Four positive commandments and five prohibitions
Donation of half shekel as part of census
The anointing oil
Appointment of Betzalel and Ohaliav to carry out the building of the Tabernacle and its contents
Sin of the golden calf
Moshe tempers God’s anger
Moshe, descending from Mt. Sinai, throws and shatters the Tablets he is carrying when he sees the people celebrating and dancing around the golden calf in an unrestrained orgy
Three thousand people are killed by the Levites and many others die for participating in the sin of the golden calf
Moshe moves his private tent outside the camp
Moshe asks to know the full Manifestation of God’s essence but is told he can only know/perceive God after His actions
Moshe pleads for God’s Spirit to remain within the Israelites
The second Tablets
God’s thirteen Attributes of Mercy and the revised Covenant incorporating them
Prohibitions of making a treaty with the nations of Canaan; of idolatry; of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk
When Moshe descends with the second Tablets his face emits a blinding radiance, which necessitates his wearing a veil when not communicating with God or the people
“Ki Sisa Es Rosh Bnei Yisrael”
These opening words that mean “when you will raise up…” begin a parsha that deals with the dramatic decline in faith and devastating spiritual going down of the people so soon after having had the awesome encounter on Mt. Sinai. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that this parsha is really a microcosmic view of the fundamental aspects of Judaism that anticipate history:
• Revelation (God gives Moshe the Divinely-inscribed set of Tablets)
• Rebellion (Golden Calf incident)
Creation of the universe (Revelation) is followed by history of Man who rebels against the Divine morality. Ultimately, the final Redemption will bring with it universal equilibrium with reconciliation between Man and God. This realization that even in the darkest moments of history there is the prospect of ultimate redemption, when our heads again will be held up high, is the reason the parsha utilizes the phrasing of raising up.
The Torah demands that when a census is taken, it be done by counting the number of half shekels collected, one from each person, to avoid a plague that would ensue were there to be a “counting of noses” instead. [Professor Robert Alter notes that the ancient Mesopotamian cultures believed that it was dangerous for humans to be counted.] Every person is considered of equal worth, rich or poor. The use of a half rather than full shekel communicates that each of us is incomplete until we join with our brethren to form an organic whole. The Mishkan/Temple was a National Unifier; in later ages, the funds collected were used to pay for its maintenance.
Perhaps the plague that will be avoided is Hubris (arrogance) that will be prevented by our symbolically being incomplete (half shekel) and being on an equal footing with everyone else. Wealth and philanthropy alone leave the individual in a religious vacuum until he joins together with and joins in with others.
Perhaps the text uses the Hebrew root-word “to raise” (sisa) rather than the more typical “to count” (lisphor) to subtly point out that each of us is not just a numbered inanimate item to be counted as part of an inventory but that we are each unique, different and “elevated” by our individuality.
Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz thinks that the text is referring to the taking of a census of warriors preparing for war and (citing Rabbi Benno Jacob) that the purpose was to serve as atonement in advance for the inevitable taking of lives that happens in battle. The word kapayr (forgive) appears four times. In battle, there is a horror to shedding blood that accompanies (and may overwhelm) the sweet joy of victory.
The Saga of the Golden Calf
After the theophany at Mt. Sinai, Moshe announces to the people that at God’s command he is going up to the mountain but never tells them how long he will be there. (According to Rashi and others he told the people he would be away for forty days.) When he did not appear after more than five weeks, the people concluded that he was not returning, and demanded of Aharon that he “make for us Elohim that will lead us to the promised land because Moshe…. we do not know what happened to him”. Rabbi Menachem Leibtag points out that they were not seeking a new deity to worship, only a concrete object that would lead them to Canaan. Indeed, God had promised them earlier that He would send a “mal’ach” to lead them and assist in conquering the land.
