The Golden Calf

June 23, 2009

13 min read


Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35 )

On the limits of human knowledge.

This week's Torah portion contains one of the great tragedies of Jewish history. The people who had left Egypt miraculously and witnessed the salvation at the sea, who had stood at Mount Sinai and experienced the encounter with God, now await Moses' descent from the mountain.

Moses was to bring with him the special mandate to the Jews which would change the course of world history.

Moses was to bring with him the teachings of the Torah -- the special mandate to the Jews which would change the course of world history. But the wait became too difficult, and the people, perhaps searching for more immediate gratification, made a golden calf and worshipped it.

Thousands of years later we are still shocked at how this generation, so privileged, could possibly have made so fundamental an error.


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The Zohar, in almost the very first teaching, deals with this question. Rav Shimon bar Yochai is explaining to his son Rav Eliezer the meaning of the verse in Isaiah, "Who created these?" in this cryptic manner:

This mystery remained sealed until one day while I was standing on the seashore, Elijah came and said to me 'Master, what is the meaning of Mi bara eleh - Who created these'?

I said to him that this refers to the heavens and their hosts, the works of the Holy One, Blessed be He, the works through the contemplation of which man comes to bless Him ...

Then he said to me 'Master, the Holy One, Blessed be He, had a deep secret which He at length revealed at the heavenly academy. It is this: When the Most Mysterious wished to reveal Himself, He produced a single point which was transmuted into a thought, and in this He executed innumerable designs, and engraved innumerable engravings. He further engraved, within the sacred and mystic lamp, a mystic and most holy design, which was a wondrous edifice issuing from the midst of thought. This is called mi (who), and was the beginning of the edifice, existent and nonexistent, deep, buried, unknowable by name. It was only called mi. It desired to be manifest and called by name. It therefore clothed itself in a refulgent and precious garment and created eleh (these) and eleh acquired a name. The letters of the two words intermingled, forming the complete name Elohim (Lord). When the Israelites sinned in making the golden calf they alluded to this mystery in saying These, Israel are your lords. [Exodus 32:4) And once mi became combined with eleh, the name remained for all time. And upon this secret the world is built.'

Elijah then flew away and vanished out of my sight. And it is from him that I became possessed of this profound mystery.

Rav Eliezer and all the companions came and bowed down in front of him, weeping for joy, they said 'If we had come into this world only to hear this we should have been content.' [Zohar, Prologue 1b-2a]

Obviously, many of the ideas taught on this passage are beyond the scope of this article (and writer), but we can reconstruct some basic teachings.

The Zohar is saying that the creation of the world is based on the combination of the mi and eleh which spell out Elohim. Therefore the first verse in the Torah reads:

Breishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v'et haaretz ... In the beginning created Elohim the heavens and the earth ... [Genesis 1:1]

The name Elohim is employed, which combines mi and eleh. The theological explanation of the Zohar is that the verse Mi bara eleh -- Who created these?" lies behind the first verse in the Torah "In the beginning created Elohim created ..."

It follows, then, that the question "Who created these?" must always remain a question, a rhetorical, unanswerable question. The Jew understands that there are certain mysteries which are impenetrable. The essence of God is one such mystery. The transcendental, essential aspect of God remains elusive, for it harks back to the idea of Elohim, which contains the mi, (who) as a perpetual question.

Just at the point that we attempt to point a finger at God, we run into trouble.

Man may contemplate creation, and just at the point that we think the question is answered, and we attempt to point a finger at God, we run into trouble.

The Jews who stood at Mount Sinai pointed a finger at the calf of gold which they formed, and declared "These, Israel are your lords/gods." They wished to understand and experience God in their own terms, wished to provide a concrete answer for the unanswerable question.


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What was it exactly that brought this response from these people? It was the complaint:

'The man Moses who took us out of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.'

They believed they had "the right to know" that which was beyond them. But was it really knowledge that eluded them?

Let us analyze the situation: The clock is ticking. It is moments before Moses' descent from the mountain. The people are anxious, but all they need is to be patient one more day and the precious Torah would be theirs.

But the story does not have the expected happy ending. Instead, the Torah is shattered at the foot of the mountain.

There is a parallel to this situation involving man's quest for knowledge. At the dawn of history, man was told of two special trees in the Garden of Eden -- the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam was permitted to eat of all the trees except the Tree of Knowledge.

The story did not have a happy ending -- man ate from the wrong tree and death was brought into the world.

Again, the story did not have a happy ending. Man ate from the wrong tree, death was brought into the world, and man was expelled from Eden.

The Sages note that there was no prohibition in partaking from the Tree of Life. In fact, we are taught that the original plan was for Adam to have eaten first from the Tree of Life and then from the Tree of Knowledge. Evidently, the sin of Adam was in eating from the trees in improper sequence.

In order for us to understand the significance of the order we must reconsider the nature of these two trees.


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According to rabbinic thought, the Tree of Life is identified with Torah:

She (the Torah) is a Tree of Life to those who embrace her." [Proverbs 3:18, Vayikra Raba 25:1]

If the Tree of Life is identified with Torah, then what is the meaning of the Tree of Knowledge? If anything, we would have associated the Tree of Knowledge with Torah -- the Book of Instructions for Living.

Apparently, this knowledge has a very specific meaning. In the verses following the expulsion of man we can a clue. Here we learn that Adam "knew his wife."

Now we understand that knowledge implies experience. This allows us to reinterpret the sin of Adam.

The plan in Eden was for man to eat from the Tree of Life and only thereafter from the Tree of Knowledge.

