Tags: book of life, Golden Calf, levirite marriage, Psalm 109, Psalm 69
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
Of course God is angry about the golden calf. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below.” (Exodus/Shemot 20:4) It’s right there in the Ten Commandments. Why can’t these Israelites follow simple directions?
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.)
And God said to Moses: “I have observed this people, and hey, it is a stiff-necked people! So now let Me be, and My anger will blaze over them and I will consume them, and I will make you into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10)
Moses talks God out of this idea. Then he walks down the mountain, smashes the two stone tablets, and gets the Levites to kill the 3,000 worst offenders.
The next day he climbs back up Mt. Sinai to ask God to forgive the surviving Israelites.
“And now, if you will only lift their guilt! But if not, please mecheini from your book that you have written.” But God said to Moses: “Whoever sinned against Me, emechenu from My book. Now go lead the people to [the place] that I have spoken of to you.” (Exodus 32:32-33)
mecheini (מְחֵנִי) = wipe me away, erase me. (A form of the verb machah, מָחָה = wiped out, wiped off, destroyed, blotted out.1)
emechenu (אֶמְחֶנּוּ) = I will wipe them off, I will erase them. (Another form of the verb machah.)
In other words, Moses insists that his personal fate must not be separated from that of the Israelites. If God erases them from the book, God must erase him, too. God replies that guilty individuals will erased, but the people of Israel as a whole will continue their journey under Moses’s leadership.
When the story is retold in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God says to Moses:
“Hey! This is a stiff-necked people. Leave me alone, and I will exterminate them, and emecheh their name from under the heavens, and I will make you a nation greater than they.” (Deuteronomy 9:13-14)
emecheh (אֶמְחֶה) = I will wipe it out, I will erase it. (Another form of the verb machah.)
The Hebrew word for “name”, sheim (שֵׁם), means not only an appellation, but also someone’s reputation, standing, or renown (as in the English “making a name for herself”).
God’s book appears to be a list of names recorded at birth. Female names are not mentioned (the Bible reflects the male-centered, patriarchal society of its time), so we do not know if the list is comprehensive.
What happens when someone’s name is machah from the divine list?
One clue appears later in Deuteronomy. Lineage is important in the Bible; for a man to die without any male heirs is a terrible fate. So if a married man died without issue, his brother was obligated to impregnate the widow. If she bore a son, he would become the dead man’s heir.
And the firstborn that she bears shall be established on the name of his dead brother, and his name will not yimacheh from Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:6)
yimacheh (יִמָּחֶה) = be wiped out, be erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)
Two of the psalms include pleas for God to punish enemies by erasing their names from the divine book. Psalm 109 opens with a complaint that certain people are lying about the psalmist, accusing him without cause. Verses 6-19 ask God to punish a personal enemy. These verses include separate requests for the man to be convicted of a crime, lose his job, and become impoverished while alive; for him to die before his time; for his children and his parents to suffer; and for his lineage to be exterminated.
May no one extend kindness to him;
And may no one be gracious to his orphans.
May his posterity be cut off;
In the next generation, may their names yimach. (Psalm 109:12-13)
yimach (יִמַּח) = be blotted out, erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)
In Psalm 69, the speaker feels as though he is drowning, and asks God to rescue him from being shamed and abused. Then he asks God to punish all his enemies. This middle section concludes with:
Place guilt upon their guilt,
and do not let them come into Your righteous deliverance.
Yimachu from the book of life,
And among the righteous do not record them. (Psalm 69:28-29)
yimachu (יִמַּחְוּ) = May they be blotted out, erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)
This passage alludes to two divine lists: a “book of life” or “book of the living” (seifer chayim, סֵפֶר חַיִּים), and a record of the righteous, which may or may not be the same scroll. When the psalmist asks for the names of his tormentors to be erased from the book of life, he may be asking God to deprive them of heirs, or he may be asking God to make them die soon.
The Hebrew Bible refers to God’s list of names as a “book of life” only in Psalm 69, which was written around 500 B.C.E. Almost a thousand years later, the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b) cited Psalm 69:29 as support for the idea that God keeps three books of names. According to this tractate, on the first day of each new year, Rosh Hashanah, God writes down the names of the righteous in one book and the names of the wicked in another. People whose deeds are partly good and partly bad are listed in the third book until Yom Kippur, nine days later, when God decides which of these intermediate people to record in the book of the righteous and which in the book of the wicked.
What happens to the people listed in these books? The Talmud says that according to school of Shammai, those in the book of the righteous are rewarded with everlasting life, while those in the book of the wicked go to Gehinnom after death.2
But by the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, codified in the 9th century C.E., says simply that God writes down who will live and who will die that year; any possibility of life after death is omitted.3 Neither does the liturgy mention wiping out any names that were written earlier.
