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Ki Tissa

Shabbat, 3/18/2006
Ruth Kertzer Seidman

The sedrah, Ki Tissa, opens with the continuation of God’s instructions to Moses regarding the Tent of Meeting—the half shekel donation each man must give for its support, the copper laver, the spices and the incense. The artist Bezalel, a man of talent and of wisdom, is to head up the decoration of the Tabernacle with precious metals and carvings. This is followed by the Sabbath laws. God finishes speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai and gives Moses the two tablets with the laws.

Meanwhile, at the foot of the mountain, the people are impatient and anxious because Moses has been absent for so long. They ask Aaron to make them a god. Aaron tells them to bring him their gold jewelry; he makes of this a molten calf and says: “This is your god.” Aaron builds an altar and declares a festival; the people offer sacrifices, then eat, drink and dance. God tells Moses what is happening and to hurry down, and that He, God, may destroy the people. Moses pleads to God not to be so angry.

Yet, Moses, when he sees the calf and the people dancing, himself becomes enraged, breaks the tablets, burns the golden calf, grinds it to powder that he puts in water and forces the people to drink. He calls for those who are for the Lord to come forward, to which the Levites, his tribe, respond. At the instruction of Moses, the Levites kill 3,000 of the people, and Moses tells the Levites this will give them a blessing.

Moses pleads with God to forgive the people, offering to take all the blame on himself. But God says the people have to account for their sins, and sends them a plague. God further tells Moses that the people will still go to the Promised Land, but an angel will go with them, not God, and that the people are not to wear their finery.

Moses, hoping for strength and guidance in his onerous task of leading a difficult people, pleads with God: “Let me know your ways.” God says: “You may not see My face. Station yourself on the rock, and as My Presence passes by, I will put you in the cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand as I pass by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back.”

God tells Moses to carve two new tablets of stone and God will inscribe on them the same words that were on the tablets recently destroyed. He instructs Moses to go up the mountain alone early in the morning; Moses does so and proclaims God’s name. God then expounds the thirteen attributes with which we are familiar.

“The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and the children’s children, upon third and fourth generations.”

Moses bows low and asks for the people to be forgiven. God makes a covenant; He will work wonders and will drive out all other tribes from the Promised Land. God instructs the Hebrews not to make covenants with the inhabitants of the land, to tear down their altars, and not to intermarry with them. God lists some commandments, beginning with the all-important: “No molten gods”, and continuing with rules about the Sabbath, pilgrimage festivals, and other matters.

Moses stays on the mountain with the Lord for forty days and forty nights without eating or drinking and writes down the laws. When he descends from the mountain his face is radiant. (The word karan/radiance was mistranslated as keren/horns in the Septuagint, and resulting in the depiction of Moses in the Michelangelo sculpture, and more darkly, in millennia of anti-Semitic stereotypes.) The people, in awe, at first shrink from coming near him, but later they approach. Moses instructs them in all that God has imparted; when finished Moses puts a veil over his face. We are told that each time Moses goes before the Lord he leaves the veil off, and when he returns to the people his face is radiant and Moses again covers his face. This ends sedrah Ki Tissa.


We have in this story the tension between two diametrically opposed approaches: serving a God who is abstract and conceptual, versus worshipping a visible object or a being. Related to this is of the role of the charismatic leader; does the human leader help people to be satisfied with a God they can’t see directly? Do they need to imbue their human leader with super-human qualities? How does a system of religion develop in light of these tensions?

People who give their allegiance to a deity expect something in return, starting with protection. The children of Israel felt vulnerable, having left Egypt and not knowing if they would arrive in the Promised Land or what they would find even if they got there. In the text we have before us, Moses was serving very clearly as an intermediary between God and the people. In Aviva Zornberg’s words, in the Sinai story Moses is “suspended between heaven and earth”. And we have the eerie description of the radiance of his face after his encounters with God.

It seems to me that it is natural to want a physical representation of something you believe in. The Bible puts extraordinary emphasis on God as an abstract, conceptual being, with the ban on graven images being so crucial. Yet, in so many Biblical passages the God of Israel is anthropomorphized. In this sedrah, for example, we have divine instructions to Moses involving God’s hand, God’s face, God’s back. I think it is very interesting that not long after this section, when Moses is told he is prohibited from seeing God’s face, there is the discussion of the face of Moses, its radiance, and the necessity to veil it from the people. Is this a suggestion of a god in human form?

In the golden calf episode, the people were understandably worried when they hadn’t heard either from God or from Moses for a long time. So they created a physical representation to comfort and protect them.