The plan in Eden was for man to eat from the Tree of Life (the Tree of Torah Wisdom), and only thereafter, to eat from the Tree of Knowledge (the Tree of Experience).

The advantage of Torah wisdom preceding experience is that the Torah, once internalized, will serve as a basis from which subsequent experience will be interpreted. Torah becomes a vantage point from which experiences are viewed and understood. If, however, experiences are acquired first, they will serve as a basis for the interpretation given subsequently to Torah.

This latter sequence can lead to distortion of the Torah and misinterpretation based on the subjective experience of the individual. Torah must precede experience. Torah must be the benchmark by which Jews lead their lives.


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The tragedy of Eden was re-experienced at the foot Mount Sinai. The Jews were awaiting the descent of Moses with the Torah, but they didn't "know" where Moses was.

Here lies their difficulty; they wanted to "know" that which they could not.

The episode ends with people arising in an orgiastic feast, experiencing god in their subjective manner, creating a graven image, instead of receiving the Torah from God via Moses.

Once again, the Tree of Knowledge (experience) is chosen over the Tree of Life (Torah).

But why this particular response? Why a calf?

The Zohar described the sin as the pointing with their fingers saying "These, Israel are your lords/gods," trying to know/experience that which they could not. When was the last time we saw the Jews pointing a finger, declaring something about God? When the Jews passed through the sea, the Torah recounts that they declared:

This is my God and I will cherish him." [Exodus 15:2]

Rashi, drawing from the Midrash, comments:

(They) pointed with a finger. We see that even a maidservant at the sea perceived more than the prophets.

The experience of walking through the sea was of incredible spiritual heights, in which even the uninitiated perceived more than the prophets.


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Which prophets does Rashi have in mind? The source of Rashi is the Michilta, which writes "more than Isaiah, or Ezekiel." The Ramban also cites the Michilta as making the comparison with Ezekiel.

Can we learn from this comparison anything specific about the nature of the Jews' collective vision at the sea?

The prophecy of Ezekiel is one of the most obscure sections in Hebrew Bible -- the images and references transcending the understanding of the average reader.

Ezekiel had a vision -- an image that had the face of a person, a lion, a bull, and a eagle.

By the River Kevar, Ezekiel had "visions of God." He saw an image with "the leg of a calf" [Ezekiel 1:7]. The image had the face of a person, a lion, a bull, and a eagle. We cannot help but notice that the image in the vision of Ezekiel contained the face of a bull and the legs of a calf.

To make matters even more complicated, when in a later chapter Ezekiel reiterates and further describes his vision, he lists the four faces in greater detail:

One had the face of a cherub, the second had the face of a person, the third had the face of a lion, the fourth had the face of an eagle. [Ezekiel 10:14]

Here the bull is paralleled with the cherub. If the sin of the Golden Calf took place after the order to build the Tabernacle, we may be able to understand why the Jews built specifically a golden calf. They thought that this was part of the command to build the Tabernacle. It reminded them of that glorious moment when they experienced God. As they pointed a finger praising God they also deluded themselves into thinking that they understood God. Such is the nature of experience.

Rashi, while commenting on the commandments surrounding the Red Heifer, explains that this is a chok, a law for which we do not understand the reason. And yet, at a later point, Rashi cites a tradition in the name of Rav Moses Hadarshan that the Red Heifer was a rectification for the sin of the golden calf. [Rashi Bamidbar, Ch. 19]

These two explanations in Rashi are not contradictory. The Red Heifer brings about forgiveness for the golden calf, precisely because it is a commandment which we can not understand. If the sin of the golden calf was indeed thinking that one can understand God, then forgiveness lies in performing a commandment despite -- or perhaps because -- we do not understand its reason.

Death entered into the world when man ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, partaking of experience prior to acquiring Torah wisdom, and attempting to understand that which is not given to our understanding. The Red Heifer is the antidote for death; it removes the spiritual stigma caused by death, because it is performed without understanding -- it is performed simply because it is Torah.


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On most years this Torah portion is read in close proximity to Purim, and according to the Tikunai Zohar, there exists an intrinsic relationship between Purim and Yom Kippurim, the day on which the Jews were forgiven for the sin of the golden calf.

The Ariz"al explained this relationship as follows. Purim is, in fact, on a higher level, and Yom Kippurim should be translated as "a day like Purim." The Talmud states that in the future, all holidays will fall into disuse with the exception of Purim.

Part of the sin of the golden calf was, as we said above, the choice of experience prior to Torah. On Yom Kippur Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the second set of the Ten Commandments, and the Jews finally accepted the Torah.

On this day we do not eat or drink, wash, or engage in sexual relations in order to rectify the sin of the golden calf and the "festivities" which followed. Forgiveness on Yom Kippur is brought about by total abstention.

On the other hand, the Sages tell us that the people of Israel did not completely accept the Torah until Purim [Shabbat 88a].

The Talmud offers as the origin of the name "Haman" the verse in Genesis which refers to Adam's sin: hamin haetz hazeh, ("from this tree") [Hulin 139b]. Haman is connected with the Tree of Knowledge, and we see that the problems in the time of Esther began in Shushan, when the Jews partook of the festive meal of the king, an inappropriate experience which echoes the festivities after the golden calf.

It is in Shushan so many years later that the Jews finally accepted the Torah completely. Only then can an attempt be made to elevate the eating and drinking into a holy context. This is why we are commanded to drink on Purim. On Yom Kippur we abstain from eating and drinking, on Purim we elevate eating and drinking. On Purim we attempt to elevate experiences into the context of Torah, which is accepted anew.

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