Parashat Ki Tissa

Negotiating A Relationship With God

In constructing the Golden Calf, the Israelites attempted to create a mediated, safe relationship with an awesome and consuming God.

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“So Moses went up the Mountain and the cloud covered the mountain; The Glory of YHWH took up dwelling on Mount Sinai. The cloud covered it for six days, and he called to Moses on the seventh day from amidst the cloud. And the sight of the Glory of YHWH was like a consuming fire on top of the mountain in the eyes of the Children of Israel. Moses came into the midst of the cloud when he went up the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights” (Exodus 24:15-18).

The Israelites watched Moses disappear. Their protector abandons them. They are now faced with God’s consuming fire, without any mediation whatsoever. There is nothing between them and the fearsome divine fire threatening to consume them--nothing between them and the awesome and destructive force of the divine.

Pointedly the text tells the reader that the divine fire was a consuming fire “in the eyes of the Children of Israel”--a literary invitation to contrast it with Moses at the burning bush.  In the eyes of Moses the power of the divine was just the opposite. To Moses the divine fire was a fire that didn’t consume. Moses repeatedly survives close contact with God. The people cannot.

Terrified By Power

The Children of Israel are just-freed slaves; they are terrified of power and were nearly destroyed by it. Moses, on the other hand, grew up not as a slave, but in the palace of the Pharaoh, as the elite of Egypt. He had sufficient power to challenge power. For him power was not consuming, but life giving, liberating.

Faced with the divine fire the Israelites suffer not from a lack of faith in God, but from too much God! Contact would eat them alive.

But why do the people turn to a Golden Calf of all things, for protection, for mediation with God? According to the JPS torah commentary:

“Throughout the Near East the bull was a symbol of lordship, leadership, strength, vital energy, and fertility. As such, it was either deified and worshiped or employed in representation of divinity.”

Thus the attempt to use a calf for achieving power and protection makes complete sense. But why gold?

Gold is fire frozen. Fire is hot, destructive, complete motion and gold is cold to the touch and motionless. It’s much safer to worship an inert God then a dynamic one. In the absence of Moses they needed to tame the power of God. Through the worship of gold they regained a sense of security. It must have made them feel a bit less abandoned and exposed.

The Children of Israel try to tame the wild power of God with a golden calf. They don’t believe they can survive exposure to God. Moses would have been a better leader had he in some way prepared them for his leaving.

God understands this need for protection and mediation. The construction of the sanctuary eventually allows the divine presence to travel amidst the Israelites in a more limited way, without swallowing them up.

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Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses

Dianne Cohler-Esses is the first Syrian Jewish woman to be ordained as a rabbi. She was ordained in 1995 at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is currently a freelance educator and writer, teaching and writing about a wide range of Jewish subjects. She lives in New York City with her journalist husband and their three children.