Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen

March 2, 2015 at 6:01 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Model of the Ark with Keruvim

Model of the Ark with Keruvim

For 40 days at the top of Mount Sinai, Moses listens to God’s instructions on ordaining priests and making a sanctuary for the new religion. The holiest object in the sanctuary will be the ark—a gold-plated box covered by a solid gold lid with two keruvim (sphinx-like creatures with eagle wings, lion bodies, and human faces) hammered out of the gold at the two ends of the lid.

Meanwhile, in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”), the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai conclude that Moses is never coming back.

The people saw that Moses was horribly late in going down from the mountain, so the people assembled against Aaron, and they said to him: Get up, make us elohim that will go before us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him! (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)

elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = gods; God; divine powers.  (Elohim is the plural of eloha (אֱלוֹהַּ) = god, God.)

When the Israelites ask Aaron to make elohim, they want images of gods that carry some divine power or magic.

Aaron said to them: Pull off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me. And all the people pulled off the gold rings in their ears, and they brought them to Aaron. He took [the gold] from their hand, and he shaped it in the mold, and he made it a calf of cast metal. And they said: These are your elohim, Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt! (Exodus 32:2-4)

Gold calf, Temple of Baalat in Byblos

Gold calf from Temple of Baalat in Byblos

There is only one gold statue, yet the people use the plural “these”.  Modern commentator Robert Alter wrote that the Golden Calf was not intended to be inhabited by a deity, but rather to serve as the throne for one or more gods. The Phoenician storm god Hadad was pictured standing on a bull.

The ark with its keruvim is not a throne. Later in the Bible, God acquires the title “Who Sits [Above] the Keruvim”, but the only descriptions of God sitting above keruvim refer to angelic creatures in the heavens, not to the solid keruvim in the sanctuary.

Later in the Bible, King Jereboam, the first ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, sets up a golden calf in each of his two temples, one at Bethel and one in Dan. The Torah denounces these golden calves as sinful (reflecting the viewpoint of the southern kingdom of Judah, which retains two keruvim in the temple at Jerusalem).

Why are two gold keruvim acceptable to God, while a golden calf is not?

 

Hammered, not cast or carved

One line of commentary argues that God objects to cast-metal images, but not to images hammered out of a lump of gold. God does say “Cast-metal gods you shall not make for yourselves. (Exodus 34:17)”—but only later in this week’s Torah portion, after Moses has ground up the Golden Calf and climbed Mount Sinai for a second 40-day conference with God.

 

Imaginary, not actual

In one of the Ten Commandments, which come before the Golden Calf episode in the Torah, God declares: “You shall not make for yourself a carved idol, or any image of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters underneath. (Exodus 20:4)” One could argue that the Golden Calf is an image of an animal that lives on the earth, while the keruvim do not represent any known animal.

 

Commanded, not volunteered

In his book Kuzari, 12th-century commentator Judah Halevi argues that images were psychologically necessary for people in that era. Until they reached Mount Sinai, the Israelites followed a visible pillar of cloud and fire. After the pillar disappeared, they waited for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai with some other visible item. Only after they concluded Moses would never return did they make an unauthorized image. Halevi wrote: “They should have waited and not made an image by themselves.”

The difference between the keruvim and the Golden Calf, according to Halevi and subsequent commentary by Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel, is that God ordered the keruvim. God does not want people to use anything that God Itself has not authorized.

 

Heard, not seen

I think the underlying problem is that in the Torah, God is heard and not seen. Later in this week’s Torah portion, God explains to Moses:

You will not be able to see My face, because humankind may not see Me and live. (Exodus 33:20)

Even the pillar of cloud and fire is called God’s messenger, not God Itself. Only God’s creations can be seen. But God’s voice is heard by all the people in the revelation at Mount Sinai. And throughout the Bible, God speaks to select human beings.

The Israelites err in expecting God to manifest as a visible shape, sitting astride the calf or standing on its back.  They want the reassurance of something they can see. But God only manifests as a voice; God wants people to listen for God’s words.

If God’s voice came from the Golden Calf, it would seem as though the words issued from the calf’s mouth—a clear case of idolatry. This is not a problem with the two keruvim at the ends of the ark. The Torah says that after the Holy of Holies is finished, God will speak from the empty space above the cover of the ark, between the wings of the Keruvim.  ART

In the Torah, God does not speak from the solid and visible Golden Calf, but from the invisible empty space in between the keruvim.

In our lives today, God does not speak from visible and mundane things such as gold jewelry or expensive cars.  God speaks to us from out of nowhere—if we make empty spaces in our lives, and listen.

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2 Comments »

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  1. […] Moses is about to walk back down Mt. Sinai with the two stone tablets in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, when God warns him that the Israelites below have cast a golden calf and are worshiping it. (See my blog post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen.) […]

  2. […] 3  Exodus/Shemot  32:1-6.  See my post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen. […]


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