Parasaht Ki Tissa

Our Golden Calf: When Tzedakah Is Not Righteous

The incident of the Golden Calf challenges us to consider how we respond to tzedakah that comes from resources that were acquired unethically.

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Few principles are as valued or as central to Judaism as that of tzedakah, which translated literally means "righteousness" but is usually understood as the Jewish word for "charity." And in the Torah portion Ki Tissa, the conceptual framework of giving and receiving takes center stage.

Ki Tissa is best recognized for containing one of the most infamous events of the Jewish people's wanderings in Sinai: the construction of the Golden Calf. We might recall that even as Moses ascends Mount Sinai in anticipation of receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people Israel, in a swirl of panic and fear over Moses' absence, devote their energies to constructing an idol made out of gold.

Idols vs. God

The construction of an idol is, of course, diametrically opposed to faith and service to the God of Israel, who is One, who is non-corporeal, and who, while being very much a part of human existence, also transcends the material realm. Indeed, an ongoing theme of Israel's Exodus from Egypt is that Israel's departure from the land of bondage is an ethical as well as physical journey.

golden calfEgypt under the pharaohs was the very model of the profound immorality of placing the accumulation of wealth over and above the value of human life. In embracing the covenant of the God of Israel, the Jewish people was leaving behind a world based upon the primacy of accumulating wealth, and setting forth on a journey towards a society based on justice, truth and peace, a society in which the value of all human life was an essential moral aim.

In the case of the Golden Calf, Israel's sin of idolatry seems so glaring and obvious. But like ancient Egypt, we too live in a world in which the accumulation of wealth is often given primacy over the value of human life. At the same time, social action and charitable giving are ways in which the Jewish and other communities attempt to deal with the ills and injustices of society.

Maimonides, arguably the greatest Jewish thinker in the last one thousand years, devoted quite a bit of energy delineating the different levels of tzedakah. He rated anonymous giving, given out of free will, to be the highest level of charity. Just as the ancient Sages argued that it was more ethical to serve God out of love than fear, so too tzedakah given out of love and genuine concern for and service to others is a higher form of giving than charity given out of amoral interests.

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Rabbi Charles P. Sherman

Rabbi Charles P. Sherman, D.D., has been the spiritual leader, teacher, and counselor of the Temple Israel in Tulsa, Oklahoma since 1976. Ordained in 1969 at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, he is a Past-President of the Southwest Association of Reform Rabbis.