-d and the people is that the relationship was almost entirely torn to shreds by an incredible act of betrayal, and at that moment it was not even certain whether or not the Jewish people as a people would survive; G-d really threatens to destroy them. Again, the problem always is when you know the end of a story it's difficult to read the story in a way in which there's any suspense. We're still around, the Jews are still here, so obviously G-d didn't destroy them, but if you're reading the story at that time, that's not taken for granted, it's very possible that they'll be just completely wiped off the face of the map.
When there's that level of betrayal and when that's the response of G-d, things don't get put back together all of a sudden. It takes a while. There's a process. And I think it's a fascinating study; when there is a terrible betrayal in a relationship is it possible to rebuild? And if it is possible to rebuild, what does that process look like? Is there a process that can be followed? If there is, and if I'm right about this, it might be a fascinating model; what happens between G-d and the people to when they're – whether the relationship is with man and G-d or whether it's with people and other people – how does one go about rebuilding? What are the stages? What do you have to do? How do you step back from the edge of the cliff?
So this is something I want to explore with you. I think, again, if we look at those verses carefully, we'll see that it's not repetitive at all, and I think we can really chart exactly what's happening from one point to the other. And at least in my mind it's very fascinating and I hope you'll find it so as well.
So those are the two things I want to look about. Again, first the story of the calf itself, what was going on, how could they possibly have done this? And then when we're done with that, looking at the aftermath which I think really is the real story, and trying to chart what happens in this aftermath and what does Moses do. I think we'll really gain a new appreciation for the role of Moses here, what he was up against and what it is that he was doing with G-d and with the people here in the story of the aftermath. So I'm looking again at those two issues, major issues, start with the sin itself, then go to the aftermath – why don't we jump in now and we'll, having defined, I think, the one big question with the sin of the Golden Calf, let's try and look at some of the other issues which I think we need to take a look at to put this story together in any intelligent kind of way.
Reading the Golden Calf Story with a New PerspectiveLet me give you this really quick homework assignment, if I can. Just try to do this if you can before you go on to the next section of this talk here. Take a look if you happen to have a Chumash or Bible in front of you, or if you're looking at your source sheets, at Chapter 31, verse 18, which is where I suggested before that the story of the Golden Calf starts. Read through, oh about seven, eight verses or so, to Chapter 32, the end of verse 6, which really is this very small story of the sin of the Golden Calf. What I want you to do is sort of erase everything that you know about the story and just read the words and ask yourself what are the questions that any intelligent person should ask reading this?
We talked about what the big question is, how could they possibly do this; aside from that big question are there any little questions? The little questions will be important – just like they were last time in our, when we looked at Moses and the rock, when you build up a theory you build it out of these questions. What are the issues? What are the questions we need to look at when we look at this story?
Okay so take yourself, if you can – if you're driving and you don't have your source sheets with you, don't have a Bible, do not kill yourself to try to read these source sheets while you're driving, you can just go on and listen, you're officially excused from this assignment. But if you can, look at the text for, just take two minutes, read through, and let's compare notes. What do you think the issues are that we need to struggle with here? You got three minutes, on your mark, get set and go!
Okay, so I hope you've gotten a chance to take a quick look at these verses here, let me share with you some of the things that I find kind of puzzling about these verses. I'm actually going to start with something – this is kind of cheating, but I hope you won't tell anyone – with something that is actually not in the text here, but is in the Midrashic commentary to this text – ancient Rabbinic commentary, and something which the Rabbis say here, which at face value seems very strange.
