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March 7, 2012 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Ki Tissa

This week’s Torah portion is dominated by the golden calf affair.  As you may recall, the Jews set up a golden calf and apparently engage in some sort of idolatrous act with it, making Moses very angry and causing him to tell the Levites to execute a bunch of Jews.  What happened here?  Why would they (the Jews) do such a thing after the revelation at Sinai?

Nachmanides tries to explain.  The Torah says that the golden calf was originally intended to be “elohim”- (Exodus 32:1) which can mean a deity, but (according to Nachmanides) can be “a leader” or “another Moses.”  Apparently, the Hebrews were afraid that Moses (who has on a mountain hobnobbing with God) had died or something, so they thought an inaminate object would be an appropriate substitute.

But at some point, things got out of hand.  After some revelry, some people “worshipped and sacrificed to it” [the calf].  It was at that point that God told Moses “to go down” and solve the problem.

This pattern of events explains why Moses had some (but not most) Jews executed.  Presumably, most of the Jews thought the calf was a nice symbol of unity, but didn’t worship it.  According to Nachmanides, only a few thousand calf-worshippers got terminated (consistently with the Torah’s assumption that idolatry is a capital offense).

But this explanation still raises some questions:

*Why would anyone think a block of gold is an adequate substitute for a living,, breathing leader?

*Why would they worship said block of gold?

I’m not sure Nachmanides has an explanation- perhaps he finds idol-worship as mystifying as I do (if not more so).

Maybe in Egypt, the Hebrews had some preexisting experience with livestock-worship.  And/or perhaps they just had a little too much homemade alcohol of some sort- a sobering thought for Purim (pun intended!)

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One Comment

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  1. Shira Salamone / Mar 10 2012 11:52 pm

    Thanks for the reminder–I was too busy celebrating Purim to write a parsha post. 🙂

    “Maybe in Egypt, the Hebrews had some preexisting experience with livestock-worship.”

    My understanding is that the Egyptians worshiped certain animals. Perhaps the original Passover sacrifice was dangerous, and not just to the lamb–smearing a lamb’s blood on one’s doorposts may have meant risking death.

    “Why would anyone think a block of gold is an adequate substitute for a living,, breathing leader?”

    My best guess: The Hebrew ex-slaves lived at a time when the worship of inanimate objects was common, and thought it perfectly normal to pray to a statue for help.

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