Rabbi Mark H. Levin
Congregation Beth Torah, Overland Park
Many people would say, as Rabbi Jacob Milgrom demonstrates in his JPS Commentary to The Book of Numbers, that this is the most important Torah portion. Parts of it are read four times in the annual Torah reading cycle: this week’s portion, the Intermediate Sabbath (Shabbat Chol HaMoed) of both Pessach and Sukkot, plus the additional Torah reading for Shabbat Shekalim (Exodus 30:11-16). Israel reaches both its greatest height and its lowest depths with the writing of the Torah tablets by God while the people create the Golden Calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai (chapters 32-34).
The parashah opens with an Israelite census, which results in the half shekel tax for all adults 20 years old and above. The Torah follows the tax with additional commentary on the building of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, the
. God assigns artisans Bezalel ben Uri and Oholiab ben Ahisamach to construct the Tabernacle according to divine design, and immediately commands Israel once again to observe Shabbat. God designates Shabbat as ”
a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the Lord have consecrated you
.” (Exodus 31: 13). Verses 16-17 constitute a regular part of our Shabbat liturgy, evening, morning and at home. The Torah thus demonstrates the superiority of sacred time over sacred space, as the commandment to observe the sacred time of Shabbat interrupts the narrative of the construction of the sacred space of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, God’s earthly abode.
For the Rabbis of the midrash, Israel seized the opportunity of Moses’ delay in returning from the mountain to repudiate their vow to God and revel in idolatry, murder and licentiousness, emulating the surrounding nations. The M
idrash Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer
explains how the Israelites demanded of Aaron that he build them an idol they could carry, singing before it in joy as the heathens did with their idols (Torah Shelemah Ki Tisa, 8, p. 85). When Hur, Aaron’s aid in helping Moses lift up his arms, opposed the people’s blasphemy, the midrash claims they murdered him, intimidating Aaron into aiding their idolatrous intentions (Exodus Rabbah 48:3). Another midrash pins the insurrection on the “mixed multitude” that came out of Egypt with Israel (Torah Shelemah Ki Tisa, 33, p. 91, and commentary p. 98-99). It was not the Israelites, but strangers who had joined their minions that led the people astray.
Nonetheless, other sources contend that when God commands Moses to “Go, descend,” (Exodus 32: 7) Israel has entirely destroyed all of the credits it built up with God in their journey. God had rejoiced when Israel responded to God at Sinai, “We will do and we obey” (Exodus 19:8). Having not yet even seen the Torah the people had leapt to obedience and signed on to do God’s will. Yet, all that is now gone. Israel is compared to a bride who strayed from her marriage vows while under the
, the marriage canopy (Torah Shelemah, Ki Tisa, 66, p. 99, from Lekach Tov to Ex. 32:8). They immediately broke the only two commandments they heard directly from God, “I am the Lord who led you out of Egypt” and “You shall have no other God’s before Me.” It had been Israel’s sorry intention already from the first day at Sinai to rebel against God’s commandments. That is to say, it wasn’t that Moses took so long to return, but simply Israel’s poor character (Exodus Rabbah 42:8).
The literal reader would think the sin of the Golden Calf was solely idolatry, but the Rabbis uncover all three of the cardinal sins: idolatry, sex crimes and murder in the narrative (Torah Shelemah, Ki Tisa 50, p. 96; Seder Eliyahu Rabbah chpt. 13). These same crimes are so important that a Jew may not even commit them in order to save a life. Even as the covenant with God was being fulfilled by Moses at the top of the mountain, completing the marriage between God and Israel, Israel was whoring after none gods at the bottom of the mountain. Thus we find a rabbinic mindset that in each and every instant any one of us may choose to stray from God. If Israel, in this most sensitive and illustrious moment in human history, the marriage ceremony to God, can destroy everything and overturn the covenant, then certainly each of us is capable of the same at any point in our lives. And not just to turn to idolatry, a single major sin. Jews cannot claim, “Well, maybe we’d turn to idolatry, but never murder or sexual license.” No, we committed the epitome of rebellion, rejecting the very commandments spoken directly to us by God and simultaneously committing the three worst transgressions available to a human being.
And yet, God does not annihilate the people. In the rabbinic mindset, God had foreseen these events, and did not reject Moses, even though the angels in their jealousy sought to slay him (Exodus Rabbah 42:4). But God had chastisement in mind, that the people might learn their lesson and be restored. The leaders of the rebellion were destroyed. But after punishment the people were returned to God.
Thus we find in this masterful story the assurance that as deep as Israel’s rebellion may go, as grievous as it may be, as intentionally rebellious as the leadership might be in leading the common people astray, God will never reject his people but will always, after repentance, take them back in love.
The lessons for all of us must be clear: that we, too, are capable of enacting the depths of evil and the heights of goodness; that the evil inclination never abandons us and we must always be wary, particularly at the most important times in our lives; and that no matter how low we have sunk in our conduct, God sees our actions and will forgive if we return in sincere repentance.