In this week’s parsha, Ki Tisa, we read about the Golden Calf and Moshe’s advocacy to appease G-d on behalf of Bnei Yisrael. Moshe’s entreaties and G-d’s positive response, recorded in chapter 32, verses 11-14, resound through the ages.
11Moses pleaded (ויחל) before the Lord, his G-d, and said: “Why, O Lord, should Your anger be kindled against Your people whom You have brought up from the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand?
12 Why should the Egyptians say: “He brought them out with evil [intent] to kill them in the mountains and to annihilate them from upon the face of the earth”? Retreat from the heat of Your anger and reconsider the evil [intended] for Your people.
13 Remember Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yisrael, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your very Self, and to whom You said: “I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens, and all this land which I said that I would give to your seed, they shall keep it as their possession forever.”
14 The Lord [then] reconsidered the evil He had said He would do to His people.
Indeed, on every public fast day we read ויחל in congregation. The reading begins with those verses. In a less well known but still resonant passage later in the chapter, Moshe challenges G-d to forgive the Jews— “If not, erase me, then, from the [Torah].” (Exodus 32:32). Our rabbis teach that Moshe’s audacity serves as an example for all leaders.
However, we tend to overlook one other point Moshe made in defending the Jews. Moshe tells G-d, “[The Jews] have made for themselves a god of gold.” (Exodus 32:31). This statement seems odd. Does G-d not know that the Jews had fashioned a golden idol? Rashi, quoting the Talmud (Berachot 32a), explains the emphasis on gold.
Moshe told G-d that the Jews bore no blame for their transgression. Just as a king who had indulged his son could expect the young man to lack morals, so, too, G-d should expect the Jews to have created the Golden Calf. Moshe contended: Did G-d not ensure that the Jews left Egypt laden with gold? What else would the Jews do with their loot but build an idol?
G-d did not agree, and in verse 35, the Torah says that “G-d smote the people.”
What did Moshe mean? Why did G-d reject the plea?
Ki Tisa sits at the confluence of Terumah and Tetzaveh on one side, and Vayakhel and Pekudei (which we read next week) on the other. The story of the Golden Calf and Moshe’s advocacy separate the commands to build the Tabernacle (Terumah and Tetzaveh) and the tale of its construction (Ki Tisa, Vayakhel and Pekudei). The juxtaposition of the parshiot led to a dispute about whether G-d commanded the Jews to build the Tabernacle before or after the incident with the Golden Calf.
Rashi (Exodus 30:17) holds that the incident with the Golden Calf came first. Even though the Torah describes the Tabernacle in Terumah and Tetzaveh before we read about the Golden Calf in Ki Tisa, the Torah does not necessarily record events in chronological order.
This approach creates difficulties. In Terumah, G-d commanded Moshe to build the furnishings of the Tabernacle before its structure. The Torah records the construction as having occurred in the opposite order. In addition, in this parsha, the Torah interposes the laws of Shabbat in the midst of those of the Tabernacle’s construction. Rashi states that this shows that the requirements of Shabbat superseded the construction of the Tabernacle. Yet, in Terumah, we see no mention of Shabbat.
Therefore, Maasei Rokeach (Lemberg 1802) concludes that, in fact, the narratives in the parshiot Terumah through Pekudei do appear in chronological order. G-d commanded Moshe to build the Tabernacle before the creation of the Golden Calf. The actual construction occurred afterward. Had the Jews not worshipped the idol, Moshe himself would have built the Tabernacle and the Tabernacle would have lasted forever; the furnishings would have preceded the superstructure; and the construction would have overridden the laws of Shabbat.
Once the Jews sinned, however, Bezalel fashioned the Tabernacle and its furnishings. He had to proceed in a conventional way—outer walls and roof first, then furnishings—and he had to submit to the requirements of Shabbat observance.
Either way, the text in Terumah explains the verse here. The Torah states (Exodus 24:31) “[Of one block of gold] the Menorah shall be made.” Rashi notes the passive voice and concludes that Moshe had difficulty with that requirement. To clarify the matter, G-d showed Moshe a Menorah of fire. Why did Moshe not understand how to carve a candelabra—even an intricate one—out of a block of gold and why did G-d show him the fiery image?
By explaining Moshe’s problem in Chapter 24, Verse 31, we understand Moshe’s point here in Chapter 32, Verse 31. We read (see Parsha From the Parsha column in Kol HaBirah Issue #3) that G-d forbade hewing the stones of the altar. The Mishna in Middot explains that iron was created for destruction and the altar for healing. Using iron to build the altar would thwart its purpose.
Moshe thought the same thing about gold. According to Rashi’s chronology, he saw that the Jews had cast gold into a cauldron and an idol emerged. How could G-d require the Jews to use pure gold—a catalyst for evil, as in the Golden Calf —for the Menorah, a symbol of G-d’s presence in the world? Moshe had theological difficulty with the composition of the Menorah. (The gold in the other furnishings of the Tabernacle was used to coat furnishings made from wood, so the problem did not arise.)
Moshe concluded that inevitably, an abundance of gold—and pure gold at that—leads people to succumb to temptation. Therefore, Moshe argued here, what could G-d expect, but the creation of the Golden Calf, having laden the Jews with the gold of Egypt?
G-d’s response in Terumah shows why He smote the people here. With the fiery image of the Menorah, G-d demonstrated the error of Moshe’s premise. Gold does not carry an inherently bad characteristic. The fire of righteousness can temper the evil of gold. True, gold can lead to greed and other vices, but with gold, we can give charity and spread good in the world. The choice fell to the people, and they bore responsibility.
In contrast, iron was created to shorten life. We can make good use of the material, as in smoothing a pile of stones with axes, but the essence of iron bespeaks destruction. Iron has no place in fashioning the altar of healing.
Even according to Maasei Rokeach, we can understand the point and counterpoint here. Moshe knew already that gold had the potential for good because G-d had ordered a Menorah of pure gold. However, Moshe thought that only G-d, who showed Moshe the Menorah as fire, could bring out the beneficial aspect of that metal. In the hands of mortals, however, gold inevitably led to sin.
G-d disabused Moshe by smiting the people. Moshe had misinterpreted the meaning of G-d’s message in displaying the Menorah of fire. G-d meant to convey that humans could apply the fire of the Torah and mitzvot to the gold to create the candelabra, not that the Menorah resulted from supernatural intervention.
This should teach us subtlety in judging technology. Some things, such as firearms, pose an inherent threat and we need to outlaw them. Yitzchak told Esav, “By your sword shall you live.” (Genesis 27-40). Other devices, which can lead to bad outcomes, also can become forces for good. For example, computers and the internet, which have the capability to stream violence into our homes, can also stream Torah. Rather than ban them, we should imbue them with the fire of righteousness.
Joshua Zev Rokach is gabbai of the Nusach Sefard Minyan at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah in Kemp Mill and former gabbai of the main minyan at Shomrei Emunah and at Kesher Israel in Georgetown. He has taught a weekly Talmud class at both synagogues and served as an officer and a member of the Board of Directors of both shuls. A retired attorney, Joshua has lived in the Greater Washington area since 1976 and in Kemp Mill since 1986.