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February 26, 2013 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Ki Tissa

This week’s portion contains the infamous “Golden Calf” episode.  In the version of the story I learned in my youth, the Hebrews build a golden calf, decide that it is a deity, and start worshipping it, causing Moses to massacre a few thousand people, and God to follow up with a plague.

Sarna’s understanding is more sophisticated.  He begins by suggesting that the word “calf” is not quite right here.  The Hebrew word “egel” could also mean a ox or bull; in fact, Psalm 106 uses “egel” and a word for ox or bull interchangeably, suggesting that this is so.

Why does this matter?  Because in the ancient Near East bulls symbolize strength and fertility, and were sometimes used as a “pedestral on which [a pagan god] stood.”  Thus, the Hebrews originally wanted to build a kind of footstool for the deity. 

So what’s wrong with that?  Sarna speculates that people might have thought of the bull as a “potent symbol that acquired a numinous quality, and that they could invoke the Deity through it”- in other words, even if no real idolatry was involved, the bull could lead to superstition and from there to pagan-like attempts to control God through magic.

Second, things get out of control in non-religious ways.  Sarna* translates Gen. 32:25 as follows: “Moses saw that the people were out of control [and] a menace.”  Sarna interprets this to mean that after the calf/bull/ox was destroyed, the destruction “seems to have triggered a riot.”  The advantage of this interpretation is that it explains both why Moses needs to have people killed and why a plague follows the massacre: the killings were an attempt to keep order in a society erupting into civil war, and the plagues were God’s punishment against people who were not rioting but were still engaging in borderline witchcraft.

*Though other translations vary.


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