The People Bow to the Golden Calf
a.k.a. Ki Tisa (Exodus 30: 11 - 34:35)
Moses to conduct a census of the people and said that each person counted should contribute a sum of money as an
atonement offering to God. God also told Moses to make a bronze basin for the priests to use when washing their
hands and feet. He instructed Moses to make sacred oil and incense
with special spices.
Moses that keeping the Sabbath was a perennial contract between him and the people and they were bound to keep
the Sabbath as a holy day. Anyone who profaned the Sabbath by performing work or in any other way had to be put
had finished speaking to Moses, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant inscribed by his own
people saw that Moses had still not returned from Mount Sinai, they ordered Aaron to make them gods to worship.
Aaron told them to take off their gold earrings. These he melted down and then fashioned a golden calf. The
people proclaimed that this was their God. Aaron built an altar in front of it and announced that the next day
was to be a feast day when offerings would be made to the golden calf.
this and told Moses the people were a stiff-necked people, haughty and disobedient, and he was going to show
them his wrath. Moses pleaded with God not to destroy the people. He reminded God of his promises to the people.
Yet again God relented.
down to the people carrying the two tablets of stone on which the covenant was written. He found the people
wildly dancing round the Golden Calf. In fury, Moses threw down the tablets and broke them. He burnt the golden
calf into powder, put it into water and made the people drink it.
demanded to know of Aaron what the people had done to make him lead them into sin. Aaron replied that the people
were set on evil and had ordered him to make gods to worship.
at the gate of the camp and asked all who were on God’s side to join him outside the camp. After that, Moses
instructed the sons of Levi to take swords and go through the camp to kill everyone who opposed those of God’s
side. Three thousand men were killed.
day Moses told the surviving people they had sinned greatly. He said he would approach God and attempt to secure
atonement for their sins. Moses went back to God, who responded by saying he would blot from his book those who
had sinned against him. He sent a plague among the people to effect this
told Moses to take the remaining Israelites to the Promised Land. He promised to drive out the tribes who
occupied the land. He warned, however, that he would not stand among the people because his presence would
in the habit of taking his tent and pitching it outside the camp. He called it the “tent of meeting”. Whenever
he entered this tent, a pillar of cloud would descend and be stationed at the tent entrance. In this way God
would come down to speak with Moses face-to-face.
God to reveal himself to him in his fullness. God replied that nobody could look upon his face and live. He
said, however, that if Moses stood in the cleft of a rock, God would pass by and shield Moses with his hand. He
would then remove his hand and Moses would be able to see his back passing by.
told Moses to cut two stone tablets and said he would inscribe them as he had inscribed the first two. Moses had
first to ascend Mount Sinai. God descended in a cloud and identified himself as a merciful and gracious God,
slow to anger and steadfast in love. He proclaimed himself a forgiver of sins, but said he would punish sins as
far as the third and fourth generations.
renewed his covenant with the people and reaffirmed his promise to drive the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites and
other tribes from the Promised Land. The people of Israel were forbidden to make any covenant with these people,
but had to tear down their altars and their idols. The people were prohibited from worshipping with these tribes
or taking their women as wives. The making of idols was banned. God proclaimed himself a jealous
commanded the people to keep the Sabbath, Passover and Shavuot. He ordered that the first produce of any harvest
should be given to Him. He reminded the people that a kid should not be cooked in its mother’s milk.
stayed with God 40 days and nights and God wrote down the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
came down from the mountain with the two tablets, his face shone brightly though he did not realise it. The
people were afraid to come near him but Moses summoned them. Moses
told them what God had commanded on Mount Sinai. Then he covered his face with a veil and only removed it when
he spoke with God, after which it shone again.
Commentary on the 21st parsha (portion of the Torah). The Torah consists of the
five books of Moses, the first part of the Old Testament.
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are.
He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: You know, some would say this God of yours had a personality disorder.
