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The Golden Calf: Sin And Redemption

The Golden Calf: Sin And Redemption

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 5:28 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 30:11-34:35; Num. 19:1-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38
Havdalah: 6:28 p.m.


The narrative of the Golden Calf, found in Ki Tisa, raises a wealth of questions about the nature of the sin, the motivations and emotions that precipitated it, and its far-reaching repercussions. Perhaps the most counterintuitive aspects of the sin of the Golden Calf is that while it is indisputably one of the gravest transgressions in all of the Torah, it serves as a basis for the development of much of Jewish practice.
To an astounding degree, Judaism is shaped by the sin of the Golden Calf — in fact, several fundamental forms of holiness can be traced in some way to it.

First, the holiday of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, Moses descended Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets, representing God’s forgiveness of the Jewish nation 80 days after the sin. Furthermore, Jewish law underscores the direct connection, stipulating practices that must be avoided on Yom Kippur in order to avoid summoning up the memory of the Golden Calf [Rosh Hashanah 26a].

There is a further, thematic parallel as well. Exodus 32:6 describes the culmination of the sin: “They arose early the next day and offered up burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. The people sat to eat and drink, and they got up to revel.” It is striking that the culmination is not simply the fact that the Jewish people brought sacrifices to the calf, but that they celebrated and reveled in its worship. The feasting and merrymaking around the calf dramatically represent the moral degeneration of the people, because they reflect enjoyment of an event that should have been understood as a staggering moral failure. The counterpoint to this kind of manic celebration is Yom Kippur, on which eating, drinking, and creature comforts are entirely forbidden.

Through these historical, legal, and thematic connections, Jewish practice underscores that the sin of the Golden Calf led ultimately to a profound manifestation of holiness in time.

A second manifestation of holiness, another outgrowth from the sin, is the institution of the tribe of Levi as religious leaders. According to Rashi [Deuteronomy 10:8], the Levites were selected because they did not participate in the sin. Rashi’s perspective highlights the dangerous lack of leadership that was demonstrated at the Golden Calf; God responded to this void by creating the levitical system, the leviyah, to ensure that the nation would never again be dependent on one person to the degree that his absence would plunge them into crisis.

Finally, some texts, such as the Midrash Tanchuma [Parshat Terumah, Siman 8] propose that the command to build the Tabernacle, and to introduce the commandments of sacrifices, was yet another Divine response. The Abarbanel elaborates on this idea by explaining that “when the Jewish people left Egypt and came before Mount Sinai, and heard the Torah and the commandments, God did not command them regarding sacrifices … but when they made the calf. … He needed to prepare for them a cure for their sickness and their wickedness, and therefore the commandments about sacrifices came … which would not have been commanded had they not sinned” [Abarbanel Jeremiah 7:22]. According to this perspective, the Tabernacle, the concept of holiness in physical space, stemmed from the sin of the Golden Calf.

The repercussions of the sin of the Golden Calf can be contrasted to the sin of the spies [Numbers Ch. 13]. In the wake of the sin of the spies, we do not find comparable Divine forgiveness and redemption. In fact, the only historical consequence of the sin of the spies is the institution of Tisha b’Av [Sotah 35a], a day devoted to mourning.

I believe that the reason for the difference in Divine response to these two sins is that while the sin of the Golden Calf was a profound moral and communal failure, it was motivated by a desire for spirituality. The worship of the Golden Calf, though misguided, was rooted in a search for the Divine, and was characterized by energy and passion. The sin of the spies, by contrast, came from despair and a lack of confidence in the possibility of entering the Land of Israel.
The contrast between the Divine responses to the sins reflects the importance of hopefulness and energy in religious life. Despite its gravity, the sin of the Golden Calf held the possibility of repentance and forgiveness because it was motivated by productive emotion which, channeled differently, had the potential to be powerful catalysts for growth. By contrast, the emotions of despair and fear, which motivated the spies, are futile emotions that hold no promise of redemption.

Parshat Ki Tisa demonstrates that spirit and passion are the building blocks of religious experience, and plant the seeds for personal growth and transformation.

Rivka Kahan is the principal of Ma’ayanot  Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, N.J.

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