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D'var Torah: Ki Tissa

The most memorable and most commented upon section of this parashat is the story of the Golden Calf. I will discuss that. But before doing so, I want to note another part of the story.

The parashat starts with the taking of a census. All Jews were to contribute a half shekel; the rich, no more and the poor, no less. None of the commentaries I read mention this at all. But as a believer in a progressive tax system, I found this astounding. It is more regressive than Steve Forbes’ flat-tax idea. How can we reconcile this with a culture that, in its Torah, repeatedly called on people to take care of the poor?

I see two possible explanations and I call upon your expertise to help with them:

Golden Calf

Several questions arise: Why did the Jews build it? How blameworthy were the people? And how blameworthy was Aaron?

It may seem strange that the Jews, who just recently had experienced God at Sinai and had received the commandments (one of which prohibited idol worship), would sink so quickly into such worship. But Rambam says that people reared in slavery retain some of the old habits and degradation of their former life. The JPS Commentary (on page 556) says one single religious experience, however profound, could not change people from idol worshippers to monotheists. Only prolonged disciplining in the precepts of the Torah directing every moment of their existence and every aspect of their lives could do this. My understanding is that the Jews had had multiple religious experiences in the sense of multiple miracles. But the main message may still be valid. Long-term observance of the Torah is necessary to avoid idol worship.

How much blame can be placed on the people? Here the story is more murky. Clearly it was bad, but how bad? Was it true idolatry? Had they really forsaken Moses and God? and how widespread was this sin?

The message as to how bad the Jews were seems rather ambiguous. Moses was furious and broke the tablets with the commandments. God referred to the Israelites as “stiff-necked people” for the umpteenth time and felt like destroying them.

But other commentators view the people less harshly. Ramban states that the Israelites did not really want a god—just someone to “pinch-hit” (not Ramban’s term) for Moses as leader while he was gone, and as soon as he returned they acquiesced in the destruction of the calf.

The Torah says three thousand of the 600,000 Hebrews were killed when Moses wanted to punish the evil-doers. This is interpreted by Judah HaLevy to indicate that only three thousand had been involved in creating the calf. This is only five percent, meaning that the majority were not actively sinning.

Aaron clearly allowed this to happen. Yet he was allowed to live and to continue to be honored. This further suggests that it might not be so bad. All this means that the sin could have been worse. But still Moses and God were furious and felt betrayed so it was considered quite bad.

Considering the five percent who really sinned, one or two rotten apples spoil the whole bunch and can do a great deal of damage. Five percent of the Hebrews had actively sinned. By contrast, probably fewer than one percent of the students at MSU had actively participated in the destruction that occurred in the riot of March 1999. But they did a lot of damage. We also know that Jews believe that we are collectively responsible for sins committed by our community. So the other 95 percent could have and should have stopped it.

While both Moses and God were furious, which one could be more readily be accused of overreaction? Clearly this is God, who was ready to destroy the people while Moses was arguing on their behalf. God, like an angry parent, ceases to refer to the Israelites as “my people” and instead refers to them as “your people.” Moses, in answering God, refers to them as “your people.” He is, in effect, reminding God if they are yours when they are good, you still have responsibility for them when they behave badly..

And Moses then makes two powerful arguments:

  1. Remember the promise you made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel; and
  2. What will others think of you if you lead these people out of slavery only to destroy them?

So in short, we have a subtly nuanced view of both the Israelites and of God. The Israelites have behaved badly but it could be worse. God is great, but God too sometimes needs to be reminded to control God’s own temper.

—Stan Kaplowitz
February 2002

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