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.
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)
But as neatly laid out as their crime and punishment are on their ownterms, the story of the golden calf is embedded in a tangle of otherstories with which it interacts to shed its simplistic complexion.
For instance, the golden calf is the product of the Israelites' anxietyover God's visual absence. Yet how wicked could such anxieties be if Mosesexpresses the same ones, also in this week's Torah portion? At the top ofMount Sinai, Moses pleads with God: "Now I pray thee, show me thy glory." God, in fact, indulges Moses, revealing as much as He can of Himselfwithout endangering Moses' life (for it is forbidden to see God's face).
The "moral" of the golden calf episode seems also to recommend against thecorrupting effects of idolizing something gold, fetishizing the beautiful.The Children of Israel contribute their jewelry to its making and theresult seems to take their vanity to a new low of decadence.
The story's juxtaposition alongside the description of the priestlyoffice--and especially the ornamental vessels and fine garments they arecommanded to wear--suggests a critique of the power and decadence of thepriesthood. For it is none other than Aaron, the head priest, who fashionsthe golden calf. Even more inscrutable: Aaron returns unpunished to Moses'side, and even takes part in meting out punishment to the Israelites. What arewe to make of this adulation of the priestly class alongside its obviouscorruption?
Finally, if God insists on wrapping Himself in physicality, isn't thegolden calf an understandable mistake?
Implicitly, the Torah offers the explanation that all objects--whetherdeemed sacred or prohibited by Divine law--share identical properties. Thequick succession in which Moses shatters the Two Tablets and melts downthe Golden Calf suggests a parallel between the two objects: both proveequally fragile.
Likewise, in describing the oils and incense used to anoint the HighPriests, the Torah prohibits their duplication for other purposes. Inother words, there is nothing innately sacred about these compounds--theycan be easily reproduced--but to do so is a breach of the covenant.
The priests' garments, utensils, oils, and incense are only symbolic oftheir sacred duties, of their distinctive role in the worship of God. Theyto do not comprise the distinctiveness themselves. May we then reason outall the contradictions they embody? "Reason not the need," as King Learexplains to his usurping daughters who callously divest him of his royaltrappings.
Ki Tisa is as exciting in its richness as it is troubling in its tensionsand subject matter--the most disturbing of which is Moses' call to armsagainst his own people. There is, however, a sense of recovery towards theend: God commands Moses to hew two "tablets of stone like the first." Andso, the physical objects of the covenant between God and the people willbe replaced, and will never betray the devastating trauma and damage thattheir relationship indeed suffered.