Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha

Ki Tissa


Larchmont Temple—Har Chayim

The F*-WORD…[F _ _ _ _]…Questions, Conflicts & Connection of FAITH


KI TISSA—Exodus 32:7-24


HOW is the breaking of the tablets a statement of faith?

WHAT do Moses/Aaron’s responses to the calf teach us about God’s Presence?



v.19           And it happened, as he approached the camp, and saw the calf and dancing, that Moses anger burned,

and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the base of the mountain.

DEVARIM RABBAH…Moses descended holding the tablets. Why did he not break them until he actually saw what was happening with his own eyes?  For that moment, Moses’ anger burned.

Said the Holy One: Moses, didn’t you take My  word for it?

B’ER YITSCHAK…The action of breaking the tablets appears strange and astonishing, prompted seemingly by anger.  Yet we know it is forbidden to break and destroy even the smallest vessel, how much more so an object as sacred as this!

RAMBAN…Moses didn’t think for a moment about breaking them; his anger was aroused, and he couldn’t stop himself!

RASHI…Moses thought to himself: If with regard to the Pesach, which is but one commandment, Torah ordained, “no apostate may partake.”  [Exod 12:43] Here the whole Torah is at stake, and all Israel are apostates.  How can I give it to them!    [TALMUD, Shabbat 87a]

S’FORNO… “And the two tablets in his hand…” Moses thought, by the time he arrived with God’s Revelation, they would have repented…but When he saw the calf and the dancing he became enraged…”  That is, when he saw how they rejoiced at their own ruin, as in Jeremiah, “You exult while performing your evil deeds…” [11:15]   At this, Moses became infuriated—despairing of any possible repentance…

ARAMA…Through deep psychological insight, Moses did not break the tablets at the top of the mountain.  Rather, he did it  “tachat hahar”—at the very last foot, the place it would make the most impact on Israel and, seeing the treasure they had lost, shock them to repent.

…and he hurled  the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.

RASHBAM…When Moses beheld the calf, all of his vitality ebbed away…He just managed to push the tablets far enough away so that they did not land on his feet, just as one who could no longer bear the burden they carried would do.  This is how I see it through Pirkei D’R’Eliezer.

PIRKEI D’Rebbe ELIEZER Moses took the tablets, inscribed by the Holy One, and they carried him down the mountain.  When the letters saw the dancing around the golden calf, they ran off and flew away back up.  It was then that the tablets became much too heavy for Moses.  He could no longer hold himself up, nor could he bear the weight of the stones.

AVOT D’R’NATAN…Moses took the tablets and made his way joyfully down.  As soon as he beheld the abhorrent spectacle, he said: How can I give them the tablets?  I shall be involving them in serious breaches of the commandments, rendering them liable to death, since it is written: Thou shall have no other gods…R’ Yose

the Galilean said: Let me tell you a parable.  To what can this be compared?  To a king who said to his steward: Go and betroth for me this damsel.  The steward went, but after he betrothed her for the king, discovered she played the harlot with another.  He immediately reasoned:  If I give her the ketubah now, I shall be condemning her to death…So Moses thought: Let me shatter them and move the people to repentance.

ABRAVANEL…I imagine that Moses broke them at the place where he built the altar, just as one tears up a legal document that has been dishonoured.  He did not break them on the mountain, for had Israel not seen

the awesome work of the Lord, the tablets in tact, they would never have been moved by the fragments.

v.21-23      Moses said to Aaron: What did this people do to you that you brought such great sin upon them?” Aaron said: “…You know this people is bent on evil.  They said to me, Make us a god to lead us…So I said to them: Whoever has gold, take it off!

SARNA“chata-ah g’dola”—This is a legal term found in Egyptian marriage contracts, always referring to adultery.  The same usage appears in Abimelech’s reproof of Abraham in Genesis 20:9.

RAMBAN…What Moses is asking Aaron is: What hatred do you have for this people, that you have tried to destroy them once and for all?  Aaron’s relation to the people is supposed to be one of compassion, who reproves and makes atonement, “but you have treated them like an enemy…”  Moses ought to have first castigated Aaron for his own sin, and only then for making so many stumble after him…


Rabbi Shlomo RISKIN… [founding Rabbi of Lincoln Sq; Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Chancellor Ohr Torah Stone College]

The tablets destruction needs clarification…They were miraculous, Divine….Up until now, God either appeared in dreams or visions…This is the first time that written and engraved words are described as having been formed by God Himself…With His own Hands, God prepared for humanity the great gift of His Book.  What could be greater proof of God’s beneficence!  Yet Moses smashes them to smithereens.  Why commit such a seemingly sacrilegious and ungrateful act?

