In the third month of their freedom, the Children of Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. There, they were to hear the Word of God, when He uttered the Ten Commandments. The Torah reports that when the people saw the thunder the flames the smoke rising up to the mountain and heard the sounds of the Shofar they “trembled stood from a far”. They turned to Moses and pleaded: “you speak to us and we shall hear; let God not speak to us lest we die”.
Forty days later the children of Israel were still camped out on the plains that surrounded the holy mountain that was still forbidden to their touch and whose peaks remained shrouded in smoke. Moses, however, had not returned from his meeting with God and with the passage of time, their fears could have only grown stronger. After all, it was Moses who had led them into the desert and thus far it was only Moses that had served as the interlocutor between them and God. It was Moses that had settled their disputes, and it was Moses that had arranged for them to receive food and water notwithstanding the barren landscape. One can easily imagine the whispered agitation as the people waited for the return of their only leader, who now appeared to be lost or dead on God’s mountain.
This week’s Torah portion, Parsha Ki Tisa, describes what happened when their anxieties turned to angst; when their resolve disappeared and their faith dissipated.
The Torah reports that the people approached Aaron and asked, or perhaps demanded, of him to; “Rise up, make for us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses brought us up from the land of Egypt- we do not know what became of him!” While many would think that the Israelites apparent turn to idolatry was a rejection of God, the text is unclear whether the children of Israel were seeking to replace God, or were “only” seeking a replacement for Moses. What is clear though is Aaron’s immediate acquiescence to their demand. He asked of them to bring the earrings worn by their wives, sons and daughters. From this gold he then fashioned a molten calf. Aaron then prepared an altar and declared that the following day would be a holy day. On the next day the Torah reports that the people made offerings before the Golden Calf and, began to eat, drink and act in a wanton manner.
Moses was already preparing to descend from Mount Sinai clutching the two stone tablets upon which God had personally inscribed the Ten Commandments, when God told him that the people which he had “brought has become corrupt. They had strayed quickly from the way that I have commanded them”. God was extremely angry “I have seen this people, and behold? It is a stiff-necked people”. He wanted to annihilate the children of Israel and make for Moses another nation.
This was not the first time that God had delivered such a threat, nor unfortunately, would it be the last time. Moses, as he had and he will continue to do, stood up to God and spoke on behalf of the Israelites. He used a very interesting psychological ploy to slake God’s need for vengeance against what He considered to be a perfidious people. He played on God’s ego. Why, he challenged God, should your anger flare up against this people who you redeemed from the land of Egypt “with great power and a strong hand”. Why, he asked, would God give the Egyptians the opportunity to deride Your power: “with evil intent did He take them out, to kill them in the mountains to annihilate them from the very face of the earth”. The Torah records that God responded to Moses’ plea and “reconsidered regarding the evil that He declared He would do His people”.
God however remained angry. He declared that His Presence would no longer reside amongst the Israelites. The Torah reports that He feared that His anger would get the better of Him: “you are a stiff-necked people. If I send among you, I may annihilate you”. Moses was not content this arrangement. He challenged God: “if Your Presence does not go along, do not bring us forward from here. How, then, will it be known that I have found favour in your eyes-I and Your people-unless You accompany us”. God agreed to the request. The Children of Israel continued on their journey through the desert to The Promised Lands.
They would continue to challenge God; He would continue to threaten to destroy them; and, Moses would continue caution God that if he killed His own people, it would be His reputation that would suffer.
God forgave; but God also remembered. While Judaism rejects the Christian concept of Original Sin; that humanity remained in a state of sin stemming from Adam’s rebellion in Eden, the transgression arising from the worship of the Golden Calf is one that is said to still haunt the Children of Israel. Rashi in his gloss (of chapter 32 verse 34) brought forward statement from the Talmud: “there is no punishment that comes on Israel which does not have in it some retribution for the sin of the golden calf”.
It may have been just an unfortunate chain of events that led up to the incident of the Eigel Hazahav. What is inescapable though is the conduct of Moses throughout, whom unequivocally and at his own peril showed bravery and self sacrifice, demonstrating his worthiness for the position of the leader of the Children of Israel. Much as this original sin still haunts the Jewish people we can only hope that each new generation has a leader like Moses to shield us. Sometimes we have had one, and sometimes we have not.