That is if you look carefully you'll find that the impetus towards the making of the Golden Calf here in verse – I guess it's verse 1 here in Chapter 32 – is the people say that we don't know what happened to Moses. The language they say is; Ki zeh Moshe ha'ish asher he'elanu mei'eretz Mitzrayim loh yadanu meh haya lo – this man Moses, or literally, this Moses, the man, who took us out of Egypt, we don't know what became of him. Now Rashi in his commentary here quotes a Midrash to the following effect, that when the people say; Ki zeh Moshe ha'ish, there is a few extra words. I mean, they could have just said, because Moshe, who took us out of Egypt – Moses who took us out of Egypt, we don't know what happened to him. But they add a few words which seem to be more specific kinds of words; Ki zeh Moshe ha'ish – for THIS Moses, and then, for this Moses The Man, as if there is something tangible that they're talking about. Moses is not tangible, he's not there anymore. So Rashi says it's as if they're pointing to something.
The Midrashic Interpretation of the Golden CalfThe Midrash here has a Midrashic interpretation, elaborates on this, and says, here's what happened, here's the impetus which brought the people to the Golden Calf. And, again, before we even go into this, whenever you read Midrash you just have to be careful. The Rabbis can say things which seem very strange at first glance and it bears trying to figure out what they really mean to say. So at first glance this is a very difficult Midrash to understand, but here's what they say. They say that the reason why they sinned was because Satan in heaven showed them a picture of a dead Moses, and that's what it means when they say; 'This Moses, the man' – that one, right there, as if they're pointing up to the sky. The Satan showed them a picture of Moses dead in heaven and that's what they thought happened, Moses died, and therefore everything fell apart and they made the Golden Calf.
Now the question is how really are we supposed to understand this piece of Midrash? Aside from the sort of the anthropomorphizing of the Satan as some sort of devil who is trying to get them to do these things wrongs, but isn't there something strange about – let's even say there's some devil here, which is some Satan that's trying to get us to do the wrong thing – aren't there any limits to what Mr. Satan can do? It strikes me that this is playing a little bit below the belt here, I mean, he's allowed to lie, cheat and steal? He can say whatever he wants to? I mean, this is a bald-face lie that Moses is dead. I mean, fine, the Satan wants to get people to sin and do the wrong thing, but is there nothing that he's not allowed to do? He can tell you any lie?
He can, it just seems – and I guess it also goes to who is the Satan? I suppose if you concede to the Satan as someone who was an all-out archenemy of G-d then I guess it's no holds barred and may the best man win, but traditionally that at least is not how Judaism has seen it. The Satan is seen as an angel like any other angel and his job – he's got a job to do – and his job is to play prosecutor and to try, as like any good prosecutor, to try to make the best case for a situation, so he tries to make the best case to the people to test them and tempt them. But there are some limits presumably? There are some things you can do that just aren't fair. Doesn't this seem to be not fair? It's a lie. So how do we understand: what are the Sages driving at here when they say that Satan showed them a picture of a dead Moses in heaven? So that's question number 1. Again, it's not really a textual question on the Biblical text, on the Midrashic text, but something I want to raise nevertheless. So let's go look at the text itself and see what comes up.
Studying the Golden Calf Story for AnswersSo if I had to give you my number 1 question on the text, aside from how could the people do this, it would be on something it is that they say. Listen to these words. Immediately after the calf is made the people identify it and they say – they make an Eigel Masecha – and they say: Eileh elohecha Yisrael asher he'elucha mei'eretz Mitzrayim. Speaking about this calf, this Golden Calf which they've made in verse 4, they declare: Eileh elohecha Yisrael – this is your god o Israel, who took you out of Egypt. N
ow just think of those words, how is it possible that these guys are saying these words? This is your god who took you out of Egypt, I mean, are they mad? I mean, first of all, they know they made the calf out of their own hands, how could they say, this is your god who took them out of Egypt? What is that supposed to mean? I mean, they're not crazy, they know how they got out of Egypt, they know there was 10 plagues, they know it was G-d behind it, they know there was Moses. I mean, so what, the calf certainly wasn't there, they think that this molten thing that can't move, can't breathe, took them out of Egypt? I mean, how could they say such a thing? What were they thinking?
