Ki Tisa | The Golden Calf: From Fear to Faith

  • Rav Itiel Gold
This shiur is dedicated le-zekher nishmot
Amelia Ray and Morris Ray, z"l,
on the occasion of their 14th yahrzeits,
by their children Allen and Patti Ray
Mazal tov to Rabbi Doniel and Aviva Schreiber
upon the bar mitzva of their son Shmuel!
*At first glance, the sin involving the Golden Calf is a most surprising event. How could the people of Israel have abandoned God in this manner, after all the great miracles He performed for them during the exodus from Egypt and at the revelation at Mount Sinai?
However, when we take a broader view of the book of Shemot, the sin becomes less surprising. It is true that great miracles took place, and there were also climactic moments of faith, but mental processes require time. External events, no matter how exciting and dramatic, do not change internal reality easily. The great miracles took a nation of slaves, set them free and gave them the Torah. But that is not enough to build religious mental processes.
Beneath the surface, faith in God and connection to Him were not yet firmly established. The people’s religious instability finds expression, for example, in the attraction posed by Egypt whenever a difficulty arises, as seen in the stories in Parashat Beshalach.[1] They are drawn to their place of slavery, which, while physically difficult, imposed no responsibilities or spiritual demands. It is reasonable to assume that just as they were attracted to slavery, there was also a hidden attraction to Egyptian-pagan culture. This point is not spelled out explicitly in the story of the Exodus in the book of Shemot, but it is revealed in the book of Yechezkel:
In the day when I chose Israel, and lifted up My hand to the seed of the house of Yaakov, and made Myself known to them in the land of Egypt, when I lifted up My hand to them, saying: I am the Lord your God… And I said unto them: Cast you away every man the detestable things of his eyes, and defile not yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. But they rebelled against Me, and would not hearken to Me; they did not every man cast away the detestable things of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt; then I said I would pour out My fury upon them, to spend My anger upon them in the midst of the land of EgyptBut I wrought for My name's sake, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, among whom they were…. (Yechezkel 20:5-9)
The dramatic story related by Yechezkel parallels almost exactly the narrative involving the Golden Calf, except that it took place in the land of Egypt itself: The people of Israel had a hard time leaving Egyptian idolatry, and for that God wanted to destroy them, but He refrained from doing so in order to avoid a profanation of His name.
It turns out that the sin involving the Golden Calf is simply a reenactment of what happened earlier. It is true that the people had received the Torah in the meantime, but the strings that tied them to the pagan culture with which they were familiar had not yet been cut. It was to be expected that as soon as a difficulty would arise to challenge their faith, the option of idolatry would emerge as a response to their distress.
Moshe’s Tarrying on the Mountain
In light of this understanding, our astonishment shifts to Moshe, whose actions indirectly led to the sin involving the calf: “And when the people saw that Moshe delayed to come down from the mountain…” (Shemot 32:1). Moshe left the people on their own for an extended period of time, to the point that they began to worry about him.
As is well known, Rashi (ibid.) explains that this does not mean that Moshe indeed delayed coming down from the mountain, but rather that a tragic mistake was made: the people erred by a day in their calculation regarding Moshe's return. This interpretation, however, is difficult.  First, if that were the issue, the verse should have said: "And the people thought," or "And the people erred," and only then "that Moshe delayed to come down." As written, the verse suggests that we are dealing with an objective fact – Moshe delayed coming down – and the people merely noted this fact. Second, it is difficult to accept that a mistake of just one day would have led the people to leave the path of God, especially as time was less measurable in the ancient world. A mistake of one day should not have been so critical. In addition, could Moshe not have been more precise when he explained to the people when he would return from the mountain?[2]
The plain meaning of the text seems to be that indeed, Moshe delayed coming down from the mountain. This is further hinted in the verse that precedes the beginning of the story:
And He gave to Moshe, when He had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God. (31:18)
The Divine speech had already come to an end. Moshe even received the tablets, and thus the objective of his ascent on the mountain was achieved, as the end of Parashat Mishpatim states: "And the Lord said to Moshe: Come up to Me to the mountain… and I will give you the tablets of stone" (24:12). Why, then, did Moshe not come down from the mountain once the tablets were given? The people were right: "Moshe delayed"!
For some reason, Moshe remains on the mountain in God's company. Only after the sin of the Golden Calf, God’s imperative forces Moshe to leave: "Go, get you down" (32:7). It seems that had the people not sinned, Moshe would have remained on the mountain longer and longer, even though he had already received the tablets.
Moshe's conduct is exceedingly puzzling. Why cause the people, standing helpless at the foot of the mountain and thirsty for his return, to worry so?[3]
Distancing from the People and Building the Mishkan
The question regarding Moshe's delay leads us to a more fundamental question: Why was it necessary in the first place for Moshe to leave the people for an extended period of time and ascend the mountain? Of course, the answer is stated in the verses – to receive the tablets. But was it truly necessary to leave the people for such a long time for that purpose? Just to receive the tablets, a much shorter period of time should have sufficed.