Megalomania, paranoia, schizophrenia are just some of the conditions that come to mind when I read this
MS: As usual, apart from your
blasphemy, which I am now used to, you miss all the crucial points here. God was furious at the faithlessness
of the people. It is they, not he, who had the personality disorder. The minute Moses is gone, they lose all
faith, all hope, all trust. They are so insecure because of the shallowness of their belief that they have to
reassure themselves by seeing the thing that they worship. They are so proud that they have to fashion their
own god. And they are so unspiritual that they have to worship gold, which as you know is an allusion to
their materialism and disdain for the world of eternity and the soul.
SAS: Quite astute, Methuselah. I’ll grant you that. But what’s the story with
God? Why does he keep testing the people and allowing them to sin again, so he can have them killed, and then
send a plague to finish off more of them? We learn that he is a forgiving God, but will punish them for their
sins unto the fourth generation. This is retribution. This remark is the origin of the principle that the
sins of the fathers will be visited upon the sons, unto the fourth generation. What’s so loving about this
What part of the term “covenant” don’t you understand? A covenant is a deal – a contract.
God will look after his people if they will worship and love him. If they don’t, his anger at their breaking
the covenant will be terrible. He offers a lot; they can’t even keep their promises. They are shallow, fickle
and desperate. They have no faith and this is what they demonstrate.
SAS: What about the children having to pay for the sins of their
MS: This is a lesson to the people, a
demonstration of the power of the Lord. He is a god of loving kindness and mercy, but also a jealous God. Do
you understand the kind of power we are talking about here?
SAS: Well, I am less impressed by the rosy afterglow of Moses’ face after his
encounter with God’s presence than you are, obviously. I am upset by the machinations that God conducts in
his testing of the love and faith of the people.
MS: Do you think that the gift of
being God’s people comes for free, without the need to show that we are worthy of this relationship? The gift
is precious and we must at all times show we value it as such.
SAS: Look, I think it might all be too much trouble. I don’t see the benefit.
I’d rather not have the covenant. What about Moses breaking the first set of tablets? Why would he do
MS: Can you imagine his anger at the
people for deserting God, and building the golden calf? After all, he was the representative of this willful,
faithless, irresponsible people.
SAS: Well, it was not a very mature act on his part. Smashing the tablets? What
was the point of that?
MS: You might consider that
the relationship with God was pretty shattered at that time. You might also know that Moses was punished
profoundly for that act of anger and frustration. He was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, merely to
look upon it.
SAS: Well, he must have felt richly rewarded for all he went through as the
intermediary between God and the people.
MS: There’s no need for cheap sarcasm.
This is serious stuff. This is the code by which Jews were to live for centuries. It did not come
SAS: Methuselah, pardon me for mentioning it again, but being killed for
not keeping the Sabbath, is that a core punishment or a non-core one? Do you think that this injunction may
lose its importance in other contexts?
MS: The word of God is the word of
God. Those who reinterpret it do so at their peril. You’re free to pick and choose among God’s laws if you
want to. Just don’t pick on me. I try to obey all of them.
SAS: I think you should acknowledge that times change. Why is it so
terrible to boil a kid in its mother’s milk? Last week you were quite happy to slaughter a ram. Why so
MS: Once again you miss the point. It
is you who are literal. In the name of rationality you have completely removed the awe of power and the
reverence for God’s word from our history. I feel sorry for you. You sample and choose only the part of the
code you like. You must feel lost and desperate a lot of the time.
SAS: I’m quite happy, thank you. I just don’t understand the character of
your fictional God. He’s incorrigible.
MS: It’s you who are incorrigible. Try
to understand that the weight of this tradition cannot be knocked over by your puny
SAS: You are in darkness, my friend.
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know more about the real history of our
extended Jewish family, read on.
Russian emigration to Palestine as response to
Between 1880 and 1920 more than
two million Jews fled Russia on account of anti-Semitic legislation and persecution.
Alexander II of Russia banned Jews from owning land and subjected them to travel
restrictions. This was during a repressive period following an unsuccessful assassination attempt against
him. When he was actually assassinated in 1881, the Jews as a whole were wrongly accused of the crime. There
were pogroms in 166 towns as a result. Jews were slaughtered in significant numbers and their homes
Alexander III ascended the throne and the situation worsened. Jews were branded
killers of Christ and were blamed for the very pogroms that killed their people. The new tsar introduced the
notorious May Laws in terms of which Jews were banned from rural areas and quotas were placed on Jews
entering higher education. Jews were banned from certain professions. Jews were expelled from Kiev in 1886
and Moscow in 1891. In 1892 Jews were banned from participating in local elections.
