Moses’ first forty-day stint on Mt. Sinai results in the disaster of the 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 chance.
40 days and 40 nights
During the first forty days and forty nights, God gives Moses the plans for building a holy sanctuary, its furnishings, and the vestments and accoutrements of its priests. Meanwhile, the people below are afraid that Moses has died in the fire on top of the mountain. In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, they tell Aaron, the deputy leader:
“Get up! Make for us a god 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)
During his second forty days on the mountaintop, Moses persuades the God-character to forgive the people for making an idol (the golden calf), and to reveal more of the divine personality to him. Meanwhile, the people below wait patiently for Moses to return. When he does, they are afraid of what happened to him.
And Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, and hey!—the skin of his face was radiating light! And they were afraid to come near him. (Exodus 34:30)
But Moses calls to them, and gradually the people come close enough to listen to his report from God.
Some assembly required
At the end of Moses’ first forty days on the mountain, the people assemble themselves and confront Aaron with their demand for an idol.
Vayikaheil, the people, against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up! Make for us a god …” (Exodus 32:1)
vayikaheil (וַיִּקָּהֵל) = and they assembled, and they gathered together.
When Moses returns from his second forty days, the people wait until he assembles them. This week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, begins:
Vayakheil, Moses, the whole community of the Israelites, and he said to them: “These are the things that God commanded you to do …” (Exodus 35:1)
vayakheil (וַיַּקְהֵל) = and he assembled. (From the same root as vayikaheil.)
Calf versus tent
The first time, the people demand an idol, a statue for God to inhabit, and Aaron makes a golden calf. Nobody remembers God’s prohibition against worshiping idols, i.e. images or statues for gods to inhabit.
Then they said: “This is your god, Israel, the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4)
Aaron confirms their identification of the golden calf by declaring a festival for God, using God’s personal four-letter name.1
The second time, they make the tent-sanctuary God requested and sanctioned, confident that God will dwell in it. Moses has time now to repeat what God said during the first forty days on the mountaintop:
“They shall make a holy place for me, and I will dwell among them. Like everything that I show you, the pattern of the dwelling-place and the pattern of all its furnishings, that is how you shall make it.” (Exodus 25:8-9)
The first time, the people donate their gold earrings so Aaron can make them an idol.
And all the people took the gold rings that were in their ears, and they brought them to Aaron. And he took from their hands, and he shaped [the gold] with a metal-working tool, and he made it [into] a calf. (Exodus 32:3-4)
The second time, in the Torah portion Vayakheil, the people donate precious metals and gems, expensive dyes, linen and goat hair and leather, wood, oil, and spices—everything needed to make an elaborate portable sanctuary and its furnishings.
Then they came, every man whose heart lifted and everyone whose spirit nadevah him. They came with the donation of God for the works of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the clothing of the holy. And they came, the men in addition to the women, everyone nediv of heart … (Exodus 35:21-22)
nadevah (נָדְבָה) = it prompted, urged on.
nediv (נְדִיב) = willing, generous, noble. (From the same root as nadevah.)
Moses also calls for skilled workers, male and female, to volunteer to make all the sacred objects.
And they took from in front of Moses all the donations that the Israelites had brought for the work of making (the items for) the service of the holy. But [the people] brought to him more nedevah, morning after morning. (Exodus/Shemot 36:3)
nedevah (נְדֶבָה) = voluntary gift, spontaneous generous offering. (Also from the same root as nediv.)
The people donate so many materials that Moses has to tell them to stop. Their hearts overflow with the desire to give, and the craftspeople among them are eager to donate their time and skills to make a sanctuary for the God of Moses.
From broken to whole
The first time Moses comes down with a pair of stone tablets engraved by God, he sees the people dancing in front of the golden calf.
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)
But when he comes down with a second pair of engraved tablets, the stones remain whole.
What the people want all along is a leader to guide them, and a visible sign of God to reassure them. They fail to get what they want the first time because, in their fear, they assume Moses is dead and they forget that their God hates idols.
The second time around the people succeed in getting what they want. They trust Moses to return and he does, more impressive than ever. Then they eagerly create a new and more impressive visible reminder of the presence of their invisible God.
Furthermore, they now have something they can do to please God, a project that gives their lives meaning and purpose.
All of these rewards result from the people’s change in attitude. The second time around, they wait patiently for Moses to return from the mountaintop. They are careful to follow God’s rules and obey God’s prophet. Relieved that both God and Moses have forgiven them, they become eager to make their relationship with God better than ever. This leads to an outpouring of generosity.
What causes the people’s change of heart?
After Moses smashes the first pair of tablets, he has a few thousand Israelites killed, and God strikes more of them with a plague. After that, I suspect, the people are more terrified of Moses and God than they are of being leaderless.
But then Moses forgives them. The next day, having recovered from his anger and fear, Moses announces that he will beg God to forgive them, and he climbs back up Mt. Sinai.2
Moses also asks God for a different vision of the divine, and the God-character shows him another side of the divine personality: the thirteen attributes of God, which include compassion, tenderness, patience, forbearance, and kindness.3 Finally, God lets the people build the sanctuary for him despite their two-day relapse into idol worship.
After a disaster or a misunderstanding, it takes compassion and kindness from leaders for their followers to respond with trust and generosity.
May we all develop these attributes.
- Exodus 32:5.
- Exodus 32:30.
- Exodus 34:6-7