Ki Sisa - How Could They?
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Any student who has studied the sequence of events leading up to this
week's Parsha has asked, "How could they do it? How could the Jews, so soon
after the miracles of the Exodus, so soon after the parting of the sea, so
soon after the giving of the Mun, so soon after the giving of the Torah on
Mt. Sinai, how could they worship the Golden Calf?!" The question presumes
that had we been present during those same magnificent displays of Hashem's
presence, we would not have sinned. Had we been exposed to the undeniable
existence of the Creator who willingly altered the constancy of nature to
accommodate His Chosen People, we could never have bowed to a golden image
or figure! The question becomes far more disturbing when we realize that
the entire incident began only six hours after the people had calculated
that Moshe should have returned! A mere six hours, that's all! (see the
Aliya review in Parsha-Summary [firstname.lastname@example.org]) What
happened? What happened to the nation who heard G-d speak to them at the
foot of Har Sinai, and who had sung the song of Angels on the shores of the
The commentaries all explain that the sin of the Golden Calf was not simple
idol worship. The Jews did not just go crazy and forget what they had
witnessed and experienced. In fact, the entire sin was intended as a means
of relating to G-d, not denying Him. The Rambam explains the early origins
of idol worship as an attempt by pre-diluvian generations to personalize an
otherwise overwhelmingly awesome and non-corporal Creator. By directing
prayer and thanksgiving to the physical manifestations of G-d's presence,
such as the laws of nature, G-d became more real and understandable.
Unfortunately, history has proven that innovations and compromises in our
relationship with Hashem always backfire. The second and third generations
do not take the time to study the reasons or rationales supporting rituals
and customs; most people are content to follow and imitate. Therefore, the
children saw that their parents showed devotion and fear to nature, or
objects representing nature, and concluded that those very same objects
were themselves divine, without understanding that they merely represented
It is the belief or fear that we are incapable of having a direct and
intimate relationship with the Creator of Heaven and Earth that results in
idol worship. The generation of the Exodus did not deny G-d's existence,
they simply wished to replace Him with something more tangible and
understandable. They desired a medium that could buffer them from the
awesome fearfulness of a G-d who manipulates the laws of nature as
punishment and reward. The question that must be asked is: Why did the Bnai
Yisroel feel that they needed the medium? Why didn't the Jews feel that
they could have a direct and intimate relationship with Hashem Himself,
rather than turn to images and representative figures? Hadn't Hashem proven
to them, time and time again, that His love for them as the children of the
Avos and Imahos was unqualified and undeniably trustworthy?
The underlying motive for humans to worship idols is the desire to exert
control over their own lives and destinies. Our relationship with Hashem is
founded on the belief that He, and not us, is in control of all things. We
make decisions that effect the immediate and the future; however, G-d is
entirely in charge of the consequences and final outcome. This sense of
complete dependency is the most difficult challenge for us to overcome. To
ease us into accepting our inherent dependency upon Hashem, we start out as
dependent upon parents, family, friends and community, and eventually
graduate into an acceptance of the natural dependency that Hashem has
ordered in nature. Nevertheless, we fight the inherent vulnerability, and
more significantly, the inherent responsibility that comes with being
dependent. This is expressed in our attempts to exert control over our own
lives by creating an illusion of independence from the responsibilities of
family, society, and religion. In truth, it never works except to the
degree of our own self-delusion.
The Bnai Yisroel after Revelation were no different than us in this
conflict with dependency; except in one area. They had it much worse than
we do! Their total existence defied the norms of human controls and
demanded a total acceptance of Hashem's ever-present manifestation of
absolute mastery. From the freedom they had been miraculously granted to
the very food they ate, theirs and their loved one's existence depended
totally on G-d. Add to this one other important factor that was unique to
the generation of the Exodus, and we begin to understand how the Jews were
able to worship the Golden Calf.
Our dependent relationship with Hashem is framed by two basic principles.
The Jews at the time of Exodus had neither of these basic principles to
help them frame their sense of dependency. The Torah had not been given yet,
and their history was just beginning. At best, they had family traditions
and beliefs dating back 500 years or less to the time of Avraham and Sarah.
These were family legends that carried few demands and unknown rewards. All
they knew was that a force of indescribable power had elected to look
favorably upon their pitiful plight and moved heaven and earth to free them
of oppression and punish their former masters. The gift of freedom had no
relationship to their immediate deeds, and the expected and assumed payoff
was yet to be revealed. Those who had the courage of conviction or sense of
desperation to believe, trusted Moshe and followed him into the wilderness.
The remaining majority of untrusting Jews stayed behind in Mitzrayim.
- Hashem has provided us with a set of rules and expectations that carry
consequences, both positive and negative.
- Our 3,000 + years of survival
proves the constancy of G-d's love and protection, and justifies our trust
in Him. At times we understand G-d's justice and rational and have the
ability to associate consequence with deed. At other times we must accept
Hashem's ruling on the basis of faith, regardless of the suffered
consequences. Yet, no one can deny the miraculous nature of Jewish survival.
In attempting to understand the rational behind events, we desperately look
for cause and effect that gives us a degree of control for the future. The
Jews in the aftermath of the Yam Suf knew that there was a master over the
universe, but had no idea why He cared about them any more so than He did
for the Egyptians. As the Medresh says, The Reed Sea asks Hashem, "Why
should I split for the Jews and drown the Egyptians? Both of them are idol
worshippers! By what merit do they deserve to live and the others to die?"
To which G-d replied, "It's none of your business, it is your obligation to
listen to My commands and not ask questions!" In fact, Moshe himself had
the same question when G-d first approached him by the Burning Bush. He too
wondered by what merit the Jews deserved to be freed from slavery? To which
Hashem answered, "It's none of your business; however, I promised their
fore-fathers that I would free them from slavery and give them the Torah!"
In each instance it is clear that the Jews themselves had no framework for
understanding G-d's system of justice. They certainly had no cause to
associate their miraculous change of fortune with their own deeds or
actions. Therefore, the generation of the Exodus felt totally out of
control of their own lives with little understanding of what they were to
do in the future to maintain this streak of good fortune. However, there
was one constant in their lives that had positioned himself as the only
obvious control in relating to, and seemingly controlling, the awesome
power of G-d - that being Moshe! So long as Moshe was around the awesome
and often vengeful power of Hashem was directed away from them and against
their enemies. As soon as Moshe was "missing" for just 6 hours, the basic
insecurity that comes when there is total dependency without trust
overwhelmed the people. They demanded an immediate replacement for The man
Moshe, upon whom they had come to rely for a modicum of control.
Of course, this very experience was what Hashem intended all along. His
goal was to catapult the Jews into an acceptance of His ever-present
protection so that they would realize and accept the totality of their
dependency without qualification or reservation. However, they were
unprepared to do so. They demanded a buffer that would give them the
illusion of control that Moshe's presence had provided.
Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.