Photo Credit: The Hebrew Identity
  • Parshat Ki Tisa features the infamous sin of the Golden Calf.
  • What did the Golden Calf represent from a Hebrew perspective and how was it different from other forms of idolatry?
  • What prevented Aharon from being able to stand up to the people?
  • Why was it necessary to combine the tribal forces of Yehuda and Dan to construct the Mishkan?



Parshat Ki Tisa opens with Moshe still receiving his instructions atop Har Sinai. For forty days and forty nights, since the end of Parshat Mishpatim, Moshe had been atop the mountain receiving the Torah while his brother Aharon and nephew Ḥur had been left in charge of the people.

After learning of the half-shekel national census, the copper cauldron used for washing the hands and feet of the kohanim, the anointment oil and the incense, Moshe was informed that the Mishkan, together with its vessels and utensils, would be constructed by the thirteen-year-old Betzalel ben Uri of the tribe of Yehuda and Oholiav ben Aḥisamakh of the tribe of Dan.

In our episode on Parshat Vayeḥi, we explored how the tribe of Dan should be seen as an extreme expression of Yosef’s tribal characteristics, almost to the point of considering itself separate from the national collective. While Yehuda represents that which is unique about Israel’s identity and mission, Yosef represents that which we share in common with the rest of humanity. Dan generally goes even further in this direction, almost to the point of self-destruction.

Building the Mishkan would require a synthesis of these two opposite forces of Yehuda and Dan, but with Betzalel clearly in charge and Oholiav acting as his assistant. The two were Divinely infused with all the necessary knowledge and abilities to serve as engineer-architects for the Tabernacle’s construction.

Moshe was then told again of the importance of Shabbat. Just as the Mishkan and later the Mikdash would be expressions of kedusha in space, Shabbat is an expression of holiness in time.

And then the Sinai revelation concluded with the same Ten Commandments it had began with. Before descending from the mountain, Moshe received two stone tablets possessing the Ten Commandments Divinely written through the stone, from one side to the other. According to our Sages, the commandments were written in such a way that, although they were engraved all the way through and even featured letters miraculously hovering in place unattached to the rest of the stone – they would read the same regardless of what side of the tablets Moshe looked from.

This symbolizes that although the Torah can be perceived from several different angles and perspectives, its essential content and prophetic message remains consistent. While it could be understood by human beings in several different ways, it nevertheless remains an expression of Divine Truth.

These tablets and their text were Divinely created without any human participation. They represent an ideal Truth that would ultimately not be able to enter into our world whole because objective celestial Truth can’t survive its descent into the imperfect material world. In our mystical language, this is referred to as “Sh’virat HaKeilim” – “the Shattering of the Vessels.” The supernal kedusha of these tablets would actually require them to be broken.

Sh’mot 32 begins by shifting the Torah’s narrative to what was transpiring in the Hebrew camp below the mountain. The nation had been expecting Moshe’s return after forty days but our Sages teach that because the people included his day of ascension as the first of these days, there was a miscalculation in the counting that led to a widespread fear that Moshe wouldn’t return. But on a deeper level, this fear stemmed from an internal feeling caused by the fact that all Israel – including Moshe – and the Torah share a soul.

Until Moshe had actually received the tablets, the nation intuitively sensed that his mission on the mountain wasn’t finished. But now that Moshe had the tablets in his possession yet still hadn’t returned, the people suddenly began to panic. And some then demanded that Aharon make them a new god to replace Moshe as their leader.

Our Sages identify this group as the erev rav – the Egyptians who had sided with the Hebrew slaves during the conflict with Pharaoh and had joined Israel when we ascended out of Egypt. They had no real connection to the Hebrew ancestors or to the promised land but they were in awe of Moshe and the power he wielded against Pharaoh.

Despite having no national or ethnic ties to the children of Israel, they were convinced through the plagues of Moshe’s revolutionary spiritual message. But being cultural outsiders, they also lacked the necessary context for understanding that message.

In Sh’mot 32, verse 1, we see the people demanding that Aharon “make for us a god that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from Egypt – we do not know what became of him.”

