The episode of the golden calf in Ki Thissa, this week’s Torah portion has to be the mother of all morality tales. In a nutshell, while waiting impatiently under harsh desert conditions for Moses to descend from Mt. Sinai with his message from God, the Israelites lose it and persuade Moses’ brother, the High Priest Aaron to sanction the creation of a golden idol that can serve as a focus for their passions, religious and otherwise. Kosher, this is not. And when Moses does finally show, he is not best pleased. In shock at this mass betrayal of his people and his brother, he drops the Tablets of the Law which shatter upon impact. According to a rabbinic legend in the Babylonian Talmud, when the tablets were broken, the letters of the Commandments flew back to Heaven. The Israelites were then plagued with a plague as a token of God’s displeasure. Moreover, they were condemned never to reach the Holy Land; only the next generation would do so. Which tells us that wisdom, even Divine, may be glimpsed, but until the designated recipient(s) are fully awake and aware, may not be completely received.
Every time I read this parashah, I wonder about the metaphoric presence of a golden calf in my own life; what values or ideals have I focused on that were not worthy of my humanity? Too many to list here. Yet at these times, I find my thoughts vacillating between understanding Moses’ profound anger and understanding why the people of that first generation of Israelites needed that infamous symbol of all they had left behind in Egypt. While Moses’ mission was to establish a monotheistic religion, his people were making it clear that old habits, particularly bad ones notoriously dog our best intentions for change, both in ourselves and by extension in our environment. Which made the recent events in modern day Egypt so astoundingly ironic. The Egyptian people living under a long-term dictatorial regime, didn’t need a golden calf to effect a change that will mark their place in history, only the united desire to be a free and democratic people. Indeed, they have come full circle and have overthrown their own Pharaoh.
Illustration from: Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009)
Tags: Aaron, Bible, Books, commandments, desert, digital art, exile, Exodus, fire, golden calf, idol worship, idolatry, Illustration, ink drawing, Israelites, Jewish Art, Ki Thissa, Moses, Mt. Sinai, Old Testament, Shemot, sin, Torah, tribes