Parshat Ki Tisa
Samuel H. Feldman
Shabbos Emek Beracha.
I am so very fortunate that This week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, is my bar mitzvah portion, because it allows me to speak about the Golden Calf naturally instead of forcing it.
If you ask most Jews about the story of the Golden Calf, many will give you a classic response. They will tell you that the story is about how Moshe Rabbenu went up on Mount Sinai, and then was seemingly delayed. The Jews became anxious because they didn’t know what had happened to him. Thus, they built a molten calf that they could use somehow as a leader in place of Moshe Rabbenu. Some would even say that it was in place of G-d!
But I would like to overturn this thinking and suggest something perhaps you’ve never heard about the story.
Let me quickly give some background information before I explain this. The Torah is divided into paragraphs. If you have ever looked at the actual scroll of a Torah, they are visible. At the end of each paragraph, the Torah leaves either nine spaces or the line remains open until the end. This is the way the text is “indented.”
These paragraphs appear in every printed chumash, like the Stone Chumash, which most of you read while I chanted the Torah. But there is also another division. Catholic monks have divided it up into the system of chapters which we all use because it’s easy to follow. When it comes to the story of the Golden Calf, there is a bit of a misunderstanding that arises because of the difference between the Torah’s divisions and the chapters.
This “misunderstanding” is what I am going to explain. The monks begin the story of the Golden Calf as the beginning of chapter 32, when the Jews saw that Moshe was delayed. But if you look in the Stone Chumash, each of the paragraphs has a name which tells what happens in it. Sure enough, there is a “Golden Calf” section. But interestingly, the first verse of that paragraph is not about Moshe being delayed. It says, “When He, meaning G-d, finished speaking to Moshe on Mount Sinai, He gave him the two Tablets of Testimony, stone tablets inscribed by the finger of G-d.”
Why would the section about the Golden Calf begin with Moses receiving the tablets on Mount Sinai? I want to suggest that it’s because the Golden Calf is more about the tablets and less about Moshe. If you think the story is about Moshe being delayed, so he becomes the focus of the Golden Calf. But if you start the story with the giving of the Luchot, or the tablets, then THEY are the focus.
This makes more sense, of course, because Moshe is merely a messenger; the reason the Israelites are anxious down below is not because MOSES is late, its because what he is carrying is late. An analogy is like when the mailman is late -- you don’t care that he is late, you care that what he is delivering is late.
If you switch the focus of the story like this, you learn several things.
First, this changes the focus in terms of leadership. It is not Moshe who is leading, but rather the Luchot, or the Torah itself. If you choose to look at this story as a focus on Moses, then he looks like a kind of celebrity, or the charismatic leader. But if you look deeper, there is another type of leader -- a text which outlives any individual, and which every generation can look to for guidance.
Second, this also changes the meaning of the sin of the Golden Calf. As the Luchot represent the Torah, the Jews dancing around the Golden Calf have not left Moshe, nor even Hashem. They have left the Torah. This is why the Golden Calf is always cited as the epitome of sin itself. Running after the calf is running away from the Torah. It is misdirected living, which is supposed to be governed by the Torah.
Third, the Luchot become the centerpiece of all of Judaism. They are like the light switch of everything -- just as they were the light switch of the Mishkan, the tabernacle we’ve been reading about for so many weeks now. They are also the light switch for any Jewish community. If the tablets are front and center, then the light switch is on. What is especially illuminated in this room? The Aron, or the ark, in which the Torah is kept. The word Aron, or ark, has as its root, “Ohr,” which means light.
And the last thing you learn is how careful you have to be in reading the text. It’s incredible that the shifted focus on one verse instead of another can change the way we look at a whole story.