Continuing Our Ancestors’ Debate with God

Ki Tissa By :  Stephen P. Garfinkel Assistant Professor Emeritus of Bible and Its Interpretation Posted On Mar 9, 2007 / 5767 | Torah Commentary

Location, location, location! That’s not only a mantra in real estate but is also, as we shall see, an essential component in understanding some key elements of Ki Tissa, this week’s Torah reading. In fact, “location” is a main ingredient in the modern interpretation of most biblical episodes. By contrast, classical midrashic interpretation, for all of its value–laden richness, often ignores location or “context.” That’s what differentiates midrash from non–midrash (known as peshat). Peshat takes a variety of contexts – including literary, historic, linguistic, and grammatical contexts – into consideration, whereas midrash doesn’t. It’s not that one approach is right and the other wrong; the two simply have different purposes and emphases. But now, let’s return to this week’s parashah and see why “location, location, location,” is so important to it.

The central event we read about this week is the “molten calf” incident, the narrative so familiar to many readers. Moses was on Mount Sinai, where he had just received the two stone “tablets of witness” (presumably with the Ten Commandments) inscribed by “God’s finger,” the same term used to describe the third plague in which the Egyptian magicians realized and admitted that they couldn’t duplicate God’s actions. Moses’ return from the mountain was delayed, and the nation awaiting his return was worried. Even though we can’t know from the context how long Moses was delayed, the midrash plays with the word for “he delays” (boshesh) by explaining that he came down only six hours (ba’ shesh) late. This gets to the heart of the matter, though: the people were in a state of panic!

They gathered around Aaron, beseeching him to make something for them. Exactly what they requested (a god–image to replace God? a pedestal for an image of God? a leader to replace Moses? a god to replace Moses?) and exactly what Aaron intended in response to the people’s demand are fascinating questions, worth debating around the Shabbat table or in a classroom, even though we won’t pursue them at present. For now, let’s get back to “location, location, location” to see if that can help us understand the “molten calf” affair. (Just for the record, the term “golden calf” doesn’t appear here, though it’s similar to wording in a different episode in the Book of Kings.)

The calf incident is very clearly located between God’s lengthy instructions for the creation of a Tabernacle (mishkan), God’s traveling sanctuary in the desert (a divine mobile home of sorts) and the establishment of the Tabernacle in fulfillment of those instructions. A closer look, in fact, shows that there is an unmistakable “chiastic” structure with at least three levels. (In a chiastic structure, the first and last items mirror each other, as do the second and next–to–last, and so on, generally homing in on a crucial fulcrum in the middle of the balanced pairs: A, B, C, B’, A’.) In this week’s Torah reading we find several layers of before–and–after narrative of the people’s apostasy in the calf story:

A. God’s instructions for building the Tabernacle and its pieces (Exodus 25:1 – 31:11) 
    B. Instructions to observe Shabbat (Exodus 31:12 – 17)
      C. The calf narrative and the second set of tablets (Exodus 31:18 – 34:35)
   B’. Instructions about Shabbat observance (Exodus 35:1 – 3) 
A’. Building the Tabernacle and its pieces (Exodus 35:4 – 40:33)

One oft–noted consequence of this structure is the double juxtaposition between building the Tabernacle and the notice about Shabbat; (A right next to B and B’ right next to A’). From that nexus, rabbinic tradition has inferred the definition of melakhah, the specific main categories of work prohibited on Shabbat. Those categories derive from the kinds of work that were involved in putting up (and taking down) the portable Tabernacle.

However, I wish to suggest another lesson to be derived from the larger chiastic structure. God’s instructions for building the Tabernacle begin with the command to build the ark (‘aron), the holy container or box that would house the “Tablets of Testimony.” The ark was also the container on which God would be “located” and from which God would actually speak to the people (Exodus 25:10–22)! After that, God commanded the fashioning of many other parts of the overall Tabernacle, including the covered “building” that would hide and protect the precious ark. One might wonder, though, if the people who contributed to the building of the molten calf and who joyously danced around it did so out of exasperation or frustration with God’s plan for the Tabernacle. (Rabbinic tradition sees a direct, if perverse, parallel between the Tabernacle and the calf. Near the beginning of the tractate Sheqalim in the Palestinian Talmud, Rabbi Abba bar Aha wondered about the nature of the Israelites. When asked to contribute for the calf, they eagerly did so; and when asked to contribute for the Tabernacle, they eagerly did that, too!)

What kind of architect or construction engineer would suggest building the most valuable item of the project first and only afterward have workers build a protective shed for it? That kind of thinking was backward! No wonder the people felt the need to challenge – and even refute – God’s planned Tabernacle. It was ridiculous and impractical. Perhaps that is what prompted the people’s apostasy. And perhaps it was the people’s reaction that led to the way the building was ultimately undertaken: “The Tabernacle, its tent and its coverings, its clasps and its planks . the ark and its poles” (Exodus 35:11–12). In other words, God’s plan for the Tabernacle was modified by God in reaction to the people.

Prior to the calf incident in this week’s parashah, the Tabernacle was but a theological construct, the ark being mentioned first. God’s blueprint reflected a theological hierarchy of its components, but that image was simply not what the people could understand or accept. They rebelled. They said, “We have real needs, and theological purity doesn’t meet our real–life requirements.” They rebelled, and in response, God changed the building plan! Reacting to the people and in response to their very human needs, God altered the laws for the divine dwelling place. Certainly, there are many important implications of the molten calf incident, but we should not underestimate the consequences of the placement of the calf apostasy between God’s instructions for building the Tabernacle and their fulfillment.

So, what does the location of the “molten calf” narrative teach? Maybe when divine law is too extreme for the people, even God decides to modify the law. Our obligation is to continue such dialogues, such debates, with God.

Shabbat shalom.

Dr. Stephen Garfinkel

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.