The image of God erasing names from a book expresses a biblical hope that people will be punished for bad deeds, either by untimely death or by the end of their lineage—equally bad fates from an ancient Israelite point of view.
Few people today believe God punishes miscreants in this way. Some folks still cling to the idea of reward or punishment after death. I prefer the idea that virtue is its own reward, and I believe that people who enjoy being mean never get to experience the best things in life, such as true friendship and love.
Today the image of God keeping a book, or books, of names is still used in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services as a metaphor for the idea that God only knows when a person will die. The liturgy pleading to be written into this year’s “book of life” provides emotional reinforcement for the knowledge that the time of our death is unknown—and therefore it behooves us to use our present lives well.
May all human beings, whatever their past deeds and attitudes have been, wake up with new insight into the shortness of life and the value of goodness. And may we all realize, like Moses in this week’s Torah portion, that there is no point in having our own names written in the book of life unless our fellow human beings are also listed there.
1 The Bible uses various forms of the verb machah not only for wiping away or erasing names, but also for wiping away tears, wiping a dish clean, or wiping out (killing) an entire population. God tells the Israelites to wipe out the memory of an enemy tribe called Amaleik; several Israelite leaders beg God not to wipe out, i.e. forget, someone’s good or bad deeds. When a husband accused his wife of adultery, a priest wrote a curse on a scroll, then machah it in water and made the woman drink it; the results determined her guilt or innocence (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:23-24).
2 Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 16b. There is also a Christian tradition about a “book of life” that is a divine record of who will “go to heaven” after death.
3 Prayers for God to “inscribe us in the book of life” were added to the Amidah sections of Rosh Hashanah liturgy by the Babylonian Geonim in the 9th century C.E. The “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer, an earlier addition to the liturgy, states that every year God decrees who will die, and by what means, during the coming year.
Ramban (13th century Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, known as Nachmanides) explained that the book of the righteous is the book of life, and the book of the wicked is the book of death. Everyone whose name is written in the book of life merits life until the following Rosh Hashanah, and everyone whose name is written in the book of death will die that year.
Tags: Babylonian exile, Golden Calf, mishkan, Psalm 74, sanctuary, temple, torah portion
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
Where does God live?
The “heavens” are the primary residence of many gods, including the God of Israel in the Hebrew Bible. In Canaanite and Babylonian religions, the gods inhabit both the heavens and any number of statues on earth. The God of Israel flatly rejects idols, but still wants a second home on earth. In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”), Moses is receiving instructions from God on top of Mount Sinai. God tells him:
They shall make a holy place for me, veshakhanti among them. Like everything that I show you, the pattern of the mishkan and the pattern of all its furnishings, that is how you shall make it. (Exodus/Shemot 25:8-9)
veshakhanti (וְשָׁכַנְתִּי) = and I will dwell, and I will stay. (A form of the root verb shakhan (שָׁכַן) = stay, settle, dwell, inhabit. This is the first occurrence in the Bible of the verb shakhan.)
mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = dwelling-place, home. (Also from the root verb shakhan. This is also the first occurrence in the Bible of the noun mishkan.)
Moses stays on top of Mount Sinai so long—40 days and 40 nights—that in the Torah portion Ki Tissa the Israelites at the foot of the mountain despair of seeing him again. So they make a golden calf in the hope that God will inhabit it.1 God refuses the golden statue and threatens to destroy all the Israelites except Moses and his direct descendants. Moses refuses God’s offer, and God settles for sending a plague.2
After the surviving Israelites have built an elaborate portable tent-sanctuary according to God’s instructions, God descends on it in a pillar of cloud.3 In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the ark in this mishkan’s innermost chamber.
Throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers the only mishkan for God is the portable tent-sanctuary. In the first book of Samuel a temple in Shiloh houses the ark, and God speaks to Samuel there.4
King Solomon builds a temple of stone and wood in Jerusalem for God to inhabit. (See my post Terumah & 1 Kings: Tent vs. Temple.) This temple lasts until the Babylonian army razes it in 587 B.C.E., along with most of the city.
Psalm 74 argues that this act was not merely a political conquest by the expanding Babylonian empire, but an attempt to eradicate the worship of God by destroying God’s home on earth. The psalmist, like most prophets writing after the fall of the first temple, probably believed God arranged the fall of Jerusalem in order to punish the Israelites for worshiping idols. Now that the punishment is complete, the psalmist is waiting for God to rescue the deported Israelites (and punish the Babylonians).
Why, God, do You endlessly reject us?
Your anger smokes at the flock You tended.
Remember Your community You acquired long ago!
You redeemed the tribe of your possession.
Mount Zion is where shakhanta. (Psalm 74:1-2)
shakhanta (שָׁכַנְתָּ) = you dwelled, you lived. (Another form of the verb shakhan.)
The psalm then describes how the Babylonian army replaced all the emblems of the Israelite religion in the temple with their own emblems, hacked up the carved ornamentation, and burned the wooden parts of the building down to the ground.
