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When Moses Is with God for 40 Days and 40 Nights, It’s Back to the Idols

  • When Moses Is with God for 40 Days and 40 Nights, It’s Back to the Idols

    Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11−34:35
D'var Torah By: 

Parashat Ki Tisa recounts the incident of the Golden Calf in a multilayered narrative about faith and leadership. In Exodus, chapter 32, we read that Moses remained on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights. In his absence, the Israelites demanded that Aaron fashion an idol so God would be present with them. Aaron created a Golden Calf, probably modeling it on statues of the Canaanite god El1, who is depicted in the form of a bull.

The irony of this incident is that the people already had experienced the invisible God who led them out of Egypt. When the Golden Calf story takes place, they are waiting for Moses to return from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, which explicitly prohibit depicting God in a physical form. One might argue this story is out of place because the Ten Commandments were given in a prior text, in Exodus, Chapter 20. Or we can resort to the Rabbinic interpretive dictum, ein mukdam um'uchar batorah, "there is no earlier or later in the Torah" (see Rashi on Exodus 31:18). While this teaching solves the chronology problem, it tells us little about the meaning of the story.

For a better understanding, let's take a closer look at the text. When the people insist that Aaron make a god who will go before them, they give this reason: "for that man Moses, who brought us out from the land of Egypt – we do not know what happened to him" (Exodus 32:1). Why are Moses's whereabouts so important to them? Why are they so dependent upon Moses?

Perhaps the people depend heavily on Moses because it is just recently that they have been freed from slavery and they still feel a need for the kind of dictatorial rule they had experienced under Pharaoh. Since Pharaoh was considered a god in Egypt, perhaps they considered Moses a god. When Moses is not available they feel God is absent: they become frightened and disoriented, and need a physical representation of a deity. As we know, Moses was not good at delegating, so he may have encouraged the people's dependency. Leaders often are tempted to make their organizations overly dependent upon them. For Moses, it took the wisdom of his father-in-law Yitro to help him delegate and develop a governing structure (see Exodus 18:13-26).

What about Aaron? Why is he incapable or unwilling to help the Israelites deal with Moses's absence without giving in to their desire for an idol? Although he is High Priest, Aaron demonstrates a lack of leadership for which there are several possible explanations:

  • He is just as frightened by Moses's absence as the people are.
  • He lacks leadership experience as Moses gave him very little independent responsibility.
  • As High Priest, he assumes that if he distracts the people with a festival, he can bide his time until Moses returns.
  • He might not understand just how big a violation of God's rules his actions are because his experience with idol-free religion is limited.
  • He might be afraid, as the text indicates, that if he does not do what the people ask, they will kill him (Exodus 32:22).
  • He might see this as his opportunity to ingratiate himself with the people and supplant Moses as leader – perhaps sibling rivalry had become too much for Aaron to bear.

Another perplexing aspect of the story is the extraordinary level of anger expressed by God over the Golden Calf incident. God tells Moses he will destroy the people, saying, "Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them" (Exodus 32:10). Shouldn't God have anticipated how challenging it would be for the Israelites to rely on an invisible God who utilized an almost superhuman representative to communicate the new way of doing things? Shouldn't God have understood that without Moses to reassure them, the people would revert to old, familiar methods of worship to help them cope with crisis of Moses's absence?

For me, God, as portrayed in the Tanach, is a complex personality. Sometimes God just doesn't seem to get it. Perhaps God expects that after the extraordinary deliverance from Egypt the Israelites would understand and obey God's word. But given their long subjugation, this expectation may not have been realistic. God, in this way, is not very different from many of us who are parents. We expect our children to know how to behave because we have told them what to do, but sometimes we do not understand the complexity of what we are asking. Here, God is angry because the people do not comprehend how the Eternal is truly different from other gods that are worshipped. This is the major and most revolutionary principle of the emerging Israelite religion. And God seems to be saying, "Why don't they get it?"

In his efforts to appease God, Moses exhibits real leadership. When God threatens to destroy the people and build up Moses's progeny, Moses implores God, on the people's behalf. He reasons with God, saying, "Let not Your anger, Eternal One, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. Let not the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and to annihilate them from the face of the earth.' Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people. Remember Your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever" (Exodus 32:10-13).

Moses makes it clear that his fate is tied to the fate of the Jewish people. He argues that if God destroys the Jewish people now God will make a mockery of everything that God set out to do. Finally, Moses reminds God of His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses's plea is really for patience and understanding. What God wants to accomplish is going to take a very long time. In our struggle with faith in an invisible God we look back to the Tanach, to the examples of Moses and other ancestors, to find the courage to continue to worship and believe in God in an age when God sometimes seems more absent than present.

  1. See W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed. (New York, NY: URJ Press, 2005) p. 599

Rabbi Peter S. Knobel serves as interim rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida. He is rabbi emeritus at Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois, and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Take Two Tablets...Please!
Davar Acher By: 
Jeffrey Salkin

Which set of tablets was better – the older, shattered set or the new set? This is no small question. Your answer will reveal what you think the essence of Judaism and the meaning of Jewish existence are in the world today.

The first possibility: the first set of tablets represented a fuller understanding of Torah.

In Breaking the Tablets: Jewish Theology after the Shoah, David Weiss Halivni1 suggests that the first set of tablets was pristine: The second set of tablets was defective. Our task is tikkun hamikra, "repairing the text," trying to restore the meaning of God's original Revelation.

There is a "first cousin" to this teaching. The first set of tablets, Jewish mystics taught, was a purely spiritual Torah, coming from the Tree of Life. But when Moses shattered those tablets, the spiritual element disappeared. The second set of tablets came from the Tree of Knowledge – a Torah that is "burdened" by rules and prohibitions (see Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (New York: Schocken, 1965, pp. 69-70).

But the "majority opinion" is that the second set of tablets was better. They contained the rest of the Tanach and the entire Rabbinic tradition: "God said to Moses: 'Do not be distressed over the first tablets, which contained only the Ten Commandments. In the second tablets, I am giving you also halachah, midrash, and aggadah" (Sh'mot Rabbah 46:1).

Finally, whereas God wrote the first set of tablets, Moses and God, together, wrote the second set. "The Eternal One said to Moses: 'Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered' " (Exodus 34:1). The new tablets represent the Jewish people's partnership with God.

Do we seek the original meaning of Torah or its spiritual essence – or do we create a Judaism of the old text in a new frame? I opt for the latter, but then again, that's just me. You might see it differently. Whatever it is – just do it.

  1. David Weiss Halivni, Breaking the Tablets: Jewish Theology After the Shoah (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007)

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, New Jersey.

2/15/2014
Reference Materials: 

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11–34:35 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 632–662; Revised Edition, pp. 581–606; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 495–520