And when the people saw that Moshe delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aharon, and said to him: Arise, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moshe, the man who brought us up out of the Land of Egypt, we know not what has become of him. (Sefer Shemot 32:1)
- The creation and purpose of the Golden Calf
Parshat Ki Tisa describes the sin of the Egel HaZahav – the Golden Calf. This is one of the most troubling incidents in the Torah. All of Bnai Yisrael stood at Sinai and heard Hashem command them to not create other gods. Yet, with the passage of a few weeks, they violated this fundamental commandment and created and worshiped the Egel. Previously in Thoughts some of the factors that contributed to this failing were discussed. In this edition the focus will be upon the intellectual errors that underlay the sin.
As an introduction to this issue, it is essential to understand the nation’s beliefs regarding the Egel. The people were not so primitive as to believe that the Egel – a product of their own design – was an actual deity. Instead, their intent was to create an idol that would function as an intermediary between themselves and Hashem. Their aspiration was that the Egel would become the focus of Hashem’s providential presence and the He would perhaps animate the Egel or that, at least, it would function as an icon. As an icon, Hashem would communicate messages of guidance and inspiration through it.
As explained in the above passage, the sin of the Egel was precipitated by Moshe’s delay in descending from Mount Sinai. Why did the delay in Moshe’s descent cause such intense panic? In order to understand the manner in which the people interpreted this delay, it is important to return to an earlier point in the Torah’s account of Revelation.
And all the people perceived the thunder, and the lightning, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking. And when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off. They said unto Moshe: You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not G-d speak with us, lest we die. (Sefer Shemot 20:15-16)
- The Jewish people’s frightening encounter with prophecy
The Torah explains that Bnai Yisrael heard some or all of the statements of the Decalogue directly from Hashem. The people responded to this experience by insisting that Moshe intervene between them and Hashem. They did not wish to receive the rest of the Torah directly from Hashem. Instead, Moshe should be the direct recipient of the rest of the Torah and he should relate it to the people. What was the reason for this request?
Rabbeinu Ovadia Sforno explains that Bnai Yisrael did not merely hear a material voice declare the statements of the Decalogue. Each member of the nation experienced prophecy. For those moments the entire nation participated in a prophetic communion with Hashem. Their response to the experience reflects the overwhelming power and intensity of the prophetic encounter. They were awed and frightened. They declared that they could not continue the encounter. They could not envision that a typical mortal could endure the intensity of a prolonged prophetic encounter. Ideally, they would have remained in prophetic communion with Hashem and received the entire Torah directly from Him. However, they beseeched Moshe to stand in their stead. He should receive balance of the Torah from Hashem and transmit it to them.
In short, Bnai Yisrael concluded that the prolonged prophetic experience required to receive the Torah from Hashem could only be endured by an exceptional human being. They relied upon Moshe to assume this role.
Moshe did not descend from the mountain at the anticipated hour. The conclusion of Bnai Yisrael is now understandable. They had themselves experienced an intimate prophetic encounter. They had felt that the encounter bordered upon the unendurable. A prolonged encounter would require an exceptional individual. They had hoped that Moshe could serve as their representative. Moshe’s failure to descend from the mountain pointed to a single interpretation. Moshe had not survived his extended encounter with Hashem.
When I was gone up to the mount to receive the tablets of stone, even the tablets of the covenant which Hashem made with you, then I abode in the mount forty days and forty nights. I did neither eat bread nor drink water. (Sefer Devarim 9:9)
- Moshe’s unique status among prophets
Moshe himself confirmed that this conclusion was partially accurate. He explains that during the forty days that he was upon the mountain he did not eat or drink. The implication of Moshe’s statement is that he actually existed during those forty days of prophetic engagement in a state that was super-mortal. Only because of his unique capacity to achieve this state was he capable of enduring the prophetic communion of Revelation.
Maimonides explains that among the fundamental principles of the Torah is that Moshe is the greatest of all prophets. No prophet before Moshe and no prophet who will succeed him are his equal. Why is the differentiation of Moshe from other prophets an essential principle of the Torah? There are a number of reasons. One is reflected in the above discussion. The communication of the entire Torah to a Moshe was a super-mortal experience. Acknowledgment of the Torah as a Divinely revealed truth is predicated upon accepting that Moshe achieved a qualitatively different prophetic state than any other prophet. He was not merely a greater prophet than his peers by a degree. He was distinguished from his peers by an order of magnitude.
Bnai Yisrael’s decision to create an idol to replace Moshe was consistent with their outlook. They believed that Moshe had been taken from them. This confirmed their fear that a human being could not endure ongoing communion with Hashem. Therefore, they sought to create a different type of intermediary – one not subject to the frailties of a mortal being. This is reflected in the opening passages above. The people demanded that Aharon create an idol for them because Moshe – a mortal – had been taken from them.
And it came to pass, when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in Moshe’s hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moshe knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams while He talked with him. When Aharon and all the children of Israel saw Moshe, behold, the skin of his face sent forth beams. And they were afraid to come nigh to him. (Sefer Shemot 34:29-30)
- The message of Moshe’s radiance
The final passages of the parasha describe Moshe’s radiance. The Torah explains that when Moshe descended from Sinai with the second Lucot – the Tablets of the Decalogue – a strange radiance emanated from his face. Why was Moshe granted this unusual attribute? Based on the events described in the parasha, a possible reason emerges.
The people feared that Moshe had died. The basis for this fear was their underestimation of Moshe’s prophetic gift and capacity. They had experienced a brief prophetic encounter. The encounter had overwhelmed them. When Moshe failed to descend from the mountain, they extrapolated from their own experience and concluded that the extended prophetic encounter required to receive the entire Torah was beyond mortal reach. They did not understand that Moshe’s capacity for prophecy was differentiated from theirs by an order of magnitude. The light that flowed from Moshe’s face was testimony to his unique and singular greatness. He was not to be compared to any other person.
Perhaps more importantly, the light that emanated from Moshe also testified to the Divine authorship of the Torah. It communicated that a very special human being did enter into a prolonged communion with Hashem and received from Him the Torah.
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people – for he was above all the people – and when he opened it, all the people stood up. (Sefer Nechemyah 8:5)
- The message communicated through demonstrating respect for the Torah
Maimonides explains that when the Torah is read in front of the congregation it is prohibited to speak. Rabbaynu Manoach explains that this requirement is not merely to assure that at least a quorum of participants is attentive. In other words, even if there are ten members of the congregation who are attentive to the reading of the Torah, all other members must be silent. What is the basis for this requirement?
Maimonides’ ruling is based upon the Talmud. The Talmud cites as its source the record in the Book of Nechemyah of Ezra’s reading of the Torah before the people. The passage explains that when Ezra opened the Torah the people stood. The Talmud explains that the passage means that they stopped speaking and became attentive. However, Rabbaynu Avraham Ibn Ezra comments that the simple meaning of the passage is also true. The people arose and stood in respect for the Torah.
When the Torah is read in the congregation our silence communicates our deep reverence for the Torah and its contents. This respect reflects our recognition that the contents of the Torah are the words of Hashem, revealed to Bnai Yisrael and humanity through Moshe. Even if ten others are attentively listening to every word of the Torah reading, every member of the congregation must be silent. Our silence is our affirmation of the divinity of the Torah’s sacred words.
 Rabbeinu Yehuda HaLevi, Sefer HaKuzari, part I, section 97.
 Rabbeinu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 20:14-16.
 Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishna, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.
 Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishna Torah, Hilchot Tefillah 12:9.
 Rabbeinu Manoach of Narbonne, Commentary on Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tefilah 12:9.
 Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Nechemyah, 8:5.