They set Your holy place on fire;
They profaned the ground inside the mishkan of Your name. (Psalm 74:7)
Given this disrespect, and given that the Israelites are the people God adopted and brought to Jerusalem in the first place, Psalm 74 asks why God is taking so long to restore God’s own mishkan, city, and people.
Why do you draw back Your right hand,
Holding it in Your bosom? (Psalm 74:11)
The psalm then points out that God created the world and the day and night, then did great deeds without a mishkan on earth. Lack of power is not holding God back. And the Israelites, particularly the poor and needy, belong to God.
Look to the covenant! (Psalm 74:20)
If God would only pay attention, the psalm implies, God would honor Its covenant, restore the Israelites to Jerusalem, and cause a new mishkan to be built there to facilitate worship.
Do not let the miserable turn back disgraced.
Let the poor and the needy praise Your name! (Psalm 74:21)
In Psalm 74, the mishkan of God is also the mishkan of the people. They need their own home, and they need to have a home for God in their midst. Then, instead of suffering miserably, the needy can praise God and rejoice.
Many Jews still want a home where we are free to praise God, to practice our own religion without fear or discrimination.
Half of the Jews in the world live in the nation of Israel, founded in 1948 as a homeland where Jews could escape the genocide, as well as less drastic forms of discrimination, inflicted on them in Europe. Yet over the next 69 years, the Jewish and Muslim residents of Israel have been attacked both by neighboring countries and by each other.
Most of the Jews living outside Israel today are American citizens. Discrimination against Jews in the United States has fallen over the past sixty years, and many of us view America as our real home, where we can participate in the life of our country and remain free to practice our own religion. God has many second homes among religious American Jews; every synagogue is a divine mishkan, and each of us can make a mishkan for God to dwell in our own hearts.
Yet in the past year, discrimination against ethnic and religious groups has become more socially acceptable in the United States. Psalm 74 suddenly seems more relevant.
I pray that the divine spirit blooms in all of our hearts. May we quickly reverse this dangerous trend. And may all people, everywhere, find a safe home.
Do not let the miserable turn back disgraced!
1 Exodus 32:1-5.
2 Exodus 32:35: Then God struck the people over what they had done with the calf that Aaron made.
3 Exodus 40:33-34: When Moses completed the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the magnificence of God filled the mishkan.
4 1 Samuel 3:1-10.
Tags: 1 Kings, Exodus, Golden Calf, haftarah, King Solomon, Moses, religion, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Vayakheil (Exodus 35:1-40:38). The haftarah in the Sefardi tradition is 1 Kings 7:13-26. (The haftarah in the Ashkenazi tradition is 1 Kings 7:40-50.)
Both Moses’ tent sanctuary and Solomon’s temple have a place for priests to wash their hands and feet before they enter the holy building. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, the master craftsman Betzaleil makes a simple but symbolic wash-basin. (See my blog post Pekudei: Basin of Mirrors.)
And he made the kiyor of bronze and its stand of bronze from the mirrors of the army of women who mobilized at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Exodus 38:8)
kiyor (כִּיִוֹר) = basin, laver.
Solomon’s temple has ten such basins, cast out of regular molten bronze rather than mirrors, perched on elaborate wheeled stands. But King Solomon also has his master bronze artisan cast a water container so huge it is called a sea.
Then he made the yam of cast metal, ten cubits from its [lower] rim up to its circular rim, five cubits high, and a measuring-line of thirty cubits around its circumference. (1 Kings 7:23)
yam (יָם) = sea; in Canaanite religion, the name of the god of the sea.
This tub of water would be more than 14 feet (4 meters) across and more than 7 feet (2 meters) high. Since it would be impossible to climb into for bathing, commentators have concluded it had an outlet like a spigot at the bottom, to pour water into a shallower container for washing.
And gourd ornaments were below its rim all around the circle, ten per cubit, encompassing the yam all around; two rows of the gourd ornaments, cast in one piece with it. It was standing on twelve oxen: three facing north and three facing west and three facing south and three facing east. And the yam was on top of them, and all of their hind parts were inward. (I Kings 7:24-25)
The most striking difference between the yam in front of Solomon’s temple and the kiyor in front of Moses’ tent sanctuary is that the yam rests on twelve bronze cows—probably life-size—instead of on an ordinary framework.
Moses discourages the molding of any real animals (as opposed to the keruvim, the composite fantasy animals whose wings are spread over the ark). He smashes and grinds up the golden calf that Aaron makes in the book of Exodus. In a passage after this week’s hafatarah, the first book of Kings criticizes King Jereboam of Israel for putting golden calves in temples at Dan and Bethel.