An important organization that encouraged Jews to settle in Palestine was Hovevei
Zion, which registered as a charity in 1890. It became known as “The Odessa Committee” and already had 4000
members by 1897. This Zionist organisation was dedicated to establishing Jewish agricultural settlements in
Members of Hovevei Zion joined with members of Bilu, an idealistic group, to establish
Rishon LeZion as an agricultural cooperative in Palestine on Arab land they’d bought. When this cooperative
failed, its members secured funds from Baron Rothschild and it morphed into a successful wine-exporting
Such pioneering movements spurred people to live in Palestine, and this trend
increased after further Russian pogroms in 1903-1906 and after the 1917 Russian Revolution. At least 70,000
Jews died during the Russian Civil War (1918-1920) in which the Red Army defended the Bolshevik government
against anti-Bolshevik factions. A number of historians quote much higher figures for death in pogroms –
115,000; 150,000 and some go as high as 250,000.
In between these pogroms an event had occurred that brought Russian anti-Semitism into
sharp focus beyond its borders. In 1911 a Jew, Menahem Mendel Beilis, was falsely accused of a blood libel
(ritual murder) of a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy. The case depended on the testimony of a lamplighter who said
that a Jew had abducted the boy.
Beilis was kept in jail for two
years awaiting trial. Russian newspapers as well as the gutter press fueled anti-Semitism. The trial in Kiev
(1913) exposed the lamplighter’s testimony as bogus and Beilis’s high-profile legal team demolished the
prosecution’s case. Even so, the jury was divided six-six, which luckily meant an acquittal in terms of the
Beilis left for Palestine and later immigrated to the USA in 1920. The case shocked
many Jews who’d still felt they had a future in Russia, and greater numbers fled the
The influx of Jews from Russia into Palestine came mainly in three waves. In the First
Aliyah (1882-1903) 35,000 Jews came to Palestine and most were from Russia. In the Second Aliyah (1904-1914)
another 40,000 followed – again mostly from Russia. The first kibbutz, Degania, was established in 1909.
During the Third Aliyah (1919-1923) a further 40,000 arrived – mostly Russian. In this Post-War era Palestine
was no longer part of the Ottoman Empire; Britain had conquered it in 1918. The 1917 Balfour Declaration had
proclaimed Britain’s support of a national home for Jews in Palestine.
In 1919 Lenin categorized anti-Semitism as a tsarist diversionary tactic that had made
Jews scapegoats of a reactionary system. This provided hope of a new future for Jews in Russia and, indeed,
Jews were conspicuous among the Bolshevik leadership. The life of Jews in Communist Russia was, however, far
from a rosy one. We’ll return to that story
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment by Dad, Chaya and
BEN: More of the same,
persecution and pogroms.
Yes, this has been the history of the Jews during the period in which they did not have a
country of their own.
CHAYA: If that were true, and
the reason that Jews have been persecuted is because they didn’t have a country of their own, surely the same
should be true of people of other religions who don’t have countries set aside for their own religious group.
What is the Buddhists’ country, or the Catholics’ country? Why should a religious group have a
Well to some extent Catholics have always had their own countries, even though there is
not one specially set aside for them – unless you count the tiny Vatican. In the main, though, religious
persecution has not been based on the statelessness of people. The Jews are not just a religious group, we
are a people.
BEN: So, are you saying we
have been persecuted because there is something about us as a people that makes us the object of
DAD: I suppose I am saying
that. We have always seen ourselves as different, and have always refused to give up that difference. That
has led to persecution and blame. We have lacked the strength to defend ourselves as a people.
CHAYA: It’s difficult to know
what makes us a people, if not our religious affiliation. So why would having our own country protect us? And
in any event, how did we decide that Palestine was our country? Jews lived outside of Palestine for more than
a thousand years. Do we maintain our biblical right to the land?
