Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Ki Tissa
Exodus 30:11 - 34:35
February 26, 2005 17 Adar I 5765
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
The jarring truth about the episode of the golden calf is that it occurred at Mount Sinai. The venue chosen for the giving of Torah quickly witnesses its violation. To be in the presence of the holy does not make one automatically holy. The sequence of the biblical narrative is freighted with philosophical profundity. At the very moment that Moses receives the "two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God" atop the mountain (Exodus 31:18), his people below lose faith in him and his abstruse deity. Unnerved by Moses's absence, the Israelites demand of Aaron: "Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt - we do not know what has happened to him" (32:1). The peak experience of revelation at Sinai is unsustainable. Faithlessness follows close on the heels of miracles.
It is not the first time that the Torah takes us on a roller coaster. Time and again, its narrative sequence underscores the basic instability and disorder of human existence. Stasis appears to be beyond our grasp. The idyll of Eden lasts less than one generation. Sibling rivalry soon roils the tranquility that Jacob sought to find "in the land where his father had sojourned" after his reconciliation with Esau (Genesis 37:1). Nor do the exodus from Egypt and the passage through the Sea of Reeds imbue the Israelites with an unshakable faith in God. In the face of adversity, they plummet from the exultation of the Song at the Sea (az yashir) into three dark instances of grousing (Exodus 16-17).
The pattern recurs so often as to seem ineluctable. No high is for long. We catch merely glimpses of grandeur and perfection, no more. The sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, meet their untimely death in the midst of the consecration of the Tabernacle (Leviticus 10:1-2). The earthly norm is far from the orderly and tranquil paradigm of cosmic creation as depicted by the Torah. It is that sober world view which prompts Jews to raise their voices in prayer endlessly and wearily that God who maintains the harmony of the heavens grace us on earth with an equal measure of harmony (a paraphrase of the last line of the Kaddish).
A remarkable midrash captures the mood of Moses when he first sees the religious debauchery unleashed by the golden calf. Prior to this moment, while still on the mountain, he had fervently pleaded with God not to abandon Israel. Now Moses is overcome by despair rather than anger. He senses the chasm between the divine ideal and the human reality. According to the midrash, he does not smash the tablets; they slip from his grasp. They have become too heavy to bear. As Moses beholds human nature in all its intractability, the letters desert the tablets. They return to heaven leaving the tablets infinitely heavier. Moses had signed on for a fool's errand. God's revelation soared beyond the capacity of humans to internalize and actualize. At best, brief interludes of nobility might punctuate extended periods of decadence (Torah Shlemah on 32:19).
But that is not the final word. Later Moses is granted a fleeting look at God's back from a crevice in the rock (Exodus 33:23). There, the Talmud claims, he saw God wrapped in a tallit like a precentor (a shaliah tzibur) modeling the prayer service. Each time Jews sin, God instructs Moses, they should avail themselves of this prayer service and I will forgive them. It is at this critical juncture that God introduces the principle of repentance (teshuvah). Human waywardness does not reduce God's compassion, which is why the thirteen divine attributes affirmed in our parashah (34:6-7) begin by repeating God's personal name twice. "I am God prior to a person's sinning and God afterward, provided that person has repented. Hence a compassionate and gracious God" (BT Rosh Hashanah 17b).
Reworked by the Rabbis, the saga of the golden calf spawns the seedbed for repentance. Depravity does not lead to determinism or fatalism but to the renewal of a covenant that joins God and Israel in a quest for human self-transcendence. Though we will never eradicate the passions that muddy or derail our lives, we can aspire to tame and harness them for good. Judaism is a regimen of religious practice designed to elevate and ennoble the dross we are dealt (Bereishit Rabbah 44:1).
But it is also much more. In the elaborate ritual of Shabbat, Judaism offers up a weekly foretaste of the peace and quiet that steadily elude us. I would like to think that it is no accident that right before the calamity of the golden calf, the Torah reiterates briefly the sanctity of Shabbat (Exodus 31:12-17). The chaos of history must not be allowed to obscure the tranquility of holiness. The Rabbis speak of Shabbat as a speck of eternity planted in our midst to remind us that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds (BT Berakhot 57b). To experience it is to reinvigorate our soul with a touch of eternity (BT Beizah 16a). Such is the transformative power of Shabbat, according to the Talmud, that if the Jewish people in its entirety were to observe it properly but twice in a row, they would merit immediate redemption (BT Shabbat 118b). The key to salvation is transcending ourselves.