This may have been a reaction to cow-worship in other religions. The religion of the Hittites to the north included a pair of bulls who carried the weather god Teshub on their backs. To the south, Egyptians worshipped the bull as Apis, the avatar of the gods Ptah and Osiris, and the cow as the goddess Hathor.
Yet throughout the bible, the twelve bronze oxen supporting the yam in front of Solomon’s temple are treated as perfectly acceptable.
Is the huge tub of water in front of Solomon’s temple called the yam simply because it is so large, or does it evoke the Canaanite god named Yam? Are the twelve oxen simply decorative, or do they inspire awareness of bull and cow worship?
Throughout history, people have viewed symbols of the divine in two ways. Some people consider a symbolic object or building as a way to evoke the ineffable. Its beauty and impressiveness are like an arrow pointing to the divine, and its specific details (such as fruit, water, architecture that reaches toward the sky) allude to ideas about the divine.
Other people see symbolic things in a more concrete way. A god visits a building or enters a statue. Carrying out rituals in sacred buildings with sacred objects is essential for pleasing the god.
Either way, symbols are important—and often enduring. Even today, Mormons conduct baptisms and sealings in copies of the yam perched on twelve oxen.
One question remains, for King Solomon and for us today: Which symbols from other cultures and from the history of our own culture or religion can enhance our lives, and which symbols should be discarded?
Anyone want a bronze ox?
Tags: Exodus, Golden Calf, Moses, Moses and Aaron, Shemot, torah portion, trust, wet-nurse
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Moses never wanted the job.
When God spoke out of the burning bush and assigned him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses tried to get out of it. He objected:
Hey! Lo ya-aminu me, and they will not listen to my voice, for they will say: Your god, God, did not appear. (Exodus 4:1)
Lo ya-aminu = They will not believe, they will not trust. Lo (לֹא) = not. Ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = They will believe, be convinced by, put trust in, have faith in. (From the root aman, אמן, which is also the root of amen (אָמֵן) = a solemn statement of confirmation or acceptance. See last week’s post, Naso: Ordeal of Trust for the first use of “Amen” in the Torah.)
God gave Moses three miraculous signs to convince the Israelites that he really did speak for God. But Moses still tried to turn down the job. Finally God compromised by giving Moses a partner: his older brother Aaron, who had stayed in Egypt when Moses fled to Midian many decades before.
The arrangement was that God would speak to Moses, Moses would speak to Aaron, and Aaron would deal directly with the people. Moses accepted this arrangement—maybe because he had run out of excuses.
Moses and Aaron are still together in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“when you bring up”), in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. But their roles have changed. The big change came while the Israelites were camped at Mount Sinai, halfway between Egypt and the “promised land’ of Canaan. When they first arrived at Mount Sinai, the people trusted God. Sure, they had panicked a few times when there was a shortage of water or food, but each time Moses talked to God and God fixed the problem. So when they reached Mount Sinai, the people said:
Everything that God speaks we will do! And God said to Moses: Hey! I myself will come to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people will listen when I speak with you, and also ya-aminu in you forever. (Exodus 19:9)
Alas, while Moses is secluded inside God’s cloud on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, the people feel abandoned and lose faith that Moses will return to them. They ask Aaron to make a god to lead them, now that Moses has disappeared.
If Aaron were trustworthy as Moses’ co-leader, he would have reminded them that God explicitly forbade them to make gold or silver idols. He might have redirected them toward making an acceptable offering to God. Instead, Aaron made the Golden Calf, and the Israelites had a wild party.
When Moses returned and questioned him about it, Aaron lied about his own role—
So I said to them: Who has gold? They took it off themselves and they gave it to me, and I threw it away into the fire, and out came this calf (Exodus 32:24)
—and slandered the Israelites—
You yourself know the people, that they are bad. (Exodus 32:22)
The Midrash Rabbah on the Song of Songs, a collection of commentary from the 8th century C.E., said that the two breasts of the woman in the song symbolize Moses and Aaron, who were full of the milk of Torah. But Aaron fails as a wet-nurse when he fails to set appropriate limits for the “children” of Israel, and instead gives them their golden calf—and then denies his own responsibility for their downfall.
God and Moses between them kill thousands of the guilty, but they let Aaron live. Later they make him the high priest: the chief technician in charge of conducting rituals, looking impressive, handling holy objects, and diagnosing skin diseases. But Moses is left as the people’s sole boss and spiritual leader.
He does his best to keep them encouraged and in line, but in this week’s Torah portion Moses finally cracks.
The people appear to be in good shape at the beginning of the book of Numbers. They are marching from Mount Sinai to the border of Canaan in battle formation, with their portable sanctuary and all its holy objects in the middle, so they know God is with them. They have water to drink and manna to eat.
Then suddenly they are overcome with craving.
They weep and say:
Who will feed us basar? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. But now nafsheinu are drying up; there is nothing except the manna before our eyes. (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4-6)
basar (בָּשָׂר) = human flesh (skin and/or muscle); animal meat.
nafsheinu (נַפְשֵׁנוּ) = our souls, our lives, our throats, our appetites.