Which brings us to another question, frankly, and that is, what were they thinking? I mean, what were they thinking? What was the impetus for all – forget the impetus – what was the plan, the Matarah? What was the goal of this calf? Was it really that this was the god who took them out of Egypt? Now they're going to have a tangible god? What was it?
Why were they doing this? They weren't crazy so how is it that we understand this? How do we understand what they were thinking and how do we understand what the verse says they declare, that this is your god who took you out of Egypt? Just why? It just seem irrational. It's one thing to do a sin, it's another thing to be completely irrational – is that what's going on?
Okay, and now here's another question, let's go back to the Satan thing. The Satan convinced the people in the eyes of the Rabbis that Moses was dead in heaven and therefore everything fell apart and they made this calf. Okay, let's say the people were convinced that Moses was dead or they were concerned that Moses was dead. The text seems to say as much as this, that they were worried that Moses had not come down from the mountain and they say to Aaron, come make us a god because Moses isn't around anymore. Okay, let's say they thought Moses died, what do you think the people's response would have been?
First of all, what is the response when Moses actually does die? If you look at the very end of Devarim – look at the very end of Deuteronomy – when Moses dies, the people mourn him for a long time. When Aaron dies the people mourn him for a long time. I mean, so wouldn't you expect that if people thought that Moses was dead how come nobody responds by mourning him? How come all of a sudden they want a new G-d? That's a weird thing. It seems like there's some connection here between the death of Moses and all of a sudden, let's have this god, but how do we understand that? That's a weird thing. You would think if Moses died, so let's be very sad that he died, so why is there no mourning for Moses? That would be question number 2 or 3, I'm not sure quite what we're up to, but okay.
Okay, also another thing, how do we understand their choice of idols? Is it sort of random? I mean, they could have just made anything, they could have made a peacock and they could have made a hamburger, they could have made a chariot – in fact, they decided upon a calf. First of all a cow, but not just a cow, we know that it's a young cow, a calf. Why a calf? Was there any thought behind that? Any symbolism behind that? What is the meaning of them choosing a calf? So why a calf?
Let's go on; and here's one I find actually very particularly troubling. Put yourself, if you would for a moment, in the position of the Almighty here. Imagine you were occupying the position of G-d in this story and you're watching things unfold, you'd ask yourself at what point would you become angry? When would you stop the show? When would you say, okay party's over and break in and say, we're not doing this anymore? When would you become angry? Because Moses is up there with G-d and G-d tells him at the top of the mountain that it's over at some point and He becomes angry, so when would you become angry?
I'm just going to read through the story, you tell me when you would stop things. Vayiten el Moshe k'chaloso l'daber ito b'Har Sinai shnei Luchot Ha'eidut, luchot even – so when Moses finished talking to G-d at Mount Sinai, G-d gave him these two Tablets of Testimony, two tablets of stone, written with the finger of G-d. Then, the people saw that Moses was late coming down the mountain, they gathered against Aaron.
By the way, the language; 'they gathered against Aaron' is kind of interesting, especially if you were with us for our last class in the series of Why Couldn't Moses Enter the Land, you should pick up on the strangeness of this language or the uniqueness of this language. Listen; Vayikahel ha'am al Aharon - and the nation gathered, the people gathered, congregated, against Aaron. Now that language of 'congregated against' is a very unique kind of language.
Congregated against, as it happens, it's only used three times in the entire Bible; we talked about two of them in our last series on "Why Couldn't Moses Enter the Land", and the third one is here. The other two times of course, are the rebellion of Korach, when the people gather against Moses and Aaron. Then the story of Mei Merivah – the story of the hitting of the rock where there are all those echoes of the rebellion of Korach – and the people again gather in rebellion against Moses and Aaron and demand water and they say, you haven't brought us into the land, you should have brought us into the land. And as we said in our last session it seems like it's a replay of the rebellion [of 34:34] Korach, and indeed Moses sees it as a rebellion, he says; Shimu nah ha'morim – listen you rebellious ones.
