New Thoughts on the Golden Calf Story

March 17th: Ki Tissa
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week, in the Union for Reform Judaism’s Ten Minutes of Torah commentary on the weekly portion, Rabbi Ana Bonnheim puts an interesting perspective onto the story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32), and I learned two insights that I would like to share with you.

The first is the choice of the punishment God doles out to the Israelites. We know about Moses’ anger and furious response: “As soon as Moses came near the camp (on his way down Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments) and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it.” (Exodus 32.19-22)

After hearing the story of the incident from Aaron, Moses cannot get the people to calm down and cease their idolatrous celebration. “Moses then stood up in the gate of the camp and said, ‘Whoever is for the Lord, come here!’ And all the Levites rallied to him. He said to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor, and kin.’ The Levites did as Moses had bidden, and some three thousand people fell that day.” (Exodus 32.26-28)

This would seem like enough, but, in the melee, justice is not exact. So, God sends a plague, explaining “Only those who have sinned against Me shall I erase from My record. Go now; lead the people where I told you. See, My angel shall go before you. But, when I make an accounting, I will bring them to account for their sins. Then the Lord sent a plague upon the people, for what they did with the calf that Aaron made.” (Exodus 32.33-35)

 Rabbi Bonnheim notices that a plague is also what God sent against the Egyptians—an indication that worshipping an idol is in the same category of evil as the slavery the Egyptians inflicted upon us. God’s judgment and punishment (or reward) is an equal-opportunity endeavor. There is no special consideration for the Israelites. If we sin, we get the same approbation as sinning Gentiles. Though some people interpret the Chosen People concept as a mark of special privileges—to use a 20th Century expression, as a Get out of Jail Free card, the Torah tells us in no uncertain terms that we too have standards to maintain and are responsible for our actions.

The second insight calls on us to zoom out of the story and see it in its context in the Torah. Note that the story of this apostasy comes right between the instructions for the Mishkan/Tabernacle and its actual construction. To show the relevance of this sequencing, Rabbi Bonnheim brings us the words of Dr. Elsie Stern (in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary): “This arrangement affirms that the Tabernacle, unlike the calf, is an appropriate response to the people’s needs for a physical location where they can gain access to God.”

The basic teaching is an important one—that we need appropriate places and formats for feeling the Presence of God, but what strikes me is the way the Torah uses its own format for teaching the lesson.

Most of the time, I find myself reading the text of the Torah is small sections, focusing on the meanings of words and verses and paragraphs. This is certainly valuable, but, in any editorial process, the order in which things are reported is also part of the story.

Whether we think of the Torah as being written by God or by people inspired by God, the fact is that decisions had to have been made about what to include, what not to include, and how the inclusions would be used in to present the Author’s/authors’ message. Things didn’t just happen and get thrown haphazardly into the book. Of all the things that happened in the 1500 years between Abraham and the Babylonian Exile, only some things were recorded and included in the Bible. Someone had to decide which stories made the final cut and how the particular stories would be told. It might have been God—Who, one figures, is a well-skilled Author Who plans out a literary work with great precision, or it might have been various human authors who structured and edited the received traditions into a work that communicates what they believed to be Heaven’s intentions. In any event, Someone/someone chose to structure the Torah this way, and our depth of understanding is enhanced when we consider the greater structure as well as the details.

There’s always something more to learn.

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