They are not actually hungry. They are disgusted with God’s manna and, according to many commentators who point out the double meaning of basar, with God’s laws restricting sex partners. Perhaps they are fed up with the whole religion. Or perhaps they have had their fill of spiritual experiences, long lists of rules, and the goal of taking over Canaan. They get cranky. They want a break for immediate physical pleasure.
Moses heard the people weeping in their family groups, each one at the entrance of its tent, and God’s anger flared very hot; and in the eyes of Moses it was bad. And Moses said to God: Why do You do bad to your servant, and why have I not found favor in your eyes, that you put the burden of all this people on me? Did I myself become pregnant with all this people, or did I myself give birth to them, that you say to me: Carry them in your bosom, like the omein carries the one who suckles, to the land that You swore to their forefathers? (Numbers 11:10-12)
omein (אֹמֵן) = guardian, substitute parent. (Literally, the reliable one, the dependable one; from the same root as ya-aminu and amen.)
Elsewhere in the Bible, an omein is a man in charge of bringing up a child; each of King Ahab’s underage children has an omein in the second book of Kings, and Mordecai is Esther’s omein in the book of Esther. The female form of this word, omenet, means wet-nurse or nanny. Moses imagines himself not just as a parent to the Israelites, but as their wet-nurse, too.
I am not able to carry all this people by myself alone, because they are too heavy for me! If thus You must do to me, please kill me altogether, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and don’t let me see my badness! (Numbers 11:14-15)
Moses has a hard enough time serving as the people’s sole spiritual leader and teaching them God’s directives. Being a nanny for thousands of ex-slaves is too much for him. e HeIf only they acted like mature adults, restraining their impulses and deferring immediate pleasure for the sake of higher goals! Instead, the people are like small children—as immature as if they are still nursing. (Children in ancient Israel nursed until they were about four years old.)
Moses cannot bear to be a single mother. He tells God he would rather die than continue to be their omein.
God tries to solve the problem by giving 70 elders some of Moses’ spirit of prophecy, so they can all help him. But in the rest of the book of Numbers, the elders prove insufficient to control the childish impulses of the Israelites. Either the elders are not mentioned, or in the case of Korach’s rebellion, they are part of the group that revolts and complains to Moses.
Have you ever been responsible for a small child who loses control and throws a tantrum? Rational explanations go right over their heads; all they can think about is the physical gratification they want right now, the comfort that their parent or babysitting is denying them. Back when that child was my son, I had to fight hard to stay calm until I could calm him down.
Small children are totally dependent on their caregivers. If they are to grow up into independent adults, rather than slaves, their omein or omenet must be totally dependable—emunah.
Yet all humans are imperfect, unable to rise successfully to every single challenge. I was not a perfect mother, but I did not give up, and now I am proud of my adult son.
Moses does not give up either, even though he did not give birth to the Israelites, nor ask for the job of being their nanny. When God lashes out at the people, Moses talks God out of God’s temper tantrum, and keeps everyone on the road to the future.
May everyone who is given responsibility for others find the fortitude to carry on. May we all be more like Moses than Aaron.
In next week’s Torah portion, the Israelite spies return from Canaan and ten out of twelve report that the land is full of fearsome giants. Look for my next blog post about how the people weep and refuse to go—because this time they do not ya-aminu God.
Tags: ark of the covenant, Exodus, Golden Calf, idols, religion, Torah commentary, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
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)
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.
Tags: Exodus, God, Golden Calf, holy place, sefirot, Shemot, torah portion
What does it take to create something that will help people feel the presence of God?
Aaron tries to do this when he makes the Golden Calf in last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa. At first, the people are ecstatic over the idol, bowing down to it and singing and dancing. But this simple and undisciplined religious outlet does not last. When Moses returns and grinds the calf into gold dust, nobody protests. Moses stirs the gold dust into water, and they all meekly swallow it. Aaron’s creation turns out to be a failure.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”), the master craftsman Betzaleil begins making the holy objects for the new sanctuary. The completed creation is so successful that it sustains the religion of the Israelites for several centuries, until King Solomon replaces it with the temple in Jerusalem.
The key difference between Aaron and Betzaleil as creators of religious objects appears in the Torah twice, repeated word for word. In the portion Ki Tissa, God says it to Moses. In this week’s portion, Moses says it to the Israelites:
See? God has called by name Betzaleil, son of Uri, son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehudah. And [God] has filled him with ruach of God, with chokhmah, with tevunah, and with da-at, and with every craft. (Exodus/Shemot 35:30-31)
ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; spirit, motivation, overwhelming state of mind.