Exodus 20:4-5, in the Decalogue, states:
“You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of that which is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.”

This commandment, repeated in Deuteronomy 5:8, is interpreted to be a strict prohibition against representations of man or beast.

On the other hand, our tradition has the concept of hiddur mitzvah, the enhancement or adornment of a religious obligation. This is the motivation for creating beautiful ceremonial objects. Tradition bases this on Exodus 15:2, in the Song of the Sea:
“This is my God and I will glorify Him.” Some of the traditional commentators have translated the phrase as: “This is my God and I will adorn Him.”

Through the millennia of Jewish history, vastly different interpretations regarding representational art have been taken at different times. In the Tabernacle and later in the Temple, artistic embellishment was very important. Early in this sedrah we learn of Bezalel, the artist and craftsman who decorated the Tabernacle. (By the way, Bezalel is the name of a very important art and design school in Israel.) Aesthetics were clearly important.

There is a complex and not altogether consistent line between prohibited images (known as idolatry—the worshipping of “strange gods”) and permitted images (iconolatry—the use of images in the cult of God). The most popular of the “strange gods”, the prohibited “idols”, were Canaanite, such as the cult of Baal, and these cults were mentioned in Judges, in Samuel, and in Kings. On the other hand, examples of permitted images were the golden cherubim in the Tabernacle and in the Temple. At times throughout history certain representations were allowed and then, for political and other reasons, there were periods of religious iconoclasm, that is, the smashing of images. There are examples of ancient synagogue floors in the Palestine where images were literally de-faced (the faces excised by sharp objects) by Jews.

Certainly Jewish religious art (and the lack thereof) throughout the ages has been influenced by the prohibition on images, with three-dimensional images considered particularly objectionable (because of the words in the Decalogue: “carved images”).

Another point to make on this sedrah is that some vestiges of calf or bull worship had been popular among the People of Israel from early days and continued into the Kingdom. Interestingly enough, a passage in I Kings, Chapter 12, resembles the Exodus story of the golden calf. King Jeroboam I, who led a rebellion against the Davidic line, established places of worship outside of Jerusalem and appointed priests not of Levite descent.

“The king…made two golden calves. He said to the people, you have been going up to Jerusalem long enough. ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.’ He set one up in Bethel and placed the other in Dan. …. The people went to worship [them].”

Then King Jeroboam established a festival for the Israelites and ascended the altar he had made at Bethel.

Compare this to the passage from the Sinai story:

“Aaron made the gold into a molten calf

And they [the people] exclaimed: This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it and announced: ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!’”

Gunther Plaut discusses this matter and the possibility that the Jeroboam story was actually expounded before the golden calf episode at Sinai; it could have been that the golden calf story at Sinai was put forth during the period of the Kingdom to legitimize the Levites. Others do not agree with this theory, and think that the Jeroboam story is consistent with the original golden calf story—both show the undercurrent of bovine worship through the centuries of Jewish history.

In examining the ideas of God in this sedrah, I also find interesting the role of the intermediary. Moses takes on certain God-like qualities, but he is also shown with human frailties, and this prevents him from being a human incarnation of the Divine. Later in the Bible there are kings, whose power derives from God, and prophets, through whom God speaks. The Jewish prophets, too, are human, sometimes, like Jonah and even Miriam, all too human. We do, however, learn about prophets such as Elijah with supernatural powers.

Christianity and Islam, the monotheistic faiths developed out of Judaism, each created the role of the intermediary in different ways. A comparison of the three faiths in this regard would be very fruitful, and I do not doubt that there are scholars who have studied this.

Finally, I would like to examine the proscription against molten gods. Why is this so important that it is placed at the beginning of the Decalogue as a continuation of the commandment: “You shall have no other gods beside me”? Why was it so important that 3,000 people were murdered for disobeying that commandment?

Clearly, this is about fidelity to God. We have been told that He is a jealous God who wants His people to be loyal to Him. The penalty for doing otherwise can be horrendous.

For building and worshiping the golden calf, the people suffer a series of punishments including drinking the bitter water, the slaughter of the 3,000, and the plague. It has been pointed out that when Moses grinds up the pieces of the golden calf and puts the powder into water and forces the people to drink it, he is replicating the ritual described in Numbers—the testing of the suspected unfaithful wife. The people of Israel at this point have been unfaithful to their God.

The story of the golden calf, then, is really about fidelity to the God of Israel. In today’s terms, I like to think about this as faithfulness to Judaism and the Jewish People. Thus I leave you with the question: How can each of us best manifest this fidelity to our heritage and our people?