We see that the erev rav, and perhaps even some of the Hebrew former slaves, related to Moshe as more than a mere human leader. They likely saw him as a demigod. The Golden Calf wasn’t an attempt to replace HaShem but actually Moshe as what they might have seen as a subordinate deity.

Manitou teaches that it actually makes sense that Moshe would have been understood by many people through an idolatrous philosophical understanding of “shituf” – “partnership” deities, given both the ideological paradigm of ancient Egypt and also the fact that HaShem might have actually set Moshe up to be perceived that way.

In Sh’mot 4, verse 16, we see HaShem describing to Moshe the partnership he would have with his brother Aharon by stating that “he will be your mouth and you will be his god.” And in chapter 7, verse 1, we see HaShem telling Moshe that “I have made you a god over Pharaoh and Aharon your brother shall be your spokesman.”

It’s important to make clear that when we speak here about Moshe being seen as a god, that term isn’t meant in the sense of an all powerful creator of the universe, but rather something closer to what we would today call a superhero.

If the Egyptian people regarded Pharaoh as a god, it would make sense that the opponent constantly besting their monarch with supernatural plagues would have certainly also been perceived as a god. And Aharon would have therefore been seen as his prophet.

And like the erev rav, the Hebrew slaves that went free from Egypt had also been influenced by the idolatrous Egyptian ideology. We discussed in our episode on Parshat Beshalaḥ how many of these Hebrews had maintained a slave mentality and this could have influenced them to see Moshe as something more than human. In any case, the desire was for a new godlike leader to replace Moshe as a subordinate deity to HaShem that could lead the nation as Moshe had done.

The Golden Calf is also unique in Israel’s story in that it’s a form of idolatry that comes from within our own identity. There were times in our history when many of our people had unfortunately succumbed to the lure of idolatrous practices associated with other civilizations. But Israel created the Golden Calf on our own. So attempting to understand it requires us to first understand what both gold and cattle generally represent in our ancient worldview.

As we already discussed in our episode on Parshat T’ruma, the Torah generally uses gold not as a symbol of material wealth but as a metaphor for spiritual wealth – wisdom, culture and other features of human enlightenment.

The deification of the Golden Calf should therefore be understood as worshipping not material wealth but rather a particular set of ideas and values symbolized by cattle.

In the ancient world, cattle were primarily used as beasts of burden for plowing and carrying heavy loads. Because their main function was to materially improve and advance the world, they were seen as constructive forces associated with human progress.

Within Israel, this same characteristic of materially advancing human civilization is generally associated with Yosef. From the time he was a teenager, Yosef ben Yaakov had been driven to improve the world. We see this through his attempts to influence his brothers, his success as Potiphar’s chief servant and his restructuring of Egypt’s entire system of production as viceroy to Pharaoh.

In many of our episodes on Sefer B’reishit, we explored the contrast between the forces and identities of various Hebrew tribes – especially Yosef and Yehuda, which comprise Israel’s two main leadership tribes.

While the force of Yehuda is primarily focused on spiritual pursuits and emphasizes that which makes Israel special and distinct from other peoples, the force of Yosef represents a focus on our material success, as well as an emphasis on that which we share in common with other nations – especially dominant nations. Yosef is also motivated by advancing not only Israel but ultimately all of human civilization.

The Hebrew worldview associates Yosef with cattle. In Moshe’s brakhot to the different tribes at the end of Sefer D’varim, we see Yosef likened to a shor – a bull. Our Sages teach that when Moshe raised Yosef’s sarcophagus from the bottom of the Nile, he had written the words “aleh shor” – “arise bull” on a metal plate and then cast that plate into the river. Yosef’s body then rose to the surface and Moshe was able to fulfill the nation’s oath to bring it with us out of Egypt.

The Midrash Tanḥuma teaches that someone retrieved this metal plate and brought it to Sinai. When the people demanded that Aharon construct a new god to replace Moshe, Aharon collected their gold and began to melt it down. Then this man threw the metal plate with the words “aleh shor” into the fire and the Golden Calf emerged.

The Golden Calf therefore represents Israel’s often imbalanced admiration for the attributes of Yosef – for the Hebrew drive to contribute to the advancement of humanity – often according to the yardstick of whatever civilization is most dominant in any given historic period.