(Usually when the ruach of God comes over someone in the Hebrew Bible, that person speaks as a prophet or leads people into battle. Exceptions are Samson, who is gripped by a murderous rage and supernatural strength; and Betzaleil the artist, who is filled with a divine motivation to create.)
chokhmah (חָכְמָה) = wisdom; inspiration.
tevunah (תְבוּנָה) = insight, rational understanding, analytic ability.
da-at (דַעַת) = knowledge.
In later Kabbalistic writings, chokhmah and binah (another form of the word tevunah) are two of the sefirot or divine powers. (See my earlier post: Vayakheil: Seven Lamps.) **** Chokhmah is the sefirah associated with the left side of the head, i.e. the left brain that popular science now associates with non-rational, intuitive, holistic consciousness. Binah (tevunah) is the sefirah associated with the right side of the head, i.e. the right brain that we now associate with rational, logical, analytic thinking. In the Kabbalist system, da-at is the product of chokhmah combined with binah.
Aaron, although he will serve as the high priest, lacks the four qualities with which God fills Betzaleil. When the Israelites are waiting at the foot of Mount Sinai in Ki Tissa, Aaron feels no ruach of God, no divine urge to create a holy object. The people decide Moses will never return and order Aaron: Get up, make for us gods that will go before us! (Exodus 32:1). Then Aaron acts, but only to satisfy the crowd.
He has no chokhmah, no inspiration nor wisdom about what to make; he merely calls for gold earrings to melt down, since the finest idols are made of gold.
He took it from their hands and he shaped it with the engraving tool, and he made it into an image of a calf. (Exodus 32:4)
Afterward, when Aaron explains to Moses what happened, he says: I said to them, “Who has gold? Pull it off yourselves.” And they gave it to me and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf.” (Exodus 32:24)
Aaron admits that he acted without any of the insight or discrimination of tevunah, and also without any da-at, any knowledge of what would emerge from the fire.
Betzaleil, on the other hand, is born betzalmeinu—in God’s shadow or image—when it comes to creativity. (See my earlier post, Vayakheil: Shadow Power.) **** He creates under the protection of God’s shadow. God “fills” him with the qualities he already has the potential and experience to develop.
Even as Moses comes down with God’s basic design for a portable sanctuary, Betzaleil is filled with a divine desire to create it. He has the chokhmah to visualize the whole thing, and to imagine beautiful and inspiring objects—from the gold keruvim (hybrid winged beasts) on top of the ark to the design embroidered in brilliant colors on the curtain at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. He has the tevunah to analyze and understand how each part can be made well and assembled into the whole. And he has da-at, knowledge, of every craft: metal-working, jewelry, wood-working, weaving, and embroidery.
Betzaleil is so filled with chokhmah, tevunah, and da-at that he and his assistant can teach other craftsmen and craftswomen among the people.
And [God] put teaching into his heart, him and Ahaliyav son of Achisamakh of the tribe of Dan. (Exodus 35:34)
And Betzaleil and Ahaliyav and everyone wise of heart to whom God gave chokhmah and tevunah for da-at and for doing all the work for the service of the Holy, they shall do everything that God commanded. (Exodus 36:1)
The sanctuary that is completed in next week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, is the product of the grand design Moses heard from God; the divine spirit, inspiration, understanding, and know-how of the master artist, Betaleil; and the enthusiasm and wisdom of the contributors in the community. No wonder it becomes a place where people feel God’s presence.
I think that the qualities God gives Betzaleil are necessary for anyone to produce truly moving art, whether its explicit goal is religious or not. I know that when I do “creative writing”, especially of Torah monologues and fiction, both my motivation (ruach) and my inspiration (chokhmah) seem to come from a mysterious place outside myself, or perhaps from some inner place so deep my conscious mind can never penetrate it. I might as well say they come from God, the great mystery.
But the most burning motivation and inspiration leads nowhere without the application of rational insight and analysis (tevunah). My own ability in this area is a talent I was born with, a gift of God, that I have developed over many years of practice. And as in Kabbalah, I have found that the combination of left-brained inspiration (chokhmah) and right-brained analysis (binah or tevunah) does indeed result in knowledge (da-at).
The final requirement for creating art is to actually do all the labor. I am grateful that the ruach that blows through me from the unknown source I call God is strong enough to motivate me to keep on working, with enthusiasm—like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion.
May the divine spirit be strong in all artists.
Tags: Exodus, God, Golden Calf, Moses, religion, Shemot, torah portion
After God’s revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the people repeatedly promise to do everything God says. Then Moses and Aaron lead the elders halfway up the mountain, where they have a vision of God’s feet. (See my earlier post, Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)
This is their high point. After this, Aaron and the Israelite leaders go downhill, both literally and figuratively. Joshua, Moses’ attendant and war-leader, stays partway up the mountain. And Moses climbs to the summit again. There he disappears into God’s cloud—or fire, from the point of view of the Israelites below. (See my earlier post, Mishpatim: Seeing the Cloud.)
