Jewish Journal

The covenant of the calf: Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)

by Rabbi Yehuda Hausman

Posted on Feb. 12, 2014 at 5:01 pm

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman

If the word of God, engraved in stone, can crumble as easily as bread; if God’s voice, chiseled in rock, can shatter like a pitched dinner plate; if the children of Israel can cast off their heavenly covenant with a casualness not unlike the unclasping of an earring or a necklace; if it is all so easily dismissed, what chance is there for loyalty and faith, when weighed against the allure of a pot of gold, or the lustrous aura of a gilded calf? 

The narrative of the molten calf is unique in its plethora of vivid images. Moses and God, high upon the mountain, are engaged in august discourse, while far below, the restless people dance their way from anxiety to frivolity, from fear to wretched faithlessness. Somehow, Aaron becomes a harassed sort-of baby-sitter, longing for the sound of an engine in the driveway, his ear tilted in the hope of the sound of jingling keys outside the door, all while the children run amok.  

First they want gods to lead them. Perhaps, Aaron wonders, they will settle for a single graven calf. The people desire sacrifices; perhaps the “construction of an altar” will provide some delay. They wish for merriment, so Aaron declares a night vigil, a final interlude for the people to reconsider or Moses to return and intercede: “Tomorrow, a feast to the Lord,” he says (Exodus 32:1-6).  We know what ensues.

However, there is no image more vivid than Moses’ reaction as he spies his people making sport of all that he holds dear: “And it was when he neared the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned, he threw the tablets from his hands and smashed them beneath the mountain” (Exodus 32:19).

We have journeyed with Moses, our teacher, as he led Israel from slavery to freedom, from the dry bed of the Red Sea to the sloping mount of Revelation. His defeat now is palpable. There is wrath in his eyes, rage on his face. It is as if he has found some stranger in bed with his spouse. What use are words when the pain is physical? The covenant has already been smashed to pieces.

But quite possibly, wittingly or otherwise, Moses conveyed in rage what could not be conveyed in thunder and lightning, in the great columns of smoke and flame that accompanied the giving of the Ten Commandments. Perhaps what was missing in the fireworks was an essential lesson about the meaning of loyalty. In the moment when Moses’ anger mirrored God’s anger, the children of Israel began to see the thunder anew. Partnerships, covenants, trust … they flow both ways. The voice of God could only be engraved in stone, but it is the image of Moses’ burning rage that gets chiseled in Israel’s heart.  

The verse that follows compounds the lesson: “Moses took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to fine-powder, scattered it over the water and made the Israelites drink it” (Exodus 32:20).

Moses appears to want Israel to “taste” what it has done. His people must ingest the concoction and savor its distastefulness. In this way, they may come to appreciate the foulness of the whole affair. Many commentators wonder: From what source was this water drawn? Some, including Torah translator and interpreter Robert Alter, suggest this was the water that Moses “miraculously provided for the people, which would be a compounding of irony.”

In a different vein, the 12th century rabbi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, points to Deuteronomy 9:21 where Moses states that he took the grounded dust of the calf and flung it into “the stream that came down from the mountain.” This was hardly any old wadi, it was the very stream that swept down from Sinai and sustained the camp.

Faithfulness has little meaning without some awareness of the repercussions of faithlessness: how disloyalty dissolves the bond of trust, how it pollutes the waters of love — human and divine. Faith is no paltry thing, because the memory of broken faith endures forever. Stone tablets shatter, and God’s voice is lost in the wind; perhaps more than anything else, it was the Golden Calf that sealed the covenant.

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA, and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.

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