Parashat Ki Tissa

Exodus 30:11–34:35

February 19, 2011 / 15 Adar I 5771

This week's commentary was written by Dr. Stephen Garfinkel, associate provost and assistant professor of Bible, JTS.

What an amazing juxtaposition! The (near) miraculous events in Egypt that we witnessed on news broadcasts over the past week coincide with Parashat Ki Tissa, the Torah reading for this Shabbat. The circumstances of the two are wildly different, yet the fundamental human concerns in each setting overlap to an extraordinary degree.

First we need some context for the parashah, which contains the "molten calf" narrative. In Exodus 24:18, Moses had gone up Mount Sinai and remained there "40 days and 40 nights." Then, in a series of cutaway scenes that don't really advance the plot or chronology, the Torah readings of the previous two weeks (Terumah and Tetzavvah) provide lengthy, detailed instructions for establishing the cult: for building a portable Tabernacle to be used during the desert wanderings, for establishing the priesthood, and for the initial stages of sacrificial worship. In other words, the ground is all set for the Israelites to begin their life as a "religious community." Moses had continually asked Pharaoh to release the people so that they might worship God and now, at last, after 400 years of servitude to the Egyptian ruler, all the pieces were in place for that to happen. Our parashah opens by providing still more support for Israel's emerging cultic system. Moses was to conduct a census to be accomplished by collecting a half-shekel from each of the adult males, presumably an early building fund project. Now, surely, everything would be in order for the new religious structure.

But wait! The whole plan soured when Moses's return from the mountain was delayed. The people panicked out of fear or loss of faith or confusion at their leader's absence. In fact, a midrashic back story suggested that he was just a few hours late. At that point the people gathered against Aaron saying, "Make us a god who will go before us, for that man Moses, who took us up from the land of Egypt—we don't know what has become of him." In response to the people's demand, Aaron fashioned the calf.

Now, fast forward to modern-day Egypt, where the people had put up with repression for as long as they could withstand it. Ironically, they felt the need for freedom from an Egyptian tyrant even more than the Israelites did! After all, Israel's redemption reflected God's plan, even when the people occasionally longed for the "good old days" of security in Egypt. The Egyptian revolutionaries in Tahrir Square weren't sure of the future, but they knew they wanted to remove their despised leader. The Israelites, by contrast, wanted Moses to remain as their leader. They revered, perhaps even idolized, him. The Egyptian masses want democratic self-rule; the Israelites wanted someone to lead them through the desert with a strong, steady hand. The Egyptians want to confront the power structure directly; the Israelites sent Moses as their intermediary to God. Yet despite such differences, in both cases a crisis in leadership prompted the people's next steps.

We should also remember that the biblical narrative is more complex than might be apparent, and that is doubtless the case in today's Cairo as well. Most of us familiar with the biblical story know a surface plot that overlooks many of the nuances and complications appearing in the Torah. The people see the calf and exclaim, "This is your god, O Israel, who took you up out of the land of Egypt." Aaron built an altar, announcing that "Tomorrow will be a festival of the Lord." Moses came down from Mount Sinai and saw the boisterous people dancing. He became enraged, throwing down the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, after which the people suffered several punishments. But, what "really" happened according to the text of the Torah?

Things are not entirely clear, since we find many ambiguous features in the biblical text. Ambiguity is an element incorporated into a story to enable─or even to compel─a reader to discern more than one way of looking at the "facts." Look closely at Exodus 32, and see if you think anyone "overreacted" in the story before having the necessary information.

Did the community of Israelites overreact before they determined where Moses was and why he was away from them (Exod. 32:1)? What might have caused them to do so?

Did Aaron overreact by making the molten calf in response to the people's request? How do you understand Aaron's explanation to Moses about the incident? (Compare Exodus 32:2–4 with Exodus 32:21–24.) When Aaron said, "Tomorrow is a festival of the Lord," was he simply stalling, hoping for Moses's return? Was he attempting to divert the people back to the worship of God? Had he formed the calf as an idol or, according to an ancient Near East practice, had he fashioned it as a pedestal for God?

Did Joshua overreact when Moses came down from the mountain (Exod. 32:17)? Did Moses overreact at that point (Exod. 32:18–20 and 32:25–28)? What was the implication of Moses's smashing the tablets containing the Ten Commandments; was it the equivalent of his tearing up a contract?

Did God overreact by sending Moses back down to the people (Exod. 32:7–10) too quickly? Or not quickly enough? Did God overreact when Moses tried to appease God in order to protect the people (Exod. 32:30–35)?

While the two settings are essentially mirror images of each other, the ancient Israelites' experience might, nonetheless, provide some useful lessons for modern-day Egypt. A mass of people must be cautious when seeking to replace a strong leader. The Israelites wound up with a false, even dangerous, replacement for Moses, until their proper leader appeared. The Egyptians should recognize that an interim solution may be the fastest way to proceed, but will not necessarily succeed in the long run. We can hope that the Egyptians' cry for democracy leads them to develop a system that enables their selection of a fair and stable form of leadership.

Despite the ironic juxtaposition of ancient Israelites and modern Egyptians, perhaps the Torah can provide some guidance. Actually, that shouldn't be so surprising, since the human condition─human fears, human needs, and human solutions─ultimately trumps social or cultural differences. The molten calf incident teaches that a proud nation may react out of fear, but that the right leadership can guide them through the desert to reach their goals.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.