The Lesson of the Golden Calf

Ki Tissa By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Feb 26, 1994 / 5754 | Torah Commentary

One third of the book of Exodus is devoted to the construction of the tabernacle, God’s mobile dwelling in the wilderness. I suspect that we moderns find the devil, and not God, in the profusion and repetition of details. The Torah could mercifully have spared us its twice-told tale, first God’s instructions to Moses (Ex. 25-31) and then his execution of them (Ex. 35-40).

In fact, a close reading of Moses’ “Song at the Sea (Ex. 15:1-18),” which we still recite daily in our morning prayers, implies clearly that there was to be no dwelling place for God in the wilderness. Exalted by the destruction of Pharaoh’s pride, Moses envisions a rapid journey through the wilderness to Canaan, where God would personally erect a sanctuary from which to rule forever. “You will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain, the place You made, Your abode, O Lord, the sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands established. The Lord will reign for ever and ever! (Ex. 15:17-18)” The text seems to exclude any man-made interim arrangement and certainly does not prepare us for the Torah’s absorption with the tabernacle.

In other words, there is nothing self-evident about the Torah’s abrupt transition in chapter 25 from Mishpatim to Terumah, from sacred law to sacred space. Nevertheless, most commentators from Nachmanides to Sarna take the sequence as natural and chronological. They ignore the contradiction and argue for continuity. The tabernacle is a portable Sinai intended to perpetuate God’s presence wherever Israel may be. The experience of revelation is not to slip into memory but to be transformed into a daily, lived experience. “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Ex. 25:8).” Rabbinic Hebrew would turn the verb “that I may dwell (ve-shakhanti)” into the proper noun Shekhinah, signifying God’s close and caring presence. “Wherever Israel was exiled,” the rabbis declared, “the Shekhinah went into exile with them.” Or in the words of the Kotzker Rebbe, “God dwells wherever we are ready to let God in.” The tabernacle arose out of the angst not to lose touch with Sinai.

But the incomparable Rashi took a different tack. In this week’s parasha, in his comment to verse 31:18, he asserts that the instructions to build the tabernacle were not given to Moses until after Israel’s betrayal of God with the Golden Calf. Despite the fact that these instructions appear in the Torah several chapters before that episode, chronologically they occur later. To defend his view, Rashi invokes the rabbinic exegetical principle that the Torah’s narrative sequence is not necessarily in chronological order. We are free, when compelled by other factors, to seek a more suitable setting for problematic material. It is a daring principle which encourages us to imagine the text in ways other than presented.

What prompted Rashi to reverse the order of events is an ingenious midrash that weaves a different context for the tabernacle. Later in Exodus, the tabernacle is called the “tabernacle of testimony (38:21),” which prompts the midrash to treat it not as a link to Sinai but as a sign of God’s forgiveness after the Golden Calf. A courtly parable makes the point. A king took a wife whom he loved dearly only to grow angry with her and leave her. The neighbors tell her he will never come back. But in time he writes her to prepare the palace and make the beds because he will soon return. When he arrives, they are indeed reconciled and he takes up residence once again in the palace. The neighbors, though, are still skeptical until they smell the fragrances of domestic life wafting out the windows.

Similarly, God loved Israel bringing it to Sinai and affectionately calling it “a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6).” Yet it took only 40 days (the time Moses was on Sinai) for Israel to forget God’s many favors and seek another deity. Like the neighbors, the nations snickered that God’s displeasure would never subside. Moses, however, did succeed in winning God’s forgiveness, and then insisted on a visible sign of reconciliation to disabuse the nations that God might still harbor some anger against Israel.

This, then, is the context for the instructions to build the tabernacle, a public testimony that the King of Kings had taken Israel back. Another midrash even calculated that the precise day of reconciliation was none other than Yom Kippur, an insight Rashi incorporated into his own commentary as well. In this context the function of the tabernacle is psychological, a measure of reassurance that human weakness and inconstancy had not ruptured the relationship with God. By rearranging the sequence of events, the midrash imbued an inert blueprint with high drama. The cascade of detailed description bespoke an existential need for atonement felt in every generation.

Beyond that, the midrash (and Rashi) did justice to the lofty vision of monotheism enunciated in the climax of “The Song at the Sea.” An imageless, ineffable, and transcendent God was not to be compromised by a sanctuary made by human hands and deemed to be God’s residence. If one were to be erected, it would be by God alone. But reality defied the ideal. Israel could not long endure without a semblance of divine presence. The people found even the absence of Moses unsettling. In this setting, the building of the tabernacle with its two cherubim was a concession to a people who had just begun the journey to becoming monotheists. It would take time to learn that no human being catches more than the most fleeting glimpse of God’s presence. In the words of Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the First Temple in Jerusalem, “Will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built (I Kings 8:27)!”

The debacle of the Golden Calf required a mid-course correction. Perhaps the austere sumptuousness of the tabernacle would keep deviation from God’s word to a minimum. Even then the Torah struggled to avoid being misunderstood: God would dwell among the people and not in the tabernacle itself. Moreover, there was nothing to see. Smoke and clouds always concealed God’s presence from the naked eye, even in the Holy of Holies. To a chosen people less than perfect, the tabernacle offered both compromise and consolation.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Ki Tissa are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.