BEN: Well, there were Jews
who remained in Palestine and many in the Middle East and Europe who believed that Jews had a right to go to
try to make a home in Palestine.
CHAYA: What about the other
people who were living in Palestine at the time?
DAD: Well, as you know, this
has become a major issue regarding the rights of residence and citizenship of what today is the State of
Israel. But let’s talk about that another time soon. I think what’s important is that since the establishment
of the State of Israel, Jews all over the world have not been persecuted in the way that they were before
BEN: Yes, but many things
happened in the course of the 20th century that may have contributed to the greater safety that
many Jews now feel. The aftermath of the Second World War is a huge scar on the consciousness of the
DAD: Don’t underestimate the
fact that Jews no longer feel weak in their own eyes and the eyes of the world. We remember our history and
we have learnt to protect ourselves from the kind of persecution we have heard about tonight.
CHAYA: We need to watch out
for persecution in general. Especially as Jews, we should be aware that it doesn’t take much for powerful
groups to turn on the less powerful.
Every Shabbat we read five short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and
humour, insightful reflections on this life of ours.
Here are tonight’s sayings:
· He should be reincarnated as a chandelier – by day he should hang and by night he
· The prosperity of a country can be seen simply in how it treats its old people.
(Nachman of Bratslav)
· If all men pulled in one direction, the world would fall over.
· It is worse to be in heaven with a fool than in hell with a sage.
· Wherever you go, there you are. Your luggage is another story.
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing
to changing the world for the better and having an extraordinary impact on those around
Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004)
Derrida was born in El Bar (Algeria) into a family of French Jews who lived there as
part of colonial France. He was hugely successful in his academic and intellectual career. He became a
professor of philosophy at the Ecole Normal in Paris in
1965. His work was very controversial, specifically because of the philosophical concept of
“deconstruction” which he developed. Derrida proposed to reflect on the institution of philosophy in an
entirely different way from what had been done before. He initiated a program to analyse and deconstruct the
classic texts of philosophy through their language in order to undo, or deconstruct a single dominant system
of thought that was a central part of the way it was constructed. He believed that this would help us to understand the central texts and
ideas of our culture and, in fact, to improve the quality of our lives. Derrida's deconstructionist works are
integrally related to the more general movement of Postmodernism.
Emma Goldman (1869 –1940)
“Red Emma” was born in Kovno, Lithuania. Goldman played a pivotal role in the
development of anarchist political philosophy in the United States and Europe in the first half of the
twentieth century. It was in Russia that Goldman was introduced to revolutionary ideas and the work of
revolutionary anarchists, including the history of previous political assassinations in Czarist Russia and
the concept of revolutionary violence as a tool for social change. She immigrated to the United States at seventeen. Goldman became a confirmed believer in the concept of the Attentat, the use of
targeted acts of violence, including assassinations of politically significant individuals as a necessary tool
to inspire political and social change. She was imprisoned in 1893 at
Island penitentiary for publicly telling unemployed workers that they should
"Ask for work. If they do not give you work, ask for bread. If they do not give you work or bread, take
bread." She was arrested in Chicago on charges of conspiracy to assassinate President McKinley. The assassination of McKinley and the rapidly-escalating use of violence by other
immigrant anarchists stained the cause of Anarchism and discredited it in American popular opinion, making
its association a slur. In 1908 her U.S. citizenship was revoked. Goldman’s third imprisonment was in 1917, this time for conspiring to obstruct the
draft and she was
imprisoned for two years. Goldman was involved in forming No Conscription
Leagues and under U.S. laws of the time, since Goldman's U.S. citizenship had been revoked,
she could be deported as an undesirable resident alien under the Sedition
and Anarchist Acts, as well as a resident alien convicted two times or more for crimes. After two years in
Russia, disillusioned, she left, having witnessed the full results of the Bolshevik rise to power.
In 1936, Goldman went to Spain to support the
Republic and the fight against Francisco Franco’s
fascist government in
the Spanish Civil
War. Emma Goldman died of a stroke in Toronto on
May 14, 1940, aged 70.