Imagine yourself as Moses facing the ultimate crisis

Ki Tissa

Exodus 30:11-34:35

I Kings 18:1-39

Try as one might, it would be hard to find a story anywhere that could match the tale of the Golden Calf as a powerful narrative of alienation and reconciliation.

Certainly, this story serves as our people's classic narrative of sin and forgiveness. In this story, our people commits the ultimate sin of idolatry, experiences a period of terrifying crisis in relationship with God, and then receives the gift of Divine forgiveness.

Not long ago I had the good fortune to watch a group of people study this story through the use of a technique called bibliodrama. In bibliodramatic study, people are asked to see themselves as characters within the story, rather than to talk about the text from the usual safe distance.

Having watched this group of people enter into the dynamics of the Golden Calf narrative, exploring issues of faith and doubt, crisis and reconciliation, from within the story, I will never read this tale in quite the same way again.

We began by imagining ourselves as the children of Israel, waiting at the bottom of the mountain for Moshe to return. We were OK at first, waiting, trusting that Moshe would return as he had promised. But as days turned to weeks, for some of us, patience wore thin.

We remembered the wonders we had witnessed in Egypt. We remembered our awe and gratitude when the sea, about to engulf us, had swallowed our pursuers instead.

But we remembered, too, the terror and uncertainty of the trek through the wilderness. The journey had been frightening. It had been hard enough to follow Moshe when he was with us. But now, who could say what had happened to him on the mountain? Perhaps he had been swallowed up by the fire and smoke, killed in the otherworldly storm shaking the mountain.

Some of us felt that Moshe had always somehow been different from us, that he had always held himself apart. Could we really trust him?

Some of us counseled faith: Look, everything has worked out for us so far; it will be so this time as well. Others said: No, we cannot go on without something we can see and touch and understand. Our conversations went on long into the night. Some of us wanted to run away from this terrifying site. But where would we go? We were desperate.

At this point we set aside our roles as the children of Israel. We shifted our attention to Moshe, at the top of the mountain. It was hard to do, but we tried to imagine, as it were, what it might have been like for Moshe. Forty days at the top of the mountain. All alone with God, taking in every word of Torah directly from the Divine.

Suddenly, in the midst of this purest of encounters with Divine Wisdom, God told Moshe that the people had come together to create a molten calf as an object of worship. For a moment, we imagined Moshe silent, dumbstruck, uncomprehending.

From Moshe's reality at the top of the mountain, it was inconceivable. The people had done what?! And then came his anger — at this pathetic crowd of slaves, at God for giving him this impossible role, at himself for not being a better leader.

Then, in the moment before the Torah tells us how Moshe crafted his prayer to God, our group stopped and tried, as it were, to imagine how Moshe might have prepared himself for this crucial moment of prayer. We tried to imagine standing in the ultimate crisis point of our lives and of our people's life, trying to move our hearts to pray.

To some of us, there was only one way to pray: to call out to God and to be true to the Divine essence — to be compassionate and forgiving, not angry and destructive. Others of us imagined a shift in Moshe's anger with his people as he prepared to pray. He opened to feelings of compassion for his weary people, understanding for their weaknesses.

Suddenly, Moshe came to feel truly one of his people, pleading with God for mercy. All of us imagined for a moment what it would take to turn our hearts to prayer in times of deepest crisis and danger.

Jewish liturgy refers back to this story repeatedly to inspire our faith in God's compassion. May we find ourselves in this story, and find the story in us. May we learn about the possibility of moving from distance to intimacy, from anger to compassion and from alienation to reconciliation in our own lives.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at