In our study of Parashat Teruma, we demonstrated that the ascent on the mountain did have another goal – to receive the commands regarding the Mishkan, which was to serve as the place in which to put the tablets. It is still not clear, however, why Moshe had to leave for such a long time. Moshe received many commands throughout the period of Israel's wanderings in the wilderness. Nowhere do we see that in order to receive a command, he had to leave the people for a long time. The question is further strengthened when we follow the events from Mount Sinai to the end of the book of Shemot:
  1. Parashat Yitro – the revelation at Mount Sinai.
  2. Parashat Mishpatim – commands regarding many mitzvotwithout Moshe taking extended leave from the people.
  3. Parashot Teruma and Tetzaveh (and the beginning of Ki-Tisa)commands regarding the Mishkan – Moshe leaves the people for a long period.
  4. Parashat Ki-Tisa – "Moshe delayed to come down from the mountain" – the sin of the Golden Calf.
  5. Parashot Vayakhel-Pekudei - the erection of the Mishkan.
Parashat Mishpatim is not essentially different, in length and in the number of mitzvot contained therein, from the passages regarding the Mishkan. It also takes place immediately after the revelation at Mount Sinai. Nevertheless, Moshe was not required to go back up the mountain to receive those ordinances. This unique event is reserved specifically for the commands regarding the MIshkan.[4] It seems that there is something about the construction of the Mishkan which requires Moshe's temporary detachment from the people. This detachment gets longer and longer, to the point of creating the feeling among the people that Moshe is gone and they must manage on their own. It seems that this sense of abandonment does not present itself by chance, but rather is deliberately created by God and Moshe, preceding the construction of the Mishkan.
We are forced to conclude that something about the construction of the Mishkan requires Moshe's leaving the people. But why? Does this not invite their spiritual deterioration?
The Mishkan and Corporealization of God
Let us set our questions aside for the moment, and turn to the Mishkan. The very idea of building a house for God arouses theological discomfort. After all, at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, the people of Israel are severely warned against connecting physicality with God (20:3-5). This prohibition is repeated immediately after the revelation at Mount Sinai:
And the Lord said to Moshe: Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: You yourselves have seen that I have talked with you from heaven. You shall not make with Me gods of silver, and gods of gold you shall not make to you. (20:18-19)
God emphasizes that the message of the Sinaitic revelation is that He must be served without tangible means ("You shall not make with Me gods of silver"). He immediately adds that the abstraction of His service means that there is no one place in which He will appear:
In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you. (20:20)
This verse is completely contrary to the idea of the Mishkan, in which we build a place for God, such that He is to appear only there! How is it possible that shortly after these verses, which elevate the service of God above all physicality, comes a command to build the Mishkan, whose whole purpose is to create tangible worship of God? How are we to reconcile the command not to “make gods of gold and silver with God” with the command to build the keruvim – essentially, gold idols in the Holy of Holies that help in the worship of God?
These questions also raise questions about the story of the sin of the Golden Calf. What is the great difference between the creation of a calf, as an aid in the service of God,[5] and the building of the Mishkan? Why is the first considered a severe sin that almost brings about the destruction of the people of Israel, while the second is a central mitzva in the Torah?
The Impulse for Creating the Golden Calf
Freud, in his psycho-historical essay, "Totem and Taboo," attempts to trace the psychological processes underlying idolatry and magic. In his view, the idolatry that was prevalent in the "childhood" period of mankind is similar to the psychological state of a young child. He refers to this state as "narcissistic" after the Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection. In this mental state, the child is focused completely upon himself. He experiences as existing only that which can be perceived by the physical senses. Further, he sees the world only from his point of view and has difficulty perceiving that there is a reality outside of him. The recognition that there is a world external to him and not under his control is too frightening. Therefore, he builds a defense mechanism that attempts to perceive the world as "working for him" and subject to his operation. Thus, various childish thoughts develop in which the child sails off into imaginary realms where he controls the world and runs it as he pleases.
Pagan belief, according to Freud, is similar. In the primitive period of mankind, humans were in a child-like developmental state and could only comprehend what could be perceived through the senses. They were terrified by the world around them and their lack of control over it. This led to the development of idolatry, whose main service is through magical actions designed to place control of the world in the hands of man, through activation of the gods. Man creates god and thus god remains under his control. This mental process is clearly at play in the sin of the Golden Calf:
And when the people saw that Moshe delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aharon, and said to him: Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moshe, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him. (32:1)
The people are anxious about the disappearance of Moshe. Reality does not work as they had expected. To deal with their anxiety, they build a god for themselves who will go out before them. This is basically a magical action, designed to regain control of reality, but does not appear to be an appeal to another god.[6] The goal is to control the God who brought them out of Egypt and to force Him, through ceremonial actions, to work according to their desires:
And they said: This is your God, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt. (32:4)
In this light, we can understand the difference between the Golden Calf and the Mishkan. The calf was created as a desperate magical attempt to control God. The Mishkan, on the other hand, is presented to Israel by God, offering a path to approach and worship Him. This difference is extremely significant and is what distinguishes the worship of God from idol worship. The encounter with God requires recognition of His complete separation from us. He cannot be perceived through our senses, nor is He under our control. Serving God requires mental maturity, which includes the ability to relinquish control, perception, and complete understanding of Him. One can try to talk to Him and influence His actions, but one cannot hold Him in a tangible way and manage Him.
