(This blog was first posted on February 16, 2011.)
While Moses is having a 40-day conversation with God on top of Mount Sinai, the people down below are wondering if they’ll ever see their leader again.
Thanks to his special relationship with God, Moses got them out of Egypt and as far as Mount Sinai. He climbed up the mountain several times to communicate with God, and finally God and the people made a formal covenant. At the end of that ritual, the 70 elders climbed halfway up Mount Sinai, met God, and sat down to eat. (See my post Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.) Then Moses climbed the rest of the way up Mount Sinai.
The 70 elders came down and reported that everyone should stay at the foot of the mountain, and whoever had matters to speak about should approach Aaron or Chur (the two lieutenants who supported Moses’ arms for the victory over Amelek). Seven days after that, the people see the glory of God like a fire on top of Mount Sinai. (See my post Mishpatim: Seeing the Cloud.) But Moses does not come back down.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“when you lift up”), the people despair of ever seeing their leader again.
The people saw that Moses was taking too long to come down from the mountain, and the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up! Make for us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him.” (Exodus 32:1)
They are asking for a replacement for Moses, not a replacement for God. They need an intermediary to “go before” them, to show them both where to walk and how to behave. The pillar of cloud and fire that led them across the Reed Sea is gone (transmuted, perhaps, into the cloud and fire that appears at the top of Mount Sinai). Now Moses is also gone. So they want a new guide: “gods”, elohim, idols.
And Aaron said to them: Strip off the gold rings that are in the ears of your women, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me. … And he took from their hand, and he shaped it with the chisel, and he made a bull-calf of metal-work; then they said: These are your gods, Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt (Exodus 32:2, 4)
cheret = chisel, stylus, engraving tool; an item used by an Egyptian seer or magician
Alas, when Moses descends after 40 days with the stone tablets from God, the people are having an orgy in front of a golden idol. He flings down the tablets and shatters them. He grinds up the calf, dumps the gold dust in water, and makes the Israelites drink it. Then he asks Aaron: “What did these people do to you, that you brought such great guilt upon them?” Aaron’s answer is revealing.
They said to me: Make for us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him. And I said to them: Who has gold? They stripped it off themselves and they gave it to me. So I flung it into the fire, and out came this bull-calf. (Exodus 32:23-24)
Aaron’s first sentence repeats the Torah’s earlier account word for word. But then, instead of admitting that he personally shaped the gold into a calf, Aaron gives what sounds like a child’s lame excuse. Why doesn’t he confess?
Classic commentary, including Vayikra Rabbah and Rashi, points out that Moses put Aaron and Chur in charge while he was up in the clouds listening to God—and Chur is never mentioned again. Therefore, the subset of the people who wanted idols must have come to Chur first, and killed him when he refused to cooperate. Next the gang approached Aaron. Aaron was afraid they would kill him, too, and the Israelites would incur guilt before God for a second murder. So he cooperated, but proceeded as slowly as possible, hoping at each step that Moses would return and stop the people before they did anything worse. When Moses did return, Aaron gave him a brief, vague answer so as not to implicate anyone else in the crime.
I have an alternate explanation: The 40 days that Moses is on top of Mount Sinai are a surreal time for Aaron. He is still exalted by the vision of God on a sapphire pavement that he and the elders were granted halfway up Mount Sinai. But many people lose hope and demand idols. Chur refuses, and Aaron is shocked by his murder. How can the glory of God and the murder of a respected elder coexist in the same world? And how can God use Moses as his right hand, and then (apparently) let him die on Mount Sinai with the job of transforming history unfinished?
With despair, Aaron concludes that this religion of Moses’ doesn’t work. You can’t count on God, and you can’t control anything God does. Magic works better. If you do magic right, you can count on the right result. No wonder the priests of Egypt coaxed their gods into inhabiting idols!
Numbly, Aaron offers to melt gold for the rebels and see what happens. Maybe the God of Moses will manifest again. Or maybe there will be a sign.
When the fire cools, the amorphous mass of gold looks vaguely like a calf. If he squints, Aaron sees the four legs, the head, the body. The second commandment forbids him from making a metal image from scratch, but this crude calf seems to have coalesced by magic. Someone hands Aaron a stylus, a tool taken from an Egyptian magician the night before the exodus. Aaron discovers he can easily make the mass of gold look even more like a calf.
And Aaron’s golden calf works like magic. The people take heart again. When Aaron uses the four-letter name of the God of Israel to call for animal sacrifices and feasting, the people rejoice; they are confident that the golden idol will replace Moses as their intermediary with God.
Later, when Moses questions Aaron, he tells the truth: “I flung it into the fire, and out came this bull-calf.” It was magic.
Magical thinking is still easier for us than religion. Maybe only a small child believes that on Passover, an invisible prophet Elijah actually drinks the wine in Elijah’s cup. But how many adults, in a desperate moment, pray to God by promising they’ll “be good”, they’ll do anything, if only God will give them what they’re asking for? And how many of us interpret mysterious events and coincidences as “signs” that something we’re reaching for is “meant to be”, intended by God?
We just fling our gold into the fire, and out comes a calf.