When the Kingdom of Israel split following the death of Shlomo, the northern kingdom was primarily led by kings who descended from Yosef. Yerovam ben Nevat actually built two golden calves – one of them on this very mountain – as replacements for the Temple in Jerusalem.

While the southern kingdom – comprised of the tribes of Yehuda, Shimon, Levi and Binyamin – was largely isolated from the outside world and for the most part organized society according to our Torah, the northern kingdom led by Yosef was fully engaged with the international community as a respected regional power. This engagement with the world often led to outside cultural influences seeping in, most notably in the various forms of idolatry that our prophets struggled to fight against. But we should note that in the northern kingdom, these foreign idols were related to in a very different way than Yerovam’s golden calves.

For the most part, those who saw themselves as rejecting idolatry and remaining loyal to HaShem sought to connect to the Creator through the golden calves. The prophets were largely unsuccessful in correcting this error because most of the kingdom couldn’t see that the calves were also idols. The confusion stemmed from the fact that the calves were a form of idolatry internal to our identity while the practices coming from the outside were more overtly alien to Israel.

This Golden Calf idolatry often manifests through a need for Jews to feel appreciation from gentiles for our contributions to human advancement. Our participation in the development of science, economics, philosophy, art and political theory are important. But they shouldn’t be confused with Israel’s higher prophetic contributions to human development represented by the force of Yehuda.

Overemphasizing what we share in common with other peoples or reducing Israel’s gift to humanity to mere technological innovations or Nobel prizes is actually the uniquely Hebrew form of idolatry represented by the Golden Calf. Instead of disproportionately elevating the aspects of our identity associated with the force of Yosef, we should relate to these material contributions as vehicles for advancing Israel’s true message.

When Moshe was informed of what was taking place in the camp down below, we see HaShem refer to the perpetrators in Sh’mot 32, verse 7, as “your people that you brought from the land of Egypt.” Rashi understands “your people” to refer to the erev rav.

As we’ve already seen, the erev rav were the pro-Israel Egyptians who left together with the Hebrews because they were captivated by Moshe’s personality and message. It therefore makes sense that they would be referred to as Moshe’s people that he brought out of Egypt.

But the fact that the erev rav initiated the incident doesn’t mean that the Hebrews were innocent. And in verse 10, we see HaShem tell His prophet that He intends to destroy the children of Israel and create a new nation from Moshe.

Moshe was being tested. Manitou teaches that a person cannot be enticed by something they were never interested in. So we should therefore understand this to have once been Moshe’s actual desire.

In our episode on Parshat Sh’mot, we saw that after he failed to initiate a slave revolt, Moshe lost his faith in Israel and sought to create a new Hebrew nation in Midian with a daughter of Yitro.

It was for this reason that Moshe initially refused his role as Israel’s liberator until the Creator successfully coerced him into accepting the position. But this was due to external pressure rather than a genuine internal acceptance.

The Creator had made clear that Moshe should forget about birthing a new nation and focus instead on freeing Israel. And Moshe ultimately accepted HaShem’s will. But now we see Moshe tested with the opportunity to carry out his original plan with Divine approval.

It’s precisely here that we see the extent of Moshe’s internal transformation. With complete freedom to choose between his own original plan and the program imposed on him by force, he displayed tremendous spiritual advancement by not only refusing HaShem’s offer to create a new nation but also successfully arguing on behalf of the children of Israel.

When Moshe descended from the mountain and saw for himself what the people had done, he smashed the tablets. This shouldn’t be understood as a mere spontaneous display of anger, but actually a deep understanding that the purpose of these tablets couldn’t be realized.

As we already noted, these original tablets were completely Divine – created by HaShem without any human participation and were therefore unable to enter our world whole.

We should actually see the smashing of these tablets as a necessary part of receiving the Torah. The original tablets were meant to show us the Divine Ideal that could only be practically attained at the level of the second tablets. We nevertheless kept the broken pieces of the originals in the Aron because, even as mere shards, they continued to provide spiritual inspiration.

After smashing the tablets, Moshe destroyed the Golden Calf, ground it up into water and had the children of Israel drink it. Only then did he proceed to investigate what took place.

