Is Seeing Believing? (Exodus 30:11-34:35)

Midway through this week's Torah portion of

Ki Tisa

Moses descends MountSinai to observe for himself the Israelites' idolization of the GoldenCalf, an indiscretion that God had already reported to him. Only when Moses seeshis people dancing before the desert deity does he throw down the Tabletsof the Testimony, shattering them into irretrievable pieces. For onlyseeing is believing, right? Or is it the opposite message we aremeant to draw from this group of chapters of the Book of Exodus? TheTorah's unmasked ambivalence towards what is knowable by the eye, and,more specifically, towards observable objects and their role in God'sworship, is here relentlessly explored although the issue is never resolved.

The Torah portion begins with Moses atop Mount Sinai receiving the lawfrom God, leaving behind him a worrisome absence in the Israelite camp.After forty days with no sign of his return, the Children of Israel demandfrom Aaron, the High Priest and Moses' brother, to make them gods they can see: "Make us gods which shall gobefore us: for as for this man Moses who has lead us out of Egypt, we knownot what has become of him." And so Aaron fashions from their moltenjewelry a golden calf. It is a god comparable to the gods they saw inEgypt, whose presence alone assures them of its power.

The Israelites' worship of the golden calf is an obvious flouting of thelaws they had just received orally a few chapters earlier. And with it,the covenant threatens to fall apart, as God seethes with wrath. Insteadof the dissolution of the covenant, though, they are brutally punished.

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Testing their loyalty to God once and for all, Moses incites what couldonly be understood as a massacre. "Put every man his sword by his side,and go to and fro, from gate to gate, throughout the camp and slay everyman his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor."

And even then God's anger hardly abates: he refuses to "dwell" among thepeople. In his stead he sends an angel to carry out his covenant with theIsraelites. "And I will send an angel before thee: and I will drive outthe Canaanite and the Amorite and the Hittite...for I will not go up in themidst of thee: for thou art a stiff-necked people."(33:3-5)

This last punishment seems to fit the crime: the Children of Israelinsisted on gods that they could see before them, so God deprives them ofany possibility of seeing Him. They will have to habituate themselves tobelieving in the "unseeable," and obeying the law without viewing thesource of Divine power. Seeing, so we might deduce, is not believing. Ormore precisely, not seeing is not necessarily not believing.

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