Parashat Ki Tisa- The Root of the Golden Calf
Parashat Ki-Tisa tells the unfortunate story of Het Ha’egel – the sin of the golden calf. We read that Moshe Rabbenu did not return from the top of Mount Sinai at the time Beneh Yisrael expected him to, and they came to Aharon and demanded that he make for them an idol.
In studying this section, we should approach the subject the way a doctor treats a patient. When a patient comes and describes his symptoms, the doctor’s job is to try to collect enough information to identify the root cause of the problem, what it is that makes the patient feel unwell. Similarly, as we approach the sin of the golden calf, we cannot simply learn what the people did wrong. This is clear from the text – they made a golden calf and bowed to it. The more difficult question is why and how this happened. What flaw in Beneh Yisrael’s character led them to this grievous sin?
The clue might be found in the Torah’s description of the people coming to Aharon. The Torah writes (32:1), “Va’yikahel Ha’am al Aharon” – which in contemporary jargon would be translated as, “The people ganged up on Aharon.” They did not approach him and respectfully ask that he make for them an idol. They stormed his office, so-to-speak, with gall and audacity. Aharon was the leader of the people already in Egypt, for many years, and together with Moshe he confronted Pharaoh numerous times on their behalf. But the people spoke to him without shame and without respect, forcing him to build an idol for them.
This was the root cause of the golden calf – a lack of shame. The Talmud teaches that shame is one of the three defining characteristics of Am Yisrael, along with compassion and kindness. Shame means an element of uneasiness and discomfort that prevents us from doing whatever want and from calling attention to ourselves. Beneh Yisrael’s angry assault on Aharon at Mount Sinai revealed a lack of shame, an audaciousness that was unbecoming of G-d’s people, and this is what caused the sin of the golden calf.
This explains why Moshe, after successfully pleading on the people’s behalf after the sin, placed a “Masveh” – “veil” – on his face to conceal the radiance that shone from him. Moshe covered his face like a bride, who wears a veil as a sign of humility and privacy. Moshe wanted to remind the people of the mistake they made, of the need to conduct themselves with humility and dignity, as this would prevent them from grave sins like the golden calf.
Earlier, in Parashat Teruma, we read about the construction of the Mishkan, which was covered with several layers of cloths. The Torah tells that the second layer was longer than the bottom layer, and the excess material draped over the entrance to the Mishkan. Rashi (26:9) comments that the Mishkan thus resembled a “modest bride” who covers her face. The veil worn by Moshe reminded the people of the message of the “veil” hanging over the Mishkan’s “face.” The ideal of Kedusha represented by the Mishkan requires this quality of modesty and shame, acting with discretion and living with a degree of embarrassment that controls a person’s conduct. Of course, the Torah does not encourage us to be so uncomfortable with ourselves that we cannot function. It does, however, demand that we live with humility, with a sense of meekness that causes us to speak and act with dignity and respect.
The culture in which we live has all but rejected the ideal of shame. In our society, people are encouraged to call as much attention to themselves as possible, even through outlandish and grotesque behavior. Meekness and humility are seen as signs of weakness, when in truth they are signs of strength and nobility. We, Am Yisrael, are to be “Bayshanim,” leading our lives in a dignified and humble manner, and in this way we correct the mistake made by our ancestors and become worthy of having G-d’s presence among us.