And then the first time that we have this language, even earlier than the story of Moses and the rock and even earlier than the story of Korach – both of which occur in the Book of Numbers – is here in the Book of Exodus in the story of the Golden Calf, when the original time that this language is used; Vayikahel ha'am al Aharon – and they gathered against Aaron. And it seems to be that these are code words for rebellion. Gathering is not just gathering, but it's gathering against, it's taking that whole force of a community but using it as a big stick to gather against someone and to beat up on someone. That was the position which Aaron was in. It's almost like this is the quintessential rebellion that all the other rebellions later on follow from this one, but this is it.
The Role of Moses and Aaron in the Golden Calf StorySo they gather against Aaron and this is what they say. They say; Kum asei lanu elohim – get up and make us a god; Asher yeilchu lefaneinu – that will go before us, because this man Moses who [brought us up 35:33] from Egypt we don't know what happened to him.
Now if you were G-d, I think you would possibly see yourself as being a trifle annoyed here. What are the people saying go make us a god for? I mean right now you wouldn't be surprised at all if the Almighty came out and said, sorry, this is a really bad idea. But G-d lets things go.
What happens? Aaron then goes, the people take their gold off of them, they bring it to Aaron – by the way there's a grammatical oddity, it's a very subtle oddity but one I just want to point out to you because I do think it's important and we'll get back to this probably next week. But that is that Aaron had told the people to take off their gold and to donate their gold to this thing that they were going to make, and you'll find that in verse 2, I guess, when Aaron says: Parku nizmei ha'zahav asher b'oznei nesheichem – take off the rings of gold that your wives have and that your children have and bring them to me. There's something strange about that.
First of all, the word Parku – for those who know Hebrew, Parak seems to be too strong a word for just 'take off'. The word Parak really means to rip off or to undo in some sort of very serious kind of way, much more so than sort of the dainty taking off that you would do for jewelry. So that's one issue.
But there's a grammatical issue too. Because when the people actually do it, the language is; Vayitparku kol ha'am et nizmei ha'zahav. So for those of you who if you know Hebrew, I think you'll begin to get this difference on your own. If you don't, just listen to how the words are phrased. The command was; Parku, and when they do it; Vayitparku. Now do you hear the addition of the addition of the 't' sound – the Taf? That indicates that the verb is being conjugated differently, it's being conjugated in Hitpa'el rather than in Pa'al. Aaron had commanded; Parku, take off, but when they actually got around to doing it, what they did is Hitpa'el.
Now in Hebrew the verbs, depending upon how they're conjugated, mean something else, there are various different forms in which a verb can be. One of the forms is known as Pa'al, which is the direct form of the verb, that's what you would have expected here, that the people took off their gold, but in fact it's conjugated in Hitpa'el, and Hitpa'el is always reflexive. So for example, Lavash means to dress, but Le'hitlabesh means to get dressed. Kashar means to tie, Le'hitkasher means to become tied up. Well actually in Modern Hebrew it means to make a telephone call – Le'hitkasher is seen as something reflexive that I do, which maybe says something about how we view telephone calls and the nature of tying oneself up while they're in conversation on the phone, I don't know. But generally, Hitpa'el always signifies some sort of reflexive action, where the object of the action is me – I am both the subject and the object at the same time, I am doing something to myself.
So the problem is Vayitparku seems to be the wrong conjugation. What did the people do? They took off gold. But the object of the verb 'took off' is the gold jewelry, is not them. Somehow something slippery is happening with the object – whereas Aaron said take off the gold and they indeed take off the gold, Vayitparku – but what they take off is in reflexive form, it sounds like it's themselves. And yet the verse continues; Et nizmei ha'zahav – putting the object on the gold itself. So there's some confusion, is the object the gold? Et nizmei ha'zahav – that they were taking off the gold? But the Hitpa'el seems to indicate that the object was themselves. So something strange is happening with this – a discrepancy between the original command of Aaron, or the suggestion of Aaron, and how it actually gets carried out. I think that's significant and we'll come back to it.
