Ki Tissa – Golden Calf and Second Set of Tablets

By Isadore Rosenthal [1]

February 23, 2019

At Congregation B’nai Emunah

         In summary, God presented Moses with two stone tablets. God’s words were etched upon them. In Moses’ absence, however, the people had made a golden calf as a god. When Moses was still on Mount Sinai, God wanted to punish the Israelites, whereupon Moses interceded on their behalf. G-d then sent Moses down the mountain. Moses saw the calf, and in anger, shattered the tablets. Later, he returned to Mount Sinai to receive a new set of tablets.

Rabbi Gail Diamond, Associate Director and teacher at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem from 2001 to 2015, pointed out in her commentary that parts of Parshat Ki Tissa are read no less than nine times during the year. In addition to its place in the annual cycle, we also read portions of Parshat Ki Tissa on five fast days and on the Shabbatot during the festivals of Pesach and Sukkot.  The beginning of Parshat Ki Tissa is also read as the maftir on Shabbat Shekalim.

Rabbi Diamond emphasizes that, “. . . The dialogues between Moses and God (which took place when Moses was on Mount Sinai) . . . became the basis of our Torah reading for fast days.” Why do we read about the golden calf on fast days and on Pesach and Sukkot?

Around the time of the golden calf, Moses said to God, “. .  . Unless You go in the lead . . . how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?”

In addition to asking God to accompany the Israelites, Moses also asked to be able to see God.

God agreed to Moses’ request to be among the Israelites. In terms of seeing God, God said, “you may not see my face, for no one may see me and live.” In Everett Fox’s book, The Five Book of Moses, Fox states that “the issue at hand is intimacy and the bonded relationship of covenant.” I think it is also significant that when Moses is talking to God, he refers to Israel as “Your people” trying once more to force God to acknowledge the Israelites as his own. (Exodus 33:12 – 34:3)

God instructed Moses to carve two tablets of stone and to ascend Mount Sinai a second time. God descended in a cloud and remained with Moses. Then God recited the summary of God’s compassionate qualities known as the “Thirteen Attributes of God” or the “Covenant of the Thirteen.”  These verses contain a passage recited and chanted on the High Holidays and the Festivals. However, there is also an additional statement contained in the Thirteen Attributes that is not chanted on the High Holy Days or the Festivals, which is that God “ . . . visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generation”.

There is a question about how to interpret this statement. It says in a footnote in Everett Fox’s book that “A Hasidic interpretation takes it to mean that God holds parents responsible for not giving their children a proper religious and moral upbringing.” Fox goes on to say, “Yet it is true that the bad habits of parents are too often repeated by their children, for whom parents are the primary role model.”  (Fox, footnote to Exodus 34:4-7)

Everett Fox also writes that the verse that says that God “visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generation” is a statement of God’s essence, or, more precisely, of God’s essence for human beings: namely, that God is both merciful but just. This image of God as merciful but just, which had such a great influence on the development of Christianity and Islam as well as on Judaism, is of the highest importance in the understanding of the Biblical God. It is almost as if the text is saying “’this is all that can be known, intimately, of this God, and this is all one need to know.” Fox goes on to say that for God, “There is no shape, no natural manifestation . . . only words, which describe God’s relationship to humans.”  (The Five Book of Moses by Everett Fox.)

It also says in the Torah that God advised Moses that God would drive out the pagan inhabitants of the lands that the Israelites were entering after they finished their wandering in the wilderness. God also advised that the Israelites were to destroy the pagan objects of the peoples whose land they were to dispossess. God also said that the Israelites were not to make molten idols and that they were not to make covenants with the inhabitants of the land.  (Exodus 34:11-17)

God also instructed the Israelites to observe Pesach, Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), Sukkot (the Feast of Booths and the Ingathering) and Shabbat.  (Exodus 34:18,21 – 22)

Moses carved the second set of stone tablets and God wrote the Ten Commandments on them. (Exodus 34:1) God giving us the Ten Commandments creates a covenant between God and the Israelites. Moses spent 40 days and nights with God on the mountain, neither eating or drinking. When Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, his face became radiant.  When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses’ radiant face, they withdrew at first, but Moses called them back, advising them that he had been in conversation with God. The radiance of Moses’ face authenticated Moses’ relationship with God. Because of that radiance, Moses wore a veil over his face after that encounter with God. (Exodus 34:35)

It says in a footnote to the Haftorah for Parshat Ki Tissa that both “. . . the readings from the Torah and the Prophets (i.e. the Haftarah) join two moments of betrayal in ancient Israelite religious history:  The apostasy of the people before the Golden Calf in the wilderness and the later worship of the gods known as Baal in the land of Israel. Both required the intercession of a leader to restore true God worship. Both Moses and Elijah ascended a mountain and zealously fought against apostasy, invoking their ancestors in prayer. (Exodus 32:13; Kings 18:20 – 21:36). Both Moses and Elijah were the agents of a covenantal affirmation by the people and both forced the people to make a choice for God and to destroy those who were seen as sinners.”

A Haftorah footnote also states: “In linking the parashah and the haftorah, the Sages produced a searing indictment of idolatry. The Torah portion mocks the impatience of the crowd and juxtaposes the words on the Tablets with the visible form of the Calf. The prophetic passage derides the indecision of the masses and contrasts the prayers of the pagans with Elijah’s prophetic voice. Through the connection of the two texts, the Sages stress that the sin at Sinai was not only a perversion of the past but also endures as an ever-present danger. In both cases, the anxiety caused by divine absence and earthly needs may threaten monotheism at its core. These liturgical readings are a warning and a proclamation of divine transcendence for the community of faith.”

Notwithstanding the backsliding of the Israelites, God not only affirmed God’s intimate relationship with Moses and the Israelites, but God also firmly established God’s partnership with the Israelites both in the time of Moses and in the time of Elijah.

[1] The Torah portion Ki Tissa includes Exodus 30:11 through 34:35.