Aharon, in a stalling tactic, instructs the people to bring all their gold jewelry, thinking that they would resist parting with their wealth. (The Midrash states that the women refused to be a party to this.) Aharon melts the gold into a metal mass, has it shaped into the semblance of a calf and the people [either one segment of the population or all the people] respond “this is your god, O Israel that has brought you out of the land of Egypt.” The people experienced the Exodus and knew full-well that they were not redeemed by a gold calf so what they must have meant is that this was the representation of the Presence of God, the “mal’ach” that was promised to lead them to Canaan.
Ramban finds further support for the view that the people did not consider the golden calf a “god” in that as soon as Moshe descends from the mountain the nation immediately abandons the golden calf. No one tries to defend it from being destroyed. This is not the expected behavior of people who witness the impending obliteration of what they sincerely believe is their deity.
Or perhaps Moshe’s unexpected absence triggered mass hysteria that was fed by a fringe group seeking a replacement for Moshe who shouted “this is your god, O Israel that has brought you out of the land of Egypt” to a frightened audience.
Aharon --in an effort to placate the populace yet preserve a sense of loyalty to God-- builds an Altar and calls for a celebration for God (not for an alternate deity) on the next day (perhaps hoping that by then Moshe would return). This religious ceremony was designed to replicate the procedure at Mt. Sinai:
Building an Altar (there were twelve at Mt. Sinai, one for each tribe)
Celebrating with eating and drinking.
But unlike the earlier party, here the nation rose “l’tzachayk”, a word that means laughing and frivolous behavior but with clear sexual overtones. The Sages understood this word to mean more than dancing. The partying got out of hand and deteriorated into shameless licentiousness as the people regressed to the Egyptian culture they so recently left. Although they had not fully abandoned Egyptian idolatry and life, God still redeemed them in the hope that miracles and desert experiences would change their thinking and behavior.
After being alerted by God atop the mountain to the nation’s sin at the bottom, Moshe descends to see for himself. It is only when he sees the wild erotic dancing with the golden calf (perhaps like local pagan fertility rituals) that he becomes enraged [his “wrath flared”]. He realized that it wasn’t only a theological breakdown among the Israelites, but a lapse in sexual mores. Fertility rituals represented moral degradation and a collapse of societal ethics. Therefore, it is at this point that he flings down and shatters the Tablets he was carrying. [Professor Alter notes that in ancient Near East, the “smashing the tablets on which a binding agreement was written was a legal act of abrogating the agreement”.]
He grinds the golden calf to fine dust, mixes it with water and forces the people to drink (sounding like the ordeal imposed on a suspected unfaithful wife-sotah). Rabbi Gunther Plaut views this as an immediate psychological punishment, “swallowing one’s words”.
The Sages concluded that Moshe’s spontaneous behavior (without first seeking God’s permission) was justified and praiseworthy. The Midrash notes that The Holy One agreed with his decision: “good work that you broke them”.
Why a Calf?
The Israelites were seeking a Moshe-substitute, a concrete manifestation of a leader to fulfill the Divine promise to be taken to the Promised Land. Aharon’s perception that the people felt abandoned and forsaken may have prompted him to form a calf because a calf was an ancient symbol of the terrestrial throne or platform for the deity. Fertility and strength were identified with the bull. The species also represented a part of the Divine throne.
What was the Sin of the Golden Calf?
God informs Moshe (who is atop Mt. Sinai and unaware of what was happening below) that the people “have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them” without specifying which law they had violated. The second Commandment prohibits making and worshiping sculptured images, “you shall not bow down to them or serve them”, but here the nation was not creating a new deity to worship. Quite the contrary, they called out that “this is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt”. Aharon declares that “tomorrow there shall be a feast to Hashem”—and not to a newly-created golden-calf deity!
After the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Torah lists many laws that are the embodiment of Judaism’s ethics. The first of these is God’s explicit instructions about how to worship Him. Namely, “you shall not make with me gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold”. Professor Joel Baden of Yale University concludes that the nation’s sin in this golden calf incident was that in attempting to create a concrete representation of God’s presence they unwittingly made a god of gold for themselves, thereby violating this very first of the Covenant commandments (mostly listed in Parshat Mishpatim)! Their sin was such that it could lead to violation of other Covenant commandments as well. When God says to Moshe that “they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them” it is this danger to which He is referring.
