Israel, the Unfaithful Bride
In Parashat Ki Tissa we read the difficult story of Israel’s sin against the Creator when they worshipped the golden calf. In Exodus 20 at the giving of the Commandments, God told us that He was the one who took them out of the land of Egypt; we were not to make any image of Him including animals. However, that is exactly what they did as they said that this golden calf was the god who brought them out of Egypt. Our sages say that if we had not committed this sin, they would have never needed the Tabernacle in the desert since the Presence of God would have dwelled within them. They were the ones who cut that relationship.
In Chapter 32:7, the LORD said to Moses, go down and see what “your” people are doing. Verse 10 states that the Creator was so angry that He was going to destroy them and “make a great nation (goy gadol) לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל out of you (Moses) instead”. From the beginning, Moses had been a reluctant leader constantly telling the Creator “they are “Your” people”. When the Creator spoke to Moshe, He would tell him, these are “your” people; they went back and forth like “ping-pong”.
This next part is extremely important to understand. In verse 32, Moses interceded for the people asking the Creator to forgive them. He was begging the LORD to save His people, trying to convince the Creator. Then it says that the Creator changed His mind. Would the Creator repent? Did Moshe Rabenu get Him to change His mind? Can our God be swayed by humans? There was a reason that He was allowing Moshe to go through this process. Until then, Moshe hadn’t appropriated the Hebrews as his people but this was now changing. Moshe knew that he was a Hebrew; he had defended a Hebrew slave and killed the Egyptian out of his innate sense of justice. But he was rejected and given up by his community, forcing him to flee Egypt and go to Midian. He probably still held this animosity in his heart. The only reason that Moses did anything for his people was out of obedience to his God. But when God threatened to make a new nation from him, it hit Him at the gut level. This is when he cried out “don’t you remember your promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel?” The Creator was showing Moshe how much he cared for his people even though he kept saying that he didn’t. It was difficult to lead a “stiff-necked” – קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף – people; believe me I know.
Ex. 32:31, 32 states that Moses implored the LORD saying…” I know that Israel has committed a great sin; they made themselves a god of gold. Please forgive them and if not, I beg you to erase me from Your book which You have written.” Does that familiar to those who teach that a man can give up his life for others? Can I be the substitute for the sins of my people? What does the Torah say about that? In Verse 33, God states, “ I alone erase from My book the one who has committed sin.” This is a basic principle of the Torah. We each pay for our sins. No one else can pay for us. We cannot buy nor fool the Creator. No matter what any religion teaches, we need to make things right before the Creator, for in the end, we will stand alone before Him. Moshe could not change the Creator’s mind neither can any of us, no matter how smart we think we are. The Creator does allow us to intercede, to speak on behalf of someone; in Judaism, it is called ‘in the merits of”. We say in the merits of our Messiah Yeshua, in the merits of our forefathers when we pray.
When Moses descended Mt. Sinai and saw for himself what was happening, he lost his temper. Notice that it was Moses who wanted to kill the Israelites, not the Creator. At first, Moses interceded for the people but now he ordered the Levites to kill those who were responsible. Three thousand men died that day. They had changed their God for a false one to whom they performed idolatry, no matter what anyone says. Our rabbis have tried to whitewash the reputation of the Israelites by blaming it on the Erev Rav – עֵרֶב רַב, the mixed multitude, but that is not what the Torah tells us. It may have been a small group of rabble-rousers but the problem is that the majority did nothing to stop them. We need to be honest and admit when we do wrong. Then we can approach the Creator, acknowledge our sin, and turn back to Him – that is true teshuvah. That’s how we come clean. No one is asking us to be superman; we need to be just and honest. There is no one among us who is perfect!
Who was the greatest culprit in all this? Aaron, Moshe’s brother. I don’t understand how our sages can whitewash what he did and hold him in such high esteem. The dilemma is in trying to understand why he did what he did. Some say that he was a pacifist, looking for shalom in every situation, others, that he was trying to gain time. When we read the narrative, the Torah shows us two different accounts of what happened. In the first, Aaron said that he asked for the gold and that he was the one who had fashioned the golden calf. After Moshe returned and confronted him, he blamed the people saying that they gave him the gold, he threw it into the fire, and voila, out jumped the calf. Apart from showing us that there is a sense of humor in the Torah, I see Aaron playing the role of the politician who is nice to everyone, but we sometimes need to learn to say no, even if it costs us our own lives.
There is a special midrash on this portion where our sages compare it to a wedding. There are two parts to a Jewish wedding, the Erusim, the engagement, and the Nesuim, the consummation of the marriage. These used to take place on two separate occasions but today are combined in one ceremony with a double blessing being chanted over the wine, under the “chuppah”, God’s heavenly covering. At the Erusim, the parents present the written contract called the Ketubah, signed between the first and second parts of the wedding ceremony. It is specifically designed to protect the bride. It’s a beautiful picture of the wedding between the Almighty and the people of Israel. Moses, the best man, presented the Ketubah (the Ten Commandments) to Israel and the Creator, the groom, promised to protect His bride, Israel. Even though the bride, Israel has always been unfaithful, the Creator, has and always will remain faithful. Several prophets have alluded to the allegory of Israel as the unfaithful wife. The Creator had the right to immediately divorce Israel for her infidelity but when Moses intervened on behalf of the people, it seems as if the Creator repented but He is not wishy-washy and no one can get Him to change His mind. He is omniscient and knew exactly what was going to happen. Some say that He covers His eyes or turns away when He doesn’t want to see what is happening but that is not the God that I know. He is greater than that. He gave us Free Will and allows us to make our choices, take responsibility for our actions and live with the consequences.
This Shabbat is also called Shabbat Parah referring to the “red heifer”. The ashes from the burnt offering of the red heifer were used to cleanse the people and depict the reversal of the sin of the golden calf and that we need to come clean before the Almighty. He is the one who provides the only way that we can truly approach Him – by acknowledging our sin first to ourselves, then to Him, and by doing whatever it takes to make things right before God and our fellow man.
The ashes of the red heifer would also be used later in Numbers 5: 11-13, in the story of the “Sotah”. If a husband became jealous of his wife, he had to bring her to the High Priest who concocted a potion from the ashes of the red heifer which she had to drink to prove her innocence. If her belly and thighs didn’t swell up, she was declared innocent. Compare this with the powder that Moses made from the ashes of the golden calf which he melted down, mixed with water, and forced the people of Israel to drink. Three thousand men were killed that day by the Levites and although the Creator did forgive them, He brought a plague upon them because of those who had sinned.
There are always consequences for our actions. Our Messiah Yeshua told us the parable of the Prodigal Son. He asked his father to give him his inheritance while he was still alive. The son foolishly wasted it on an errant lifestyle and ended up working for a pig farmer, fighting with the pigs for his sustenance. It finally occurred to him that the lowest of his father’s servants ate better than he did and decided to humble himself and return home, to beg his father for work. When his father saw him approaching, he called for his servants to throw a great banquet to celebrate his return, showing us that we all have that opportunity to return to Him. Our Creator forgets our past and restores the years the locust has eaten. All we need to do is to go to Him, acknowledge who we are, and make it right.
Adapted from Ranebi’s message on March 18, 2017