The Golden Calf, as seen in the 1956 film "The Ten Commandments."
The Golden Calf, as seen in the 1956 film "The Ten Commandments."

Sinai should’ve been all ecstasy. Then the Golden Calf happened. What went wrong?

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Ki Tisa

Exodus 30:11−34:35

This week’s Torah portion deals with one of the most tragic events in the nascent history of the Israelites. At a time when the people should have been at their spiritual height of greatness due to the national revelation that took place at Mount Sinai, they succumbed to the seduction of idolatry and worshipped a golden calf.

Instead of feeling the ecstasy of a newfound intimacy with God, they elicit the furious rage of the Creator.

“HaShem said to Moses, ‘I see that this people is stiff-necked. Desist from Me and let my anger flare up against them and I shall wipe them out and make you a great nation’” (Exodus 32:9-10). The only consolation is that Moses is there to advocate on their behalf, managing to save them from being annihilated.

There had already been an indictment against the Israelites. “Go, descend. The people that you have brought up from Egypt has become corrupt” (Ex. 32:7). There really was nothing that Moses could answer that would exonerate the people.

They had constructed a golden calf, bowed to it and made offerings. The very same nation that had just heard the second of the Ten Commandments, prohibiting idol worship of any kind. Could there be a greater betrayal than this?

Moses had to respond in such a way as to at least stay the anger of God. If there was nothing to say in their defense, at least he there was the possibility that the sentence would be more lenient. After all, at this point they were being sentenced to death.

Rabbi David Fohrman suggests that the text hints at Moses’ quick-thinking strategy: “Moses begged before Hashem, his God, and asked, ‘Why, Hashem, should Your anger flare up against Your people whom You have taken out of the land of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?’” (Ex. 32:11)

Rabbi Fohrman was troubled by the very question. How could Moses ask why? He knows directly from God exactly what the Isaelites had done and how severe a crime it is considered. Clearly, the infuriation of God is actually the expected response.

If one looks more closely at the Hebrew, it becomes clear that the question of why is really not the question. In Hebrew, why can be asked with the word madua, which shares the same root as mada (science). What madua would be asking is for an understanding of how we got to where we are. Scientific inquiry fits with this language.

The word that is used for why in this context is lama. Lama can be translated as “for what purpose?”

In our narrative, Moses is essentially asking God what would be accomplished if His anger flares up against the people.

Moses presents two arguments to God. The first is that Egypt is going to say that God took these people out of Egypt just to kill them off in the wilderness. God just taught the Egyptians about his special relationship with the Children of Israel through incredible signs and wonders. It would be a waste to just annihilate them now. Why give enemies a chance to gloat? What purpose would that serve?

The second argument evokes the covenant that God made with the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It’s easy to ignore the reaction of your enemies, but what about your friends? Moses reminds God that He had told them that their offspring would increase like the stars of the sky. How would they react to the idea that everyone is being killed off and the nation is going to start again from Moses’ singular family unit.

Again, the question is really about what purpose would it serve to destroy the people. It certainly would not fulfill the covenant.

One might ask, “Didn’t God know all this already?”

It seems clear from another hint in the text that God actually was providing Moses with an opportunity to demonstrate real leadership. Toward the beginning of the conversation (Ex. 32:9), God asked Moses to desist from Him. What could that possibly mean? God is omnipotent and surely Moses had no way of affecting him.

Rashi suggests that God was hinting to Moses that if he would not leave him, then He would not wipe out the people. Moses jumps on that opportunity and begins to argue for their redemption.

A true leader has to be able to see the opportunities as they present themselves.

Circumstances also call for leaders to be creative and quick at solving problems. Fortunately for all of us descendants of the Israelites, Moses was up to the task.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto. Rabbi Felsen is also on the board of J. The Jewish News of Northern California.