Moshe Challenges God
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks proposes an intriguing new interpretation of events that sheds light on the relationship between the Mishkan and the golden calf. It is the anomalies and clues within the text itself that lead to his conclusion that Moshe was pleading with God to demonstrate that He had a perpetual presence among His people.
The Israelites had perceived the greatness of God as a terrifying force bringing plagues upon the Egyptians; performing miracles; and, at Mt. Sinai, His awesomeness amidst thunder and lightning. What was needed now was for the nation to experience closeness to God. Moshe moves his tent outside the camp to make the point that it was not he that was needed to be among the people, but God.
Moshe asks to understand the nature of God and whether such closeness between the divine and humankind is possible. To this God responds that no one can understand God and His ways. One cannot see God’s Face and live; only His “back” is perceivable (i.e., His existence is evident in retrospect, looking back). Once Moshe realized he could not know God’s “ways” or see His “face” he asked for and was permitted to see God’s “glory” as he stood in “a cleft of the rock”.
We only learn what this “glory” is later after the Mishkan is finished and assembled and the Torah states that “the cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan”. God’s response to Moshe’s pleading for God to come closer to His people was the command to instruct the people to build a Mishkan.
Until now God appeared to the nation with an overwhelming presence that made it impossible for Him to be accessible to people on earth. The command to build a house so that He may dwell “in them” (i.e., among the Israelites) and not “in it” (the Tabernacle) was meant to create closeness. The Hebrew word used here for dwelling, v’shchanti, relates to the Mishkan (Tabernacle), Shechina (divine presence) and shachen (neighbor). This was, according to Rabbi Sacks, “what the Israelites needed and what God gave them-- a way of feeling as close to God as to our next-door neighbor”.
In Judaism God is envisaged in an abstract and awe-inspiring way, “more distant than the furthest star and more eternal than time itself”, continues Rabbi Sacks, “yet no religion has ever felt God to be closer”. Rabbi Sacks concludes that this paradoxical feature of Jewish spirituality is “what Moses sought and achieved…in his most daring conversation with God.”
A New Covenant
God commands Moshe to…
o Hurry down from the mountain for “your people, whom you brought out of the Land of Egypt, have acted basely.”
o “Let Me be so that…I may destroy them” (perhaps hinting that He wants Moshe to intercede).
Moshe implores God not to destroy the people for fear of what the nations of the world will say (that His intent all along was to annihilate them) and because of His promise to the Avos.
God renounces His planned punishment.
After going down and witnessing how the Israelites were out of control, Moshe informs the people that despite their being guilty of a great sin, he will return to God to attempt to win forgiveness for them (because their actions began with good intentions).
Moshe demands that if God does not forgive the people he wants his name erased from the Torah.
God states that He will punish the guilty at the time of His choosing and that because of the sins and because of their being stiff-necked He will no longer maintain the original special relationship He had with the nation. He and His Spirit (Shechena) will no longer be with them (“lo e’ela b’kirbecha”). Instead, they will be led to the Promised Land by His malach (messenger). This revised status is reflected in God’s command for the people to remove their finery/jewelry (i.e., the symbol of the elevated relationship they originally had at Mt. Sinai).
Moshe demands that God’s Presence remain with the people because they are His people.
According to Rabbi Leibtag’s interpretation, God now faces a dilemma: He cannot allow His Shechena to return because the Covenant at Mt. Sinai provided that the stiff-necked sinners are to be killed. He cannot leave them to die because of His promise to the Avos. Moshe is unwilling to lead the people to the Land unless God returns His Shechena to the nation.