But let's continue in our quest of when G-d would get angry. Moving on a little bit, what happens next? Aaron takes the gold, it goes in the fire and it's made into a golden calf. Then the Jews proclaim; Eileh elohecha Yisrael – this is your god of Israel that took you out of Egypt. Now if I was G-d, I don't know, that would be the last straw. What do you mean, this is the god that took them out of Egypt? After all of this, ten plagues, everything I've done for these guys, the Manna, taking them to Sinai, through the Red Sea and all of this, all they can say is that's the god who took them out of Egypt? I mean, it's all over, how could they possibly say that? But strangely enough, that does not do it, the story continues, G-d still does not respond.
Vayar Aharon – Aaron sees what's going on. Vayiven mizbayach lefanav – and he builds an altar before the calf. Vayikra Aharon – and he calls to everyone. Vayomar chag laHashem machar – and he says, it's a holiday unto G-d tomorrow.
Now by the way, there's something which you should be aware of here as well, when Aaron says this that there's a holiday unto G-d tomorrow, what exactly does he mean? Does he mean god the calf, the new god, or does he mean G-d with a capital G? As it happens, if you look in the Hebrew it's; Chag La… – and then there's the particular name of G-d, Yud and Heih and Vav and Heih. There are different names that we use for G-d, when the people ask for a god, they say make us an 'Elohim asher yeilchu lefaneinu' – make us a god that will go before us – but that's not the Yud and Heih and Vav and Heih name of G-d, that's an elohim. Elohim really is a power; make us a divine being, a power – it's a generic name for G-d. But there's also the specific name for THE G-d, the Creator, which is Yud and Heih and Vav and Heih.
In other lectures I've talked about the significance of that name, and for the time being just keep in mind that that is THE particular name for G-d. So when Aaron says; Chag laHashem machar – Chag, it's a holiday for Yud and Heih and Vav and Heih, he's not saying it's a holiday for the calf tomorrow, he's saying it's a holiday for G-d. What is Aaron doing?
What Aaron seems to be doing, the strategy of Aaron throughout this whole thing – and this is how the commentators seem to see it – is that Aaron seems to be trying to take the force of these people who are gathered against him and instead of opposing them directly, to try to channel their energy in some way that's basically the lesser of all evils. We get a bit of a hint of that, I think, in the preamble to this verse where before Aaron makes the altar it says: Vayar Aharon – and Aaron saw. What did he see? It's not clear what he saw.
But Aaron saw something and that seeing propelled him to build the altar and proclaim we're having a holiday to G-d tomorrow. It's that Aaron perceived what was going on, he saw apparently something getting out of control – and the Midrash elaborates on what he might have seen. The Midrash suggests perhaps he saw the murder of somebody else who tried to stop them – Chur in the Midrash's case – and he realized that direct resistance was futile, so he figured he would go with the flow, but try to put this in a way that the least of all evils would come out of it, and therefore he tries to gently nudge them on. Okay let's have, we'll have the celebration, we'll do the whole thing, but: Chag laHashem machar – it's a holiday for G-d tomorrow. See if we can channel it in that kind of way.
But what happens? Vayashkimu mimacharat – they wake up the next morning and they bring – Olot vayagishu shlamim vayeishev ha'am le'echol v'shato – they go and they have a party; Vayakumu l'tzachek – and they get up to laugh and to rejoice. And then all of a sudden G-d comes to Moses and said: Leich reid – go down; Shicheis amcha – your people have become corrupted, that you've taken out of Egypt, and G-d then says essentially, it's all over.
