How do you thank—or appease—the God of Israel? Burning offerings on an altar is the primary method in the Hebrew Bible. But for women, another way is to grab your tambourine and do a chain dance.
Celebrating the right way in Beshalach
As soon as the Israelites walk out of Egypt, Pharaoh pursues them with chariots in the Torah portion Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16). Then a wind from God dries out a path across the Reed Sea. After the Israelites cross over, God makes the waters return and drown the Egyptian army.1
Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took the tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with mecholot. And Miriam sang call-and-response to them: “Sing to Y-H-V-H, for [God] is definitely superior! Horse and its rider [God] threw into the sea!” (Exodus 15:20-21)
mecholot (מְחֺלוֹת) = plural of mecholah (מְחֺלָה) or mechol (מְחוֹל) = chain dance or circle dance. (From the root verb chol, חול = go around in succession; do a circle dance or chain dance.)
In a mecholah, dancers form a line behind a leader, with each dancer using one hand to touch the next. The line moves in a circle, a spiral, or some other curving pattern s the dancers copy the steps of the leader.
In this first example of mecholot in the Torah, each woman on the shore of the Reed Sea is carrying her tambourine, but her other hand is free to touch the shoulder of the woman in front of her. Percussion and singing are integral to the dancing.
This first chain dance is a heartfelt celebration of a divine miracle that saved the Israelites from being killed. Even the words the women sing are a tribute to God.
Celebrating the wrong way in Ki Tisa
The Israelites also think they are celebrating God’s presence with the second mecholot in the Torah,which occur in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35). But they are deluding themselves.
A pillar of cloud and fire from God led the Israelites our of Egypt, across the Reed Sea, and all the way to Mount Sinai. But there the pillar disappeared, and God manifested as terrifying noises and volcanic fires. At least the people still had Moses as an intermediary—until after the revelation and covenants at Sinai, when Moses disappeared. From Moses’ point of view, God invited him into the cloud on top of the mountain for forty days and nights of divine instruction. But the Israelites below see only fire at the top of the mountain.2 When Moses has not returned after 40 days, they give up on ever seeing him again. How can they continue traveling to Canaan without either the pillar of cloud and fire or the prophet Moses to lead them?
And the people saw that Moses was shamefully late coming down from the mountain, and the people assembled against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up! Make us a god that will go in front of us, since this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt—we do not know what happened to him!” (Exodus 32:1)
What the Israelites are asking for is an idol: a statue that a god will magically inhabit. After all, other religions in the Ancient Near East depend on idols inhabited by gods to grant good fortune to their worshipers.
Aaron melts down the gold earrings that the Israelites took from the Egyptians on their way out, and makes a golden calf.
… and they said: “This is your god, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” And Aaron saw, and he built an altar in front of it, and he called out and said: “A festival for Y-H-V-H tomorrow!” And they rose early the next day, and they offered up burnt offerings and brought wholeness offerings. Then the people sat down to eat, and they drank, and they got up letzacheik. (Exodus 32:4-6)
letzacheik (לְצַחֵק) = to make merry, to have fun, to mock, to laugh, to play around.
Aaron should have known better. Yes, using the four-letter personal name of the God of Israel would at least remind the people which God brought them out of Egypt. And Aaron cannot be held accountable for knowing the second of the Ten Commandments, which forbids idols, since this list of commands is inserted into the Torah portion Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23) in the middle of the story of God’s frightening volcanic revelation.3
Nevertheless, right after the revelation God tells Moses:
“Thus you must say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the heavens. With me, you must not make gods of silver or gods of gold …” (Exodus 20:19-20)
A long list of additional rules follows.
Then Moses came and reported to the people all the words of Y-H-V-H and all the laws. And all the people answered with one voice, and they said: “All the things that Y-H-V0H spoke we will do!” And Moses wrote down all the words of Y-H-V-H. (Exodus 24:3-4)
So by the time Moses disappears for forty days, everyone, including Aaron, knows that God absolutely rejects gold idols. And they make one anyway.
In this week’s Torah portion, when Moses finally hikes back down Mount Sinai carrying the two stone tablets, he hears raucous singing.4
And he came close to the camp, and he saw the calf and mecholot. And Moses’ anger burned, and he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the bottom of the mountain. (Exodus 32:19)
Naturally Moses would be angry at the sight of the golden calf, which was exactly the kind of idol God prohibited. But why was he upset by the sight of chain dancing?
Rashi5 proposed that the Israelites were dancing lewdly. He cited the first description of the Israelites’ revelry in front of the golden calf, which says “they got up letzacheik” (to play; see Exodus 32:6, above). The word letzachek, Rashi pointed out, has a sexual connotation in the book of Genesis, when Potifar’s wife accuses Joseph of attempted rape. She says: “… he came into our house letzachek with me!” (Genesis 39:17).
Yet the dances reported in this week’s Torah portion are mecholot, in which the only physical contact is between one person’s hand and the back of the next person’s shoulder. It is not even partner dancing. I think Moses is enraged to see the dancing simply because the people are celebrating the manufacture and worship of an idol, when they ought to feel ashamed of disobeying God.
Thousands of the dancers die in Ki Tisa6 because they convince themselves that they are celebrating the return of their God with perfectly acceptable acts of worship: burnt offerings, feasting, drinking, and innocent mecholot. They cannot bring themselves to believe what Moses told them: that their God, the God who brought them out of Egypt, is not the normal kind of god that inhabits idols.
Denial—pretending that a reality does not exist—is human nature. We often long for something we cannot have, and postpone doing what we must to make the best of it. Sometimes we get away with it for a while, and when we feel stronger we grapple with our problem again.
But some forms of denial are too extreme to get away with, even in a world without a Moses or a God to inflict direct punishment. Today we may die if we neglect clear warnings about our health. Our hopes and plans may die if we fail to face reality in our relationships, our jobs, our finances, our habits.
Before we join a dance of celebration, may we consider whether we are celebrating something real.
Next week: more dancing
I hope my Jewish readers had a happy Purim!
- See my blog post: Bo & Beshalach: Winds.
- Exodus 24:16-17.
- From the viewpoint of source criticism, the Ten Commandments were clearly inserted by a later editor. But even if the biblical narrative were a continuous whole with one author, there is no indication that anyone except Moses heard the Ten Commandments at that time.
- Exodus 32:18.
- Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
- Three thousand are slain by Levites in Exodus 32:26-29, and an additional number are killed by a plague from God in Exodus 32:35.