To resolve this dilemma God introduces the concept of Divine mercy. From now on the people will be given a second chance should they sin, instead of the immediate punishment mandated by the original Covenant. God proclaims this new Covenant and new relationship when He descends in a cloud and passes before Moshe who is stationed in the cleft of a rock on Mt. Sinai. The replacement of Midas Hadin with Midas Harachamim is embodied in…
The Thirteen Attributes of God’s Mercy
No one can know God’s Essence. But His attributes of love and mercy exist and are for us to imitate in our lives. These are definitions of Him in ethical terms; not delineations of His undefinable, inscrutable infinity. God proclaims to Moshe that He is (as translated by Rabbi Hertz) …
1) Adonay (attribute of Mercy)
2) Adonay (attribute of Mercy)
All- mighty Lord of the Universe, Ruler of nature and mankind
Affectionate; attuned to sufferings and miseries of human frailty
Gracious; assisting; helping; consoling and raising up the oppressed
6) Erech Apayim
Long suffering; slow to anger; affording sinner opportunity to change
7) Rav Chesed
Abundant in goodness granting gifts and blessings beyond what we deserve
Eternally true; rewarding those who are obedient
9) Notzer chesed l’alafim
Rewarding good deeds even until the thousandth generation
10) Noseay avon
Bearing and forgiving man’s failings
Bearing and forgiving man’s evil deeds that stem from malice and rebellion against Him
Forgiving deficiencies stemming from carelessness and error
13) Nakkeh lo yenakkeh will not allow the guilty to go unpunished
“You Shall Not Boil a Kid in its Mother’s Milk”
This prohibition, which encompasses cooking, eating and benefiting, is the basis of subsequent rabbinic regulations relating to eating milk and milk products together with meat and meat products. Explanations for this restriction include…
• Avoidance of the magical
• Preservation of the milk-giving ability of the animal
• Preservation of health
• Humanitarian (avoid causing an animal pain)
• Prohibition of mixing of various kinds of seeds and materials
• Avoidance of this act of moral insensitivity(Ramban)
• Meat represents death (the slaughter of the animal) and milk represents life and it is not appropriate to mix death and life
• Avoidance of the negative interaction of opposing spiritual forces. In Kabalah meat (red color) is the physical manifestation of the Divine power of Severity while milk(white color) is the manifestation of Kindness
Rambam suggests that the prohibition is about avoiding idolatry—an opinion supported by recent archeological findings (cited by Rabbi Plaut) that describe a then-prevailing Canaanite sacrificial ritual.
I think that support for this hypothesis can be found in the verses themselves in each of the three places in the Torah where this prohibition appears.
Earlier in the Book of Shemos the prohibition is found in the second half of a verse that begins with “Bring your first fruits to the Temple of God your Lord”. Rikki Zibitt’ s interpretation is that after discussing the worship of God, the Torah immediately, almost in the same breath, contrasts it with a (prohibited) pagan ritual. Furthermore, God seems to be assuring us that the nation will be blessed with prosperity (reminding us of our obligation to “share” it with him, the source). Therefore, there will be no need to engage in a pagan ritual designed to achieve this very end.
In this week’s parsha that entire verse is repeated verbatim! Furthermore, as noted by Chizkuni, the prohibition appears at the end of a section that lists disparate laws whose common denominator is that they are designed to discourage association with idolatry and are behavioral evidence of our being devoted to our God exclusively. [Note: Chizkuni, Rav Chizkiya ben Manoach, was a French Rabbi who is believed to have written his work around the middle of the thirteenth century. He is eclectic in his approach and appears to have had three aims: to collect explanations by preceding commentaries that focused on p’shat (literal and straightforward meaning); to explain Rashi’s commentary; and to write his own commentary on the Torah.]
In Devarim 14:21 the prohibition appears at the end of a verse that prohibits eating nevayla (carcass) because we are considered a holy nation to God. The immediately preceding topics discussed in that parsha deal with…
• Incitement to worship idol
• City of idol worshipers
• The holiness of the Jewish people
• Listing of forbidden foods
Perhaps here we have another example of “free association”. The Torah first discusses the prohibition of idolatry, pointing out that we are a separate, “holy” nation. Then it points out that as part of this holiness we are prohibited from eating certain foods. The subject of forbidden foods leads to the introduction to a pagan ritual that is so insidious and dangerous (cooking a kid in its mother’s milk) that the prohibition extends not only to eating, but also to cooking and to benefitting.