Art projects made at school, loose pages of schoolwork, a constant stream of drawings done at the dining room table: our home with three young children in it is a testament to the human need to create, to make something as a means of self-expression. This gives rise in a mother's heart to two conundrums: with each page so precious to its author/illustrator, I find myself stealthily recycling the pieces that won't be missed. How to break it to children that what they treasure is not, in fact, so precious? How to let each child know that his or her work is perfect as it is, and is not supposed to look like anyone else's?
How to blame the Israelites for the Golden Calf episode, when it seems that all they want to do is create something holy?
The theme of "making things" is bold in Parashat Ki Tissa. The verb asah—to make or to do—recurs throughout, beginning with God's instructions to Moses. First, that he should make the laver of copper and its stand (Exod. 30:17). The verb here is starkly singular (asita) as it is with the next task, to take spices and make (asita) a sacred anointing oil, and again to take herbs and make (asita) incense. Regarding the latter two, it is explicitly stated that the recipes given to Moses are not to be replicated for any other purpose or by anyone else; only Moses may use them, and only for these consecrated ends.
Next comes the work of furnishing the Tabernacle, and now it is not Moses but Bezalel who is singled out for the task. "I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, understanding, and in knowledge . . . to work (la-asot) in all manner of workmanship . . . and in the hearts of all that are wise-hearted I have put wisdom, that they may make (v'asu) all that I have commanded you . . ." (Exod. 31:3–6, following the old JPS translation).
Later in the parashah, the tablets inscribed by God are described as ma'aseh elohim, God's work (Exod. 32:16). The verb is also used by God to describe all God will do for Moses and the people (see also 32:2, 10, 21; 34:10; and 34:17).
No wonder the Israelites make the Golden Calf. With so much making of holy objects—by Moses, Bezalel and his crew, and God—what other outlet do they think they have for their creative and religious expression? And if God isn't going to tell them what to make, why not make something of their own invention?
But—one might object—God has told them what to do, and certainly what not to do. Number one on the "not-to-do" list—just handed over at Sinai, where the people still stand at the foot of the mountain waiting for Moses to descend—is make an idol. The "to-do" list is already replete with positive mitzvot. Aviva Zornberg posits,
Perhaps, after all, the people are all too pious in their attachments? Perhaps they have never, in fact, left Egypt, that place of the deaf and the dumb and the calloushearted? Perhaps there is a pathology of Egypt that can be healed only by a capacity to listen? "And God said, 'If you will listen attentively to the voice of God . . ." (Particulars of Rapture, 409)
Clearly they have not listened, or at least have not understood what they heard.
Rashi, commenting on God's endowing Bezalel with "wisdom, understanding, and knowledge," glosses, "Wisdom is what a person hears from others and learns; understanding is that which he understands in his heart, on his own, out of the things he has learned, and knowledge is a holy spirit." The hearing comes first, but then it is up to the listener to understand, in his or her heart, what s/he has learned from all that s/he has heard. The Israelites may have heard God's voice from the mountain, but they have not internalized it; their hearing does not lead to an understanding of their role in the divine plan. Unlike Bezalel, they are not filled with a holy spirit.
However, that they desperately want to be, and desperately need a creative and religiously fulfilling role assigned to them, is clear. "Don't you have a blessing for me, too, father?" Esau asked Isaac all those chapters ago, and the disappointment of not being given something treasured, a role to play in the building of the Tabernacle where God's Presence could be accessed, is similarly devastating. "Our Rabbis have on this topic a midrash," writes Ramban, and goes on to cite Exodus Rabbah 40:2: "God showed Moses the book of the first man and told him: Each person I have given a role from that moment on, and Bezalel too I have given a role." Each person has his or her own role to play. My job is not yours. What the Israelites do not hear, or hear but did not understand, is God telling them that Moses has a particular job, as do Bezalel and his crew of wisehearted workers; and so too, the Israelites. They miss hearing that their role is unique, and that what they are asked to make is going to be nothing like Moses and Bezalel's assignments.
It turns out that what God wants the Israelites to do, to make, is not a holy object, but a holy world—a world made holy through the performance of acts. The laws of Parashiyot Yitro and Mishpatim are just the beginning; if only the people hadn't stopped listening, or had understood from the 10 words they heard that this was just the beginning of some very holy work.
God does not want the Israelites—us—to spend our days making holy things. God wants us to spend our days making things—time, relationships, the most basic acts like eating and speaking—holy. This is what the Israelites did not hear at the foot of the mountain; in their eagerness to create something holy they missed the job that was given specifically to them. We can learn from their oversight—their mishearing, their misunderstanding—and recognize the role God has set aside for us, asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav. God makes us holy through the commandments to live in certain ways, and through our ability to listen, to understand, to wrestle with what we have been asked to do, we will be filled—like Moses, like Bezalel—with the divine spirit.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.