Ki Tissa: Making an Idol Out of Fear

March 1, 2018 at 8:10 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | 3 Comments

The Israelites give up waiting for Moses to come back down from Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”).  Forty days before they had watched him walk into the fire at the top.1  Now they think he must have died there.

And the people saw that Moses took too long to come down from the mountain, and the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up!  Make for us elohim that will go in front of us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him!  (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)

elohim (אֱלוֹהִים= gods (the plural of eloha, אֱלוֹהַּ.); a god, God.

The Israelites and their fellow-travelers have run out of hope.  They are afraid they are stranded in the wilderness without their leader, without the man who spoke with God and knew what to do.  And even God’s pillar of cloud and fire, which led them from Egypt to Mount Sinai, is gone.

Out of fear, they ask Aaron to make them an idol or two.  Out of fear, he does it, and calls the golden calf by the four-letter name of the God.2  The next morning they make animal offerings to it, and feast and drink and dance and play.

Moses Breaking the Tablets, by Rembrandt

And it happened as he drew near the camp: he saw the calf and the circle-dances, and Moses got angry, and he hurled the tablets down from his hands and shattered them at the bottom of the mountain.  (Exodus 32:19)

The sound of the shattered tablets stops the revelers cold.

And he took the calf that they had made and her burned it in fire, and he ground it until it was fine powder, and he scattered it on the surface of the water and made the Israelites drink it.  (Exodus 32:20)

The people meekly obey.  Moses is in charge.

Then Moses questions Aaron about what happened.

And Moses saw that the people were out of control, because Aaron had let them get out of control …  (Exodus 32:25)

Where there is anger there is often submerged fear.  Now Moses’ fear emerges.  He does not realize that his own appearance has restored order.

And Moses stood in a gate of the camp, and he said: “Whoever is for God, to me!”  And all the sons of Levi gathered to him.  And he said to them: “Thus says God, the God of Israel:  Each man put his sword on his thigh.  Pass through and return from gate to gate of the camp, and each man kill his kinsman, and each man his neighbor, and each man his closest.”  (Exodus 32:26-27)

Did God really issue this order?  Elsewhere in the book of Exodus/Shemot, God and Moses have a conversation first, and then Moses transmits God’s instructions.  Here, God says nothing.  Perhaps Moses, like many insecure religious leaders, is claiming higher authority for his own words.

Spoiling the Egyptians,
Golden Haggadah, 1325-1349

All the Levite men have swords, even though they were slaves in Egypt.  The Torah portion Beshallach notes: And the Israelites went up armed from the land of Egypt.  (Exodus13:18)   Perhaps while the Israelite women were taking gold, silver, jewelry, and clothing from their Egyptian neighbors, the Israelite men were stealing weapons, knowing they might be attacked by either Egyptians or new enemies in the wilderness.3  Enough men were armed to wage a battle when they were attacked by Amalek.4

They did not expect to attack each other.

And the sons of Levi did as Moses spoke.  And about 3,000 men from the people fell that day.  (32:28)

Is it really necessary for Moses to order his fellow Levites to harden their hearts and kill so many people, even their own best friends and nearest relatives?

No.  Moses forgets that he is no longer the tongue-tied novice he was at the Burning Bush; that he has threatened the Pharaoh in his palace, and commanded thousands of people.  Yes, the Israelites grumbled a few times between the Reed Sea and Mount Sinai.  But they kept following him.  And during God’s revelation at Sinai, the people were so shaken they begged Moses to pass on God’s words to them while they stood at a distance.5  They were happy to trust him.

Moses does not realize that the people are relieved to have their leader back in charge.  He does not see that now he could speak to the people instead of having them killed.  He could remind them that God does not want them to worship any images; the second commandment says so.  He could say that God will not abandon them as long as they did not abandon God.

But Moses does not see it.  He acts out of fear, and 3,000 people die.

How can someone be so blind?  I think it begins with personal insecurity.  Moses tried to get out of being God’s prophet by making excuses at the burning bush.6  He did not believe he could be competent prophet and leader.

In America today, many people are living with uncertainty and a lack of confidence.  Some Americans feel insecure because the values they learned from their families, and the work they know how to do, are losing their value in our changing society.

Next, an alarming piece of news ignites personal insecurity and turns it into anger and fear. For Moses, it is seeing his people dance around an idol.  Today, it might be propaganda about immigrants, or news of a mass shooting.

Under the influence of fear, it is hard to assess the facts and draw rational conclusions.  It is hard to call for improving the rule of law, for improving society, for attending to unbalanced individuals.  But it is easy to succumb to panic and call for more weapons to defend ourselves.  And it is easy to panic and demonize the people who oppose us.

We are all afraid of something.  We do not all act of fear.  But it is hard to transcend yourself when you are too angry and fearful to see straight, like Moses when he realizes his people were out of control.

May we all be blessed with the ability to take a deep breath; with sympathy for our fellow human beings; with the humility to change our minds; and with the insight to stop the cycle of fear.

  1. Exodus 24:17-18.
  2. See my post Lekh-Lekha: New Names for God.
  3. Exodus 12:35-36.
  4. Exodus 17:8-13.
  5. Exodus 20:15-18.
  6. Exodus 3:11-4:13.

3 Comments »

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  1. […] golden calf, which brings out the worst in both Moses and the people.  (See last week’s post, Ki Tissa: Making an Idol Out of Fear.)  But then Moses goes back up the mountain for another forty days, and gives the people a second […]

  2. […] Does God appear as a cloud that conceals, or a fire that devours?  It depends on the beholder.  Moses thought he was walking into fog to hear God’s words.  But the people below concluded he had walked into fire and died, so they made the Golden Calf.  (See my post Ki Tissa: Making an Idol out of Fear.) […]

  3. […] who rescued them, and revert to the mentality of slaves in Egypt.  (For some examples, see my posts Ki Tissa: Making an Idol Out of Fear, Beha-alotkha & Beshallach: Stomach vs. Soul, and Shelach-Lekha: Mutual […]


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