Various biblical commentators have treated this action in different ways: for one Moses acts in a fit of anger, for another in weak frustration, and for a third Moses is making a teaching demonstration.  Whatever may have been Moses’ true motivation, the Sages of the Talmud applaud his action, saying: “God Himself gave the hechsher to Moses’ act.”  Does it not seem as if Moses is pouring salt on the wounds perpetrated by the Israelites dancing in idolatrous debauchery?…

…R’ Meir Simcha of D’vinsk derives a crucial lesson from Moses’ action: no object is intrinsically holy.  Regardless of the beauty of the letters or how carefully scribal laws have been followed, a Torah written by a heretic must be burned because the false belief of the scribe can undo the scroll’s potential holiness.  Conversely, but similarly, even a Decalogue written by God Himself must be sanctified by the people Israel, who are expected to live by its precepts.  When the Israelites worshipped the golden calf, in effect, denigrating the words of God, they were emptying the Tablets of their sanctity…

While still a rabbi serving in Manhattan, I was asked to adjudicate between a principal and a 5th grade day school teacher who had been summarily dismissed.  The 5th grade class was generally unruly, but was especially feisty during daily morning prayer.  The young teacher was at her wit’s end.  Attempting to instill some respect in her students, at least during prayer, one morning, she was moved to act.  In the middle of the Service she lost her cool, and threw the prayerbook to the floor. The shocked students came to order, but when they reported the incident to their parents, the principal was inundated with phone calls, and the teacher was dismissed.  When, during the hearing in my office, I asked the teacher to explain her actions, she calmly replied:  “I merely learned how to respond from Moshe Rabbeynu.”  She won the case, and was reinstated!

R’ Meir Simcha of D’vinsk…[1843-1926; Author of insightful Bible Commtry—MESHECH CHOCHMA]

Torah and faith are the main aspects of being a Jew, and all the sanctities—Eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem and the Temple—are but details of Torah, made sacred only through the holiness of Torah…Do not think that the Temple and its Sanctuary are holy objects in their own right.  Far be it!  God dwells among His people, and if they are like Adam, who violated the covenant, their sanctity is diminished…More than that, even the Tablets, with the writing of God, are not holy in and of themselves, but are so only because of you—if you observe them.  Then, when the bride whored under her bridal canopy [this is indeed a strong Midrashic metaphor referring to the sin of the golden calf by the Israelites]—the tablets were considered as cracked pottery, having no sanctity in the least…In conclusion [and the following should be written in large letters before our eyes]: There is nothing in the world which is holy—no-thing; only God is holy.  Nothing in creation is holy unto itself, only in terms of how we treat it; in regard to the observance of Torah, in accord with God’s Will…


Rabbi Neil GILLMAN …

…The tension between the brothers surfaces in the narrative of the golden calf, but was inherent in their relationship from the very start.  Moses was the prophet, thoroughly and exclusively committed to God, to a demanding, transcendent, incomprehensible Reality.  Aaron was the mediator.  His function was to bring this distant God into the daily life experience of the human community.  But how is it even possible to give a human face to this God without betraying God?

Aaron was also the first High Priest…The very presence of the Sanctuary, the Temple with all its attendant rituals, was very much a visual symbol of God’s Presence within Israel.  Aaron was also known as the one who sought harmony, attracting people to Torah by pursuing peace.  He was God’s supreme mediator.

These thoughts were occasioned by my attendance at a performance of the Met’s production of Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron.  It was an extraordinary experience that transformed my understanding of the golden calf story…

The first words of the opera define Moses’ position: “Only One, Infinite, thou omnipresent One, unperceived and inconceivable God!”  Aaron’s response some moments later is, “Can you love what you dare not even conceive?”

There it is, that unavoidable tension in all human attempts to relate to God.

The problem is, both are right.  Moses is right…for to believe that God can be adapted to the human mind is to commit the sin of idolatry.  It is effectively a betrayal of God.

But Aaron is also right, because how can this absolute God touch and transform human lives?…How can this God be loved by human beings?  In the third act of the opera, Aaron comments: “I was to speak in images while you spoke only in ideas; I was to speak to the heart, you to the mind.”  Both are indispensable.

Schoenberg’s stunning midrashic twist occurs when Moses is coming down from the mountain with the tablets.  In the Bible, Moses shatters the tablets when he beholds the Israelites cavorting around the calf.  Not so for Schoenberg.  He has Moses shattering the tablets when Aaron reminds his brother that these tablets, too, are concrete images of the Torah Moses learned on Sinai.  Even Moses needed an Image to have and to hold.

With this, the opera quickly comes to an end.  Moses is utterly defeated; his last words are “O Word, that word, that I lack.”  Moses realizes he will never find the words to convey what God means to him…We are left, then, with the plaintive cry of a defeated Moses; there simply are no words.

So, too, are we left with this tension.  God is unimaginable; yet we need visual, intellectual, and linguistic representations of this God.  Our ancestors never worshipped the sanctuary or the Temple.  They understood it as a gateway to God.  The cardinal sin is to worship our images as if they were the real thing.  Then we, too, would be building golden calves.                                                     [Traces of God, Gillman, Jewish Lights, 2006, pgs 81-83]


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