Skip to content

Parashat Ki Tisa 5778 — 03/03/2018

Parashat Ki Tisa 5778 — 03/03/2018

Shemot 30:11-34:35

The people saw that Moshe delayed in coming down from the mountain, and the people gathered around Aharon and said to him, “Rise up! Make for us gods that will go before us, because this man Moshe, who brought us up from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has become of him!” (32:1)

As we pointed out last year, the commentators all attempt to reconcile the stringency of the prohibition of idolatry with the fact that Gd’s reaction to the sin of the golden calf was not to destroy the whole nation. Also, Aharon, who actually made the calf, was not punished, at least not at the time.

Abarbanel summarizes the ideas of those who preceded him and adds some additional interpretation of his own. Some common threads:

  • The people did not want a replacement for Gd; they wanted a replacement for Moshe, as it says “… for this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!” (32:1)
  • If the people had considered the calf a god, they never would have let Moshe destroy it.
  • If Gd had considered the entire people guilty of idolatry, He would not have let Moshe talk Him out of destroying them.
  • The people themselves did not ask for an “idol,” rather the “mixed multitude” that Moshe brought along with the Jewish people were the instigators, as it says, ” … your people that you brought up from the land of Egypt has become corrupt” (32:7) – that is, it was Moshe, acting on his own volition, who allowed the “mixed multitude” to leave Egypt with the Jews. It also says “This is your god O Israel…” (32:8) indicating that someone who was not Israel was speaking.

Abarbanel indicates that the main issue that the people had was remaining connected to Gd. This was clearly a practical necessity, as only Gd’s direct intervention was going to keep them alive during their wandering in the desert. Gd had already given them a miraculous well that had enough water to give to about 2-3 million people, and their livestock, and they were fed by manna from Heaven. But it is also a spiritual necessity, because life cut off from its source in the transcendent can hardly be called life at all – it is rather more like a beautiful cut flower that will shortly wither and die.

Up till now, Moshe Rabbeinu had been the connection the people had to Gd. Despite having witnessed the great miracles Gd did for them, and the love Gd evidently felt for them, the people found it very difficult to have faith in an invisible Deity Who was in complete control of their lives. While Moshe Rabbeinu was around, they had an “address” to turn to, but when they feared he had gone, leaving them stuck in an inhospitable desert, they demanded a replacement – something physical that they could latch onto to connect with Gd.

Rambam hypothesizes that this is exactly the way idolatry developed. People knew and accepted that there was a Gd Who created and ruled the universe, but they attempted to connect with Him through worshiping his “ministers,” the sun, the moon, the stars, forces of nature, trees, mountains. Eventually, worship of the “ministers” replaced worship of Gd, as the forces of nature were ascribed independent power. The definition of idolatry is ascribing independent power to anything other than Gd (excluding of course our own Gd-given power to make moral choices).

The issue of not worshiping the forces of nature, not praying to them because they cannot do anything on their own, is at the same time an affirmation that Gd did not just set up the creation like a giant clock work and then sit back and watch it play itself out. Rather, we affirm that Gd takes an intimate interest in everything that happens, particularly in human beings, who have the capacity to grow spiritually and to recognize Gd in the creation. We affirm that Gd is both transcendent and immanent, and we believe that it is our job as human beings to recognize and live this fact.

To say that Gd is both transcendent and immanent appears to be self-contradictory, and indeed, if our awareness is bounded by our concepts, it is. We can, however, gain some insight from an analogy with modern physics. We have reached a point in physics where we can describe all the “elementary particles” of physics, the building blocks of atoms, molecules, and the macroscopic physical world, as levels of excitation of a single, all-pervading field. This field is self-interacting, and it is this self-interaction that gives rise to the manifold layers of structure that is physical creation. The Unified Field is transcendental to all this activity; all the activity is really nothing other than the internal dynamics of the Unified Field.

Perhaps we can get some insight from this analogy. Gd is the transcendental reality – there is nothing that can compare to Gd in any way. Gd is completely different from the physical creation. That is why He is called the Holy One – the root of the word holy means separate. Yet all of creation is just an expression of Gd, as our Sages say: Gd is the Place of the world, the world is not Gd’s place. In other words, perhaps we can look upon the world as something not at all separate from Gd, but rather Gd expressing Himself, within Himself, in a kind of virtual way. What that might mean, I think we have to leave to the prophets to elucidate.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Ki Tisa

Gd says to Moses, “I will let all my goodness pass before you…” but “My face shall not be seen for no man can see my face and live.”

This statement cannot be taken literally because this would imply a limit to the degree that Gd can be known by we humans and the reality is that Moses and everyone and everything is just an expression of Gd within Gd — it is in the nature of the hide-and-seek game that Gd plays in appearing to be limited that he does not and cannot remain forever hidden — through the roles He plays as all we humans and as every animal, plant, and stone He gives guidance how to seek and when He chooses, He gives guidance how to find, and as He chooses, He reveals to us that we are He, and beyond the duality of we and He, we are One, All and Only.

When we follow His guidance, it is He who guides our choice; when we depart from His guidance, it is He who guides our choice.

So it is good to be grateful, joyful and forgive all, including ourselves, for actions, including nervousness, worshipping a Golden Calf (literally, or symbolically) and not to be vain when we seem to be worshipping Gd the Whole. It is good for us to do what we can to follow the guidance of Torah on the level of meaning and to harmonize with Torah on the level of feeling and on our deepest level of awareness.
Torah is a fundamental expression of Gd: it is One with Gd.

It is this level we want to open ourselves to so we can restore ourselves to the level of One — which is Joy and Love, always, eternally Joy and Love.

Baruch HaShem