As a man, Moses was possessed of strong emotions, so strong that he was even capable of murder; as a leader it was necessary for him to temper his emotions, because a leader who is regularly out of control fails to inspire confidence in those who depend upon the even balance of his leadership, and in the end risks becoming a figure of derision. No names, no pack drill!
The Israelites, though, would have tried the patience of a saint, and Moses was certainly not a saint: he didn’t lose control with them too many times, but when he did – as with the incident at the rock which cost him his passage into the Promised Land – boy did he lose it spectacularly! But there was another side to the man with the short fuse, another side that showed enormous cool in a crisis and great courage. When God gets angry with the Israelites, and especially when the divine anger waxes red hot, Moses is able and ready to step into the breach and play the role of defense counsel, turning aside the divine wrath to his people’s advantage.
The incident with the Golden Calf, which occurred when Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving Torah from God, seems, in the context in which it took place, to have been the most serious challenge to the authority of Moses and the sovereignty of God. According to the Torah, God is so enraged that Moses is informed that the deity will destroy Israel utterly and create a new people from him. Happily for us, Moses persuaded God not to go through with such a plan.
More modern scholarship, in assessing this story, has suggested that it probably never occurred at all, and has to produce an answer to the obvious question – if it never happened why was it written, and in such detail? The answer seems to lie in much later events in the 10th century BCE, after the death of King Solomon.
Due to the ineptitude of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, a pampered princeling devoid of tact and human sensitivity, the great kingdom that his father and grandfather had so painstakingly built up split in half for good, the northern kingdom taking the name Israel and the south Judah.
The new kingdom of Israel had a new king, Jeroboam the 1st, a former army general who had previously fallen out with Solomon and had spent some time in exile in Egypt.
Now Jeroboam was an astute man, and he realized that apart from the civil trappings that were necessary to make his kingdom feel like a proper state, he had to have a religious underpinning that would rival the Temple in Jerusalem. He knew that if he failed to do this his own citizens would simply go south every time there was an important religious festival, and potentially some would never return. So he created two new shrines for the worship of God, one in the far north, at Dan, the other in the south, at Bethel, not many miles away from Jerusalem. According to the book of 1st Kings (12:26-32):
Jeroboam said to himself, Now the kingdom may well return to the House of David. If these people still go up to offer sacrifices at the House of the Eternal in Jerusalem, the heart of these people will turn back to their master Rehoboam of Judah; they will kill me and go back to King Rehoboam of Judah. So the king took counsel and made two golden calves. He said to the people, You have been going up to Jerusalem long enough. This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt! He set up one in Bethel and placed the other in Dan.
That proved to be a cause of guilt, for the people went to worship the calf at Bethel and the one at Dan. He also made cult places and appointed priests from the ranks of the people who were not of Levite descent. He stationed at Bethel the priests of the shrines that he had appointed to sacrifice to the calves that he had made.
I am sure that many of you will have picked up the tone of those verses, and the fact that it was slightly disapproving; you may also not be surprised to hear that the words put into the mouth of Jeroboam, referring to the calves, This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is identical to those put in the mouth of the people as they reveled at the foot of Sinai(32:4).
Scholars suggest that most of the books of the Bible, and particularly the Torah, if not written exclusively in the southern kingdom were certainly edited there, quite possibly in priestly circles, and definitely by individuals who would not have looked very favourably on what went on in the north, either politically or religiously.
They knew about the calves set up by Jeroboam, and took a very dim view of them, so they created an incident, which they set in the desert at one of the most crucial moments in the pre-history of the Israelites, which would make it clear that the calves were damned for all time by God, and by the greatest leader that Israel ever had, Moses himself. Thus they subtly but definitely undermined the kingdom of Israel’s religious foundation, and reinforced the importance of their own.
We should note also that the Kings text states explicitly that the priests in the northern shrine were not of Levitical descent, unlike those in the south, and also, in the Exodus text(vv.26ff.), that those who rallied to Moses when he came down from the mountain and dealt with those who had perpetrated such brazen idolatry were none other than the Levites, a further specific statement of their devotion to God and their commitment to the true path.
For the rabbis it was a different story; a text-critical analysis of Exodus 32 was not an option available to them, and if it had been they would have rejected it as being contrary to the doctrine of Torah miSinai, the divine authorship of Torah. So they took the text at face value, as a description of an actual event and commented on it accordingly.
Most were very positive about the way Moses handled the incident with regard to preventing God from destroying the people, and for administering a firm punishment to the wrongdoers himself. A few, however, were a little more concerned about the latter, and were rather critical. They suggested that just as God had shown mercy to the people as a whole so Moses should have behaved accordingly when he dealt with the sinners. Zeal for what is right is all very well, said these rabbis, so is believing you have right on your side, but we all have to be careful lest we go too far.
And they cited Elijah’s massacre of the prophets of Baal and the priest Pinhas’ action after the Israelites’ antics at Baal-Peor as further examples of religious zeal getting the better of normal human control.
A crucial tradition in Judaism is that enshrined in the Latin phrase imitatio Dei, which means imitating God.
Now we might well argue that as God is formless and voiceless an act of imitation, which usually requires the presence of both, is difficult if not impossible – but though technically correct such an argument misses a crucial point. We may not be able to imitate those aspects of God, but we can embody the attributes of God which are found in the very same sidra as is the story of the Golden Calf, a juxtaposition that cannot be coincidental.
In the same portion as that which details the lack of faith, moral fibre, and strength of character on the part of the Israelites we hear, resoundingly, the thirteen attributes of God:
‘The ETERNAL, the ETERNAL,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.’
These words, which we repeat regularly over the Days of Awe, the quintessential time of the year when we resolve to be truer to the best in ourselves and our Jewish tradition and heritage, contain the primary dicta that we should follow in our emotional lives and which we should seek to embody.
True Judaism, not its fundamentalist travesty but true Judaism, requires us to be moderate in our views and not extreme: true Judaism requires us to be merciful and compassionate – to others and to ourselves: true Judaism requires us to be gracious, understanding of our own inner flaws and weaknesses and therefore forgiving those of others.
True Judaism requires us to keep our emotions within bounds, and certainly not to be promiscuous with our passions, whether expressed verbally or physically.
True Judaism requires us to be strong and steadfast, bending but not breaking before the storms of life, and faithful – faithful to those we love and faithful to those who share our heritage and our beliefs. True Judaism requires us to keep our heritage, its culture, and its teachings, not just alive in our own time but reinvigorated for future generations. True Judaism requires us to be forgiving of what we deem the failings of others while at the same time not being slow to judge ourselves with unremitting honesty.
The incident with the Golden Calf, whether based on a real incident or a complete fiction written for political purposes, demonstrates all too clearly what can happen when things get out of hand and the normal constraints get stripped away.
The rabbis condemned the extreme response to the crisis, and zealotry in general was not their cup of tea. But set in stark contrast to that in Ki Tissa are the thirteen attributes of God, attributes which we are commanded, not encouraged, to emulate in our own lives, and through the fulfillment of which we make not only ourselves better people, but contribute to the process of making the world a better place.
Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.