Inside the cloud, Moses listens to God’s instructions for 40 days . Meanwhile, the Israelites below conclude that their prophet has died in the fire on the mountaintop and will never return. But without Moses, how can their god lead them to their promised land?
They fall back on an old and familiar solution in this week’s portion, Ki Tissa (“When you lift up”): a physical image or idol for the god to inhabit. They give Aaron their gold earrings, and get him to mold an image in the shape of a calf. On his own initiative, Aaron builds an altar and declares a festival for God the next day.
The same day that the Israelites bring animal offerings to the new altar, God hands Moses the two stone tablets written by the finger of God (Exodus/Shemot 31:18), tells him to go down the mountain, and then tells him what the Israelites have done.
Quickly they deserted the path that I commanded them! They made for themselves a cast image of a calf, and they bowed down to it and they slaughtered offerings to it, and they said: These are your gods, Israel, that brought you from the land of Egypt. (Exodus 32:8)
God offers to consume the Israelites and make Moses into a great nation instead. But Moses refuses the offer and tramps down the slope, still holding the two stone tablets on which God wrote, among other things, the commandment against making idols.
Joshua joins his mentor partway down. He has spent 40 days waiting on the mountainside, unaware of what was happening either to Moses at the top or to the Israelites at the bottom.
Then Joshua heard the sound of the people as they shouted, and he said to Moses: The sound of battle is in the camp! (Exodus 32:17)
Moses does not reply. Joshua listens carefully as they continue to descend.
And he said: Not the sound of anot of prevailing, and not the sound of anot of defeat. A sound of annot I am hearing. (Exodus 32:18)
anot (עֲנוֹת) = responding, answering; humiliating, abusing; call-and-response singing (such as kirtan or antiphony).
annot (עַנּוֹת) = (This form of the verb anot is used most often for humiliation, but it is also used in at least one other place, Isaiah 27:2, for singing.)
If there were indeed a battle in camp, Joshua would hear the winners raising their voices in war-cries, abuse, or battle-songs. He would also hear the losers raising their voices in pain, fear, or grief. Because he does not hear these sounds, he concludes that there is no battle. The camp has not been attacked by strangers. Nor has it divided into two sides fighting each other. Whatever the people are doing, nobody in the camp is objecting to it.
What sound does Joshua decide he is hearing? Here are two possible translations:
“A sound of humiliating I am hearing.” In other words, he is hearing the sound of people who have abandoned reason and conscience. Maybe sexual excess has turned into rape. Or maybe the people’s wild party is humiliating for Joshua and Moses, the only two Israelites left to stand against the worship of the Golden Calf.
“A sound of call-and-response singing I am hearing.” In other words, he is hearing a joyful celebration. Elsewhere in the Bible, people use call-and-response singing, along with dancing, to rejoice over God’s success (as Miriam does after they cross the Reed Sea), and to rejoice over David’s victories in battle.
I can imagine Joshua realizing that something happened in the camp, while Moses was gone, and now the Israelites are either holding an orgy, or singing and dancing to rejoice over—what?
The Torah returns to Moses’ point of view.
And it happened as he drew near to the camp, he saw the calf and dancing. Then Moses’ anger flared up, and he threw down from his hand the tablets, and he shattered them under the mountain. (Exodus 32:19)
Moses already knows about the Calf, so why does his anger flare up now? One frequent answer by commentators is that now he sees the people dancing. If the Israelites were worshiping the Calf in a state of doubt and anxiety, they might reject their idol as soon as they saw Moses. Instead, they are rejoicing over the Golden Calf, as if they like the old-time religion better than following Moses’ lead.
It takes the shock of the shattering tablets to yank them back into their former state of mind, when they promised to obey the god of Moses.
Joshua already knows the Israelites are singing. He can assume they are also dancing; elsewhere in the Bible call-and-response singing is usually accompanied by dancing. Now Joshua sees the Golden Calf and the smoking altar in front of it, so he knows the reason for the people’s ecstasy. He also hears the sound of stone shattering. The singing stops.
Moses grinds the Calf into gold dust, adds it to water, and makes the people drink it. He questions Aaron briefly, then stands at the gateway of the camp and shouts: Whoever is for God, to me! (Exodus 32:26)
All the men from the tribe of Levi go over to the side of Moses and Joshua. Moses orders the Levite men, in the name of God, to take their swords and go through the camp from gate to gate. The Levites kill 3,000 Israelite men. The Torah reports no casualties on the Levite side; apparently the Calf worshippers were too cowed or ashamed to fight back.
So Joshua finally does hear the battle cries of the winners, and the screams of pain and humiliation of the losers. There is no more singing of any kind in the Torah until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.
I have always wondered if killing 3,000 Calf-worshippers was overkill. After all, everyone was shocked when Moses shattered the tablets God gave him. Everyone drank the gold dust from the Calf. What if Moses’ next move had been to start up a song, instead of a massacre?