However, the difference between the two is relatively subtle. There is a real danger that the Mishkan will be seen as a means to turn God into something tangible and to hold Him. In order to build the Mishkan from the right place, the people of Israel must undergo a process, by way of which they will recognize that the service of God involves relinquishing control.[7] The Mishkan will not appear the moment they want it to appear. It will not be built immediately after the revelation at Mount Sinai. There must be an interim period, during which Moshe will disappear for a long time, a time during which control and protection are lost. During this time, faith in God must develop that will hold even when He and his representative are not present in a tangible way, when control has disappeared. Only from such a place is it possible to build a Mishkan free of the danger of corporealization and magic. Moshe will appear with the commandment concerning the Mishkan at an unexpected time – not in response to a request from the people, but by Divine command. Therefore, "Moshe delayed to come down from the mountain." For the first time since the exodus from Egypt, the people were required to cope on their own. Thus one can develop the unique faith in an abstract God who meets with man and is not managed by him.
As it turned out, the people failed the test. The anxiety of being alone led them to create a tangible god subject to their control. But together with Moshe, they succeed in returning to God and gaining His forgiveness. Precisely from the rupture and repair, it became possible to develop the mental place that enabled the Mishkan. Magical attempts at control were proven ineffective. Instead, we encounter the option of speaking with God and asking for His forgiveness. Moshe demonstrates this to the people when he next ascends the mountain (32:30). There, he engages in a long dialogue with God in order to rebuild the relationship between Him and the people (chapters 33-34). This is how Moshe shows the people what the worship of God is: an attempt to draw closer to Him, but starting from separateness. There will be no magical control or total comprehension of God, but drawing close to Him becomes a possibility: "And it shall come to pass, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. And I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen"[8] (33:22).
From this renewed process of drawing close to God, it became possible to erect the Mishkan without concern.
(Translated by David Strauss)

*Rav Gold is a psychologist and teacher of Jewish philosophy.
[1] Thus, for example, before the splitting of the sea: "Is not this the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying: Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness" (14:12). And again in their complaint about food: "And the children of Israel said to them: Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt" (16:3). See also our study of Parashat Beshalach, where we dealt with the various complaints of Israel and their meaning.
[2] Rashi himself seems to have understood that this interpretation is difficult, and therefore he adds that Satan also confused Israel into thinking that Moshe was dead. Once we add Satan into the story, it is clear that we have strayed from the plain meaning of the text.
[3] Ibn Ezra (32:1) interprets the matter differently. In his opinion, Moshe did not delay, but rather the people and even Moshe himself did not know how long he would be at the top of the mountain. Therefore, they were afraid that Moshe was late, because they thought that a person could not stay for such a long time on the mountain without food and water. His explanation is convincing, but our question remains in place and applies now to God’s behavior in worrying the people, leaving them helpless without Moshe.
[4] Admittedly, it is possible that Parashat Mishpatim was also told to Moshe on the mountain, as is implied at the end of Parashat Yitro: "And the people stood afar off; but Moshe drew near to the thick darkness where God was" (20:17). Afterwards, when Moshe approaches the thick darkness, Parashat Mishpatim is told to him. But no account is given here of Moshe's extended absence, as we find before the command regarding the Mishkan: "And the Lord said to Moshe: Come up to Me to the mountain and be there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the law and the commandment, which I have written, that you may teach them. And Moshe rose up, and Yehoshua his minister; and Moshe went up to the mountain of God. And to the elders he said: You wait here for us, until we come back to you; and, behold, Aharon and Chur are with you; whoever has a cause, let him come near to them" (24:12-14). It is clear that preparations are being made here for Moshe's extended absence, which requires the appointment of a substitute. We do not find such preparations for Parashat Mishpatim.
[5] As is well known, the commentators disagree about the nature of the sin of the Golden Calf. According to Rashi, it was outright idolatry. In contrast, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, in his Kuzari (I, 97), maintains that the goal was to create a tangible way of worshipping the God of Israel, by way of the Golden Calf. The plain meaning of the verses seems to favor the approach of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, for after the creation of the calf, the people of Israel say: "This is your God, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt" (32:4), which implies that they intended the calf to assist them in the service of God.
[6] See previous note.
[7] Our explanation here is to a great extent consistent with Rabbi Yehuda Halevi's approach in the Kuzari, regarding the difference between the worship of God and idol worship (I, 77-79). According to him, the essential principle of the service of God lies in accepting the means of worshipping Him from above, rather than attempting to influence the supernal Divine powers. In our comments, we try to provide psychological depth to this approach. Faith in God involves mental relinquishment of the magical control that idols offer.
[8] At first glance, idolatry seems to provide calm to the anxious person, as it gives him control. But this is only an illusion, since the god was created by man himself, who is desperately trying to regain control in this way. On the other hand, belief in God, as separate and uncontrollable, ultimately allows a person to reach a state of calm, for only an external entity, which does not act by the power of man, can give true support in a time of need. This support is created through the construction of a mature relationship, and not through manipulations to gain control and power.