But what's strange about this, I think, is that the verse makes a point of saying this happened the next day; Vayashkimu mimacharat – the next day happened and they made this party and that's when G-d got angry. So it's a whole second day after they've said this is the god that's taken you out of Egypt, why didn't G-d respond to that? It's a strange place, strange moment, for G-d to object when He does, there were many moments He could have objected before. Why does G-d object at the particular moment He objects, at the end of verse 6? And you can read it again. But it seems to me strange. I think the more egregious things that went wrong happened earlier. So they had a party the next day, big deal. What's happening here?
The Meaning of the Golden Calf StoryOkay, so the theory I'd like to present to you here today is really a theory that is not my own, but I'd like to elaborate upon a theory that was presented by one of the famous Medieval Commentators, and that is the Ramban, Nachmanides. This is one of Nachmanides' famous pieces where he advocates a particular view of the Golden Calf that he builds upon very carefully assembled evidence. I think it's possible that he doesn't even mention all of his evidence, I think that he took note of a number of the questions which we've already come up with, as well as a few others. And you're welcome to take a look at Nachmanides' comments actually in the text. If I can, I'll try and see if I can translate some of them for you in the source sheets. But let me summarize a few of the other questions that Nachmanides talks about and then I'll try to elaborate what it is that he says.
Let's see, what else does he bring up? Okay, first of all he talks about Aaron's role. He says, first of all, it's kind of strange, isn't it? When Moses comes down the mountain so he meets Aaron and he says, what have you done to bring upon this people this terrible sin? And Aaron's response is oh – Al yichar af adoni – don't become so angry Moses, you know the people, and this is what they asked me to do. I mean, how could he have possibly said that, don't become angry? What do you mean, don't become angry? Look what they're doing, I'm up there at the top of the mountain trying to accept the Torah, and they're worshiping an idol at the bottom of the mountain and you're telling me, don't become angry? I mean, how could you possibly say such a thing, don't become angry? So Aaron's response is kind of strange, Nachmanides says. That's one issue he raises.
Another issue he raises, he says, how come the people abandon the calf when Moses came down the mountain? Moses comes down the mountain, all of a sudden they abandon the calf. I mean, if they think that this is really their god, this is the new-fangled god, new game plan and new god, how come all of a sudden they're willing to abandon it so quickly? I mean, when people, somebody comes along and destroys your god you get pretty angry. If they decided there was enough of Moses and now we have a new god, so how come they passively let Moses destroy it?
And then finally, Nachmanides says, let's pay attention to what the impetus for them doing this is. The impetus is they see Moses is late coming down the mountain. And now if you listen to the text carefully – Nachmanides doesn't say all of this but I think this is implied in his words – if you listen to the text carefully listen to how they say this. They gather against Aaron and they say: Come make us a god that will go before us; Ki zeh Moshe ha'ish asher he'elanu mei'eretz Mitzrayim loh yadanu meh haya lo – because this Moses, the man, that took us out of Egypt, we don't know what happened to him.
Now what's the extra word here in this verse? What word could very easily have been left out? Listen carefully. Make us a god because – Ki zeh Moshe ha'ish – because this Moses, the man, who took us out of Egypt, we don't know what, what do you mean, this Moses the man? What does 'the man' mean? By this time in the Bible we don't know Moses is a man? I hope we know he's a man. Why can't it just say, because this Moses, because Moses? So we talked already about the Midrash that talks about that, and the simple meaning of the text, what do they mean, this Moses the man?
Now if you read the text carefully you'll find that – this verse carefully – you'll find that there's a, that one word, the word man, is really being played off another word. The contrast to the word man in the verse is what? Is the previous use of the word god. Listen to how it plays out. Vayomru eilav kum asei lanu elohim – get up and make us A GOD that will go before us. Why? Because this Moses, THE MAN, who took us out of Egypt, we don't know what happened to him. God and man; make us a god because this Moses the man, he didn't work out.