What if he had changed the words of the call-and-response song the people were singing for the Calf? Their song is not recorded, but here are two other call-and-response songs in the Torah:
Sing to God because He is the highest;
Horse and its rider He threw into the sea! (Exodus 15:21)
Saul struck down his platoons;
And David struck down his armies! (I Samuel 21:12)
Some people need the outlet of ecstatic song and dance. Maybe another call-and-response song would have turned the hearts of the apostate ecstatics toward the God of Moses. Here is my proposal for the people who rejoiced in the Golden Calf:
“Sing to God because He is the highest;
Higher than idols and higher than gold.”
Just set it to a catchy melody, and let Miriam lead the dancing.
Tags: Exodus, God, Golden Calf, Moses, religion, Shemot, torah portion
When God manifests in this world, what does God look like? In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God looks like either cloud or fire. Moses first encounters God as a voice in a burning bush. As soon as the Israelites leave Egypt, God sends a guide to lead the way: a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. When God comes down on Mount Sinai to speak to all the people, … there was thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud on the mountain (Exodus/Shemot 19:16) … and all of Mount Sinai smoked with the presence of God that came down upon it in fire…(Exodus 19:18)
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”), God summons Moses back up the mountain to receive the stone tablets, the torah (“teaching”) and the mitzvah (“commandment”). As Moses climbs, the Torah describes more cloud and fire. But this time the Israelites below see Moses walking into fire, while Moses sees himself walking into cloud.
Then Moses went up the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. And the kavod of God rested on Mount Sinai; and the cloud covered it/him for six days. Then [God] called to Moses on the seventh day, from the midst of the cloud. But in the eyes of the children of Israel, the mareih of the kavod of God was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. (Exodus 24:15-17)
kavod (כָּבוֹד) = weight, impressiveness, magnificence, glory. (The kavod of God = a visible manifestation of God’s splendor.)
mareih (מַרְאֵה) = appearance, vision, apparition, mirror.
Moses is accustomed by now to living in close communication with a highly dangerous and powerful god. God has spoken to him at least 41 times already, and Moses often asks God questions and makes suggestions.
Yet he has not seen God directly. When God manifests in our world, Moses still sees only fire or cloud. The nature of God is always hidden.
This time, Moses sees the cloud. But the people at the foot of the mountain do not see God’s kavod in cloud form. They see only a mareih of God’s kavod, an apparition or mirror image of it—God’s presence as reflected in their own minds. Having lived through the ten miraculous plagues in Egypt, not to mention the parting of the Reed Sea, no wonder they view God as so powerful, dangerous, and threatening that they are afraid God’s glory will eat them up. Their own feelings make the cloud look like a “consuming fire”.
They watch their leader Moses walk right into the fire, a fire nobody could survive. And they despair.
No wonder, after they have waited for 40 long days, they demand a safer manifestation of God—in the form of a golden calf rather than a fire.
Meanwhile, Moses waits inside the cloud on the mountain for six days. He can see nothing in the fog; he does not know what God is, what reality is, or what will happen. But at least he does not see fire; he is not afraid. He waits patiently for what God will give him. And on the seventh day, God calls to him.
And Moses entered into the middle of the cloud and went up the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:18)
The Torah has already said that Moses was in the cloud, on top of the mountain. Is this verse a repetition of that information? I think not; I think it means that after Moses hears God call him, he goes even farther into the fog of unknowing, and climbs even higher and farther away from the ordinary world.
Could you leave your “real” life so far behind, for so long? Could you face an unknown and unknowable god of terrible power and remain calm, waiting for instructions?
I doubt I could. I have always been amazed by people who seek out ecstatic mystical experiences, through drugs or through other means. I never know whether to view such people as foolhardy idiots, or advanced wisdom masters.
My own mystical experiences, all mild and momentary, have all come by accident without any mountain-climbing or cloud-entering on my part. And a mild and momentary experience is enough for me. Perhaps where others see fog, I see fire. I do not want to enter the fire, because I am afraid of getting burned. I am content to watch from a distance when seriously religious people walk into the kavod of fire—or cloud.
But unlike the people at the foot of Mount Sinai, I refuse to demand an easier god to worship. In the modern Western world, the most common versions of an easier god to worship are: a) a loving parental god who looks after you personally, or b) a theological paradox (omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, personal, and yet responsible for evil in the world). Version A is easy to worship because it is safe and feels good—rather like the golden calf to the Israelites at Sinai. Version B is easy to worship because it is an abstraction which does not require emotional engagement.
But what if we know God only as cloud or fire?
I think if the word “God” has any meaning, it must have something to do with that nagging blur at the edge of our vision, that cloud—or fire—we encounter when we move away from the outside world and deep into ourselves.