He confronted his brother Aharon, accusing him in Sh’mot 32, verse 21 of bringing a terrible sin upon the people. Moshe was clearly shocked by Aharon’s central participation in the incident.

What became clear was that although he had attempted to stall for time so Moshe could return, Aharon wasn’t able to stand up to the people. It wasn’t merely that Ḥur had already been killed for trying to stop them or that Aharon feared the national consequence of the people doing the same to him. Manitou explains that Aharon was unable to stop the people because his connection with them was too deep.

Unlike Moshe, who had been raised an Egyptian prince and for the most part remained distant from the people unless he was judging or teaching, Aharon had led the people when they were slaves and continued to live among them as a mediator between them and Moshe.

Moshe and Aharon had a very healthy partnership that made their joint leadership style highly effective. Aharon was more approachable and would often soften Moshe’s position as much as possible for the people – obviously in such a way that would retain its inner firmness. But without Moshe present, Aharon wasn’t able to take the necessary hard line to protect the people from sin. Paired with Moshe, Aharon added a necessary warmth. But on his own, he was too nice. And the people had gotten out of control.

After the investigation, Moshe called for all those loyal to HaShem to gather around him. The tribesmen of Levi presented themselves and Moshe ordered them to kill everyone guilty of participating in the idolatry.

Like the tribe of Shimon, Levi is an extreme expression of the force represented by Yehuda – similar to how Dan is the extreme expression of Yosef. Levi possesses a fanaticism that generally makes the tribe unfit for national leadership. But this trait did make the tribe well suited to carry out the war against idolatry.

Levi killed 3,000 men that day, including close relatives who had participated in the sin. For this display of dedication, the tribe of Levi was raised to a status of elevated kedusha beyond the other Hebrew tribes, and they replaced the firstborn as servants to HaShem in the Mishkan and Mikdash.

On the next day, Moshe once again attempted to plead the people’s case. Now that the guilty 3,000 had been purged and the people understood the severity of the crime, the conditions were more conducive to obtaining Divine mercy. Not only for staving off national destruction but also for ensuring that Israel retain its previous status.

Moshe even went so far as to express a desire to be erased from the Torah unless Israel would remain HaShem’s chosen nation to carry out the mission entrusted to the Hebrew patriarchs.

Here we see that Moshe had reached a level of such deep identification with the children of Israel that if their mission was canceled his life would no longer have meaning. The entire incident of the Golden Calf actually reveals the extent to which Moshe had developed in his connection with the people.

Israel was ultimately restored to its position in the Divine plan. The cleansing involved not only the zealous actions of the tribe of Levi but also a plague. And Aharon would not be permitted to enter Eretz Canaan.

After Israel had been cleansed of the sin, we see HaShem restore the covenant and instruct Moshe to carve a second set of tablets. HaShem then inscribed them with the same words as the originals. Moshe’s participation in creating these tablets would make them a bridge between humanity and the Divine. They would be able to enter our world without breaking because they represent a holiness attainable to human beings.

During Moshe’s first forty days receiving the Torah on Sinai, he had learned the Torah in its ideal form. But during his second forty days on the mountain beginning on the first of Elul, Moshe learned the Torah as it relates to dealing with a less than perfect world. Following this second forty day experience of learning directly from HaShem with no food or water, Moshe brought the new tablets, together with a legislative code inscribed in a Book, down to the children of Israel on Yom Kippur.

When Aharon and the people saw Moshe approach, they were shocked by his appearance. Sh’mot 34, verse 29 tells us that the skin of his face was shining light. When Moshe had received the original tablets, he had merely been a messenger. But now that he had been an active participant in the creation of the tablets, he had become an actual conduit for the transmission of the Torah’s Divine light into our world.

From then on, Moshe would wear a mask over his face and for the most part keep his distance from the people’s daily affairs. But whenever he was in communication with HaShem or teaching Torah to the children of Israel, he would do so without the mask and his face would shine light in all directions.

Published in Vision Magazine.


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Rav Yehuda HaKohen is an organizer and educator living in northern Judea. As a leader in the Vision movement, he works to empower students and young professionals to become active participants in the current chapter of Jewish history.