Okay, what Nachmanides does say in relation to this is also look how Moses is characterized. Moses is characterized as the man who took us out of Egypt. And what do they want from this god? They say, this is the god – remember what they said? This is the god who took us out of Egypt. How do they characterize Moses? Moses, the person who took us out of Egypt. Now Nachmanides said, does that mean that they were mistaken? They didn't understand that G-d took them out of Egypt? I mean, all the plagues, they thought Moses did? No. They weren't idiots, they understood that G-d took them out of Egypt, they understood that Moses was a player, Moses was involved, he was the messenger of G-d, so to speak.
But one of the very interesting observations that Nachmanides makes is that if you read through the text of the Golden Calf slowly, you'll find that there's certain code words which are used to describe G-d's role in bringing the Jews out of Egypt, and different code words which are used to describe Moses' role in bringing the Jews out of Egypt. For example, he says, whenever we talk about Moses' role we say Moses' role was one who was Ma'aleh – the root is Ayin, Lamed, Heih – Ma'aleh, who took you up out of Egypt. Now I don't know exactly what that means, technically how it's different from the second code word which I'll tell you in a moment, but let's just come to an agreement that that is in fact how the verse characterizes Moses' contribution in particular.
So for example, G-d Himself talks about Moses' contribution this way. If you look at G-d's declaration to Moses after they're worshiping the calf, to go down because your people have strayed, He says, go down – this is in verse 7 – go down, Ki shicheis amcha, because your people have strayed. Which people? Asher he'elita m'eretz Mitzrayim – that you took out of Egypt. What do you mean you took of Egypt? I took them out of Egypt. No you brought them up out of Egypt. That's the language; Asher he'elita. There's that root; Ayin, Lamed, Heih. So the Ayin, Lamed, Heih root, the Alah root, is used as a code word for Moses. And in fact, it's what the people say also; Moshe ha'ish asher he'elanu mei'eretz Mitzrayim – this man Moses who took us out of Egypt. Who did what? He'elanu, Alah – who brought us up out of Egypt.
Now, when the people look for the calf and they glorify the calf, they say, this is the calf; Asher [he'elucha 49:59] mei'eretz Mitzrayim – who took us out of Egypt. Eileh elohecha Yisrael asher he'elucha mei'eretz Mitzrayim – this is your god, they declare, who took us out of Egypt. Who brought us up out of Egypt. Alah. It's that same Moses language.
The language that they don't use is the code word for G-d's contribution. There's a different code word for G-d's contribution, and that is, Hotzeitah. For example, in the beginning of the Ten Commandments, Nachmanides says. How do the Ten Commandments begin? Onochi Hashem Elokecha – I am the L-rd your G-d. Which G-d? Asher hotzeiticha mei'eretz Mitzrayim – who took you out, who brought you out, of Egypt. Not Asher he'elucha mei'eretz Mitzrayim, that's Moses' role. Not Alah but Yatzah, Hotzei – who took you out. It's a different role.
And by the way, you see not just in the Ten Commandments, but here also in the debate between Moses and G-d after the story of the Golden Calf unfolds and in the beginning of the aftermath, Moses says to G-d: Don't be angry at Your people – Asher hotzeita – that You have taken out. But it's a different word, not He'elucha. Everybody agrees Moses' contribution was Alah, G-d's contribution was Yatzah.
So it's very interesting, the people are not looking, apparently, Nachmanides says, to replace G-d, what are they looking to? They're looking to replace Moses. And that key understanding, Nachmanides says, makes almost everything fit in the story. Let's go back to our questions, you'll see how many, many of those questions seem to disappear once you understand that fundamentally the story is not about replacing G-d, it's about replacing Moses.
The Golden Calf: Replacing Moses or God?So, for example, the Ramban explains this is why the impetus for making the calf in the first place is the fact that Moses is no longer here. You know otherwise, how do, one of the questions we asked is why do these two events have anything in common? So what, so Moses is dead, so because Moses is dead all of a sudden you need a new god, how do these two things relate to each other? No, if Moses is dead all of a sudden you need a new Moses. What do you need? You need – and the Ramban points this out, Nachmanides points this out, he says – that when the job description for this new god, so to speak, is set forth, it says: Kum asei lanu elohim asher yeilchu lefaneinu – come, let us make us a god that will go before us. What do you they want? They didn't say, come – as the Ramban says – come, let us make a god that will create us, that will bring us into the next world, that will save us, that will do; no, that will go before us. They wanted a leader. Moses was a leader who went before them, now we need, there's no more Moses, so we need some replacement that will go before us.
This also explains why it was that the people so easily abandoned this god after Moses came down from the mountain, because the whole point was to replace Moses, well the real Moses is already here, so we don't need him anymore.
This is why Aaron can get away with telling Moses, don't be angry Moses, don't be angry – well it wasn't real idolatry in the sense of bowing down to a god who was some sort of independent deity, aside from G-d. If it's a replacement for Moses, so you can understand why Aaron should at least have said, don't be angry.
I think this also explains what it means: This is your god of Israel who took you out of Egypt, and why G-d didn't get so angry at that point. This is your god – remember god there, is in the generic language; this is your power, or this is some sort of being that represents he who took you out of Egypt. You don't have, it's a replacement, it's some sort of divine style replacement for Moses. But again it's: Eileh elohecha Yisrael asher he'elucha mei'eretz Mitzrayim – the emphasis is on the one who brought you up, who – Alah – who brought you up out of Egypt. We're not replacing G-d; Asher hotzeiticha – who took you out Egypt, we're replacing the being who partnered with G-d, the messenger there, we're replacing him. And it may be that that was not enough at that point to immediately provoke G-d's ire. And it also explains, I think, why the people could have said such an apparently bizarre thing.
Now the truth is, when you play the Ramban's approach out to its logical implications, I think the Ramban's approach – Nachmanides' approach – explains even more things than he says it explains. I think it explains, for example, the strange nature of Satan's gambit which we talked about earlier. I think it explains, perhaps, exactly what it was that the people did on the second day that provoked G-d's ire. And it explains a number of other things too – and I'll get back to some of this, this week.
But what I want to end at this point – at least in beginning to sketch out Nachmanides' theory here – is the following question for you. And I think we need to really seriously address this question next week if we're to really understand what Nachmanides is trying to say, or trying to understand this text. That is, let's say Nachmanides is right, let's say he's right, what's the big deal? Okay fine, if you're telling me it wasn't real idolatry, if these people weren't worshipping the god, so what's the big deal? All right, so they want a replacement for Moses, that's such a big deal? So why does G-d get so angry about this? I mean so what's so terrible? G-d literally is about to destroy the people. I think you're almost in a catch-22; if Nachmanides is right, isn't the sin minimized? So it's not idolatry, it's, what's the big deal? How is it you understand how such a cataclysmic event that it led G-d to literally come within a hair's breadth of destroying the people? So how do you see this as not real idolatry but – and I think there's evidence in Nachmanides' point too, that's valid and real – but how is it that you understand the severity of what it was that took place here?
Finally, one last question I want you think about which is that in what sense did they really need a replacement for Moses? What was it about what Moses was doing that needed to be replaced? And for this I want to come back to some of the other questions we talked about; why this sin happens now, specifically when it happens and no other point in the desert. So I want you to think about this, what role was Moses, what was happening now that exactly Moses was doing that needed to be replaced? I think that will help us understand why they didn't mourn for Moses either, because whatever that role was it was so crucial to what was happening, there was no time for mourning, there was a crisis moment. I think it will also help us understand why it was a calf of all other things, why it wasn't a peacock or something else. There was a particular role that Moses was playing, something that was happening, what was that? What exactly were they trying to replace?
So let's try and focus on those two things and complete our vision next week of what the Ramban really is saying here. Then what I'd like to do is to come back and talk about the aftermath of the Golden Calf.
Subscribe today to join the conversation.
Already a subscriber? Log in here!