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Home » Ki Tisa

Ki Tisa : A Golden Intermediary

Submitted by on February 20, 2005 – 9:47 pmNo Comment | 2,461 views

The Dilemma 

It was a tense moment. Moses had climbed mount Sinai and had promised to return in forty days. It was now the fortieth day and there was no sign of his return. The people had been skeptical about his survival on the mountain with no food or water but had not dared question him. Moses had a reputation of G-dliness and they knew him as a miracle worker. (1)

They watched him smite the Egyptians and part the Reed Sea. They followed him through an uncharted desert where he delivered manna from heaven and water from a stone. They saw him stand unflinching on the mountain as G-d’s awesome presence descended. If Moses said he would survive, he would be given the benefit of the doubt. But he should have been back by then and had not yet returned. Was he still alive?

They turned to Aaron, knowing that he, too, was a G-dly person, destined for the high priesthood, and beseeched him to “make for us a G-d.” Aaron complied and fashioned a golden calf, which they promptly worshipped. (2)

This was an astounding betrayal of the second Commandment, “Thou shall have no other G-ds but me,” (3) within forty days of its issuance. The multitudes were led to idolatry by rabble-rousers, but why did Aaron join in the sin? Most pointedly, one might ask, if our ancestors sought to replace Moses, why did they replace G-d?

A Corporeal Intermediary

Our ancestors were, in fact, not guilty of idolatry but of making a corporeal image of G-d, which is also prohibited but is not on par with idolatry. a golden intermediaryThis behavior, though inexcusable, was, due to the circumstances, eminently understandable. (4)

Our ancestors lived in a world where heathen cultures related only to corporeal forms of deity. They believed that man cannot relate directly to an intangible G-d but must pay homage to him, and win his grace. Man must therefore put up objects of his own choosing that represent his highest idea of the world-directing, G-dhead. These objects would then be invested by the Almighty with G-dliness and become the bearers of man’s fate.

Our ancestors, well schooled in the Abrahamic belief in an omnipresent, incorporeal G-d, were still influenced by surrounding cultures. Contrary to the heathens, they did believe that man could relate to an incorporeal G-d but they clung to the notion that a concrete tangible link is required.

G-d’s corporeal vestments seemingly justified this contention. The Divine presence often dwelled in tangible, or at least visible, symbols and, indeed, artifacts. At the Reed Sea it was Moses’ staff, at Sinai it was a cloud of glory, in the tabernacle it would be a sacred ark and its extending cherubs. The people saw these accouterments as deified links between an incorporeal G-d and a physical people. (5)

After their Sinai experience they looked to Moses as the primary intermediary. When G-d uttered the commandments the people found the experience overwhelming. They asked Moses to stand as their intermediary and transmit G-d’s message to them. They saw Moses as endowed with deified properties and perceived in him a link to the true G-dhead, creator of heaven and earth.

Rather than G-d, they saw their intermediary as the initiative for revelation. For them, it was not G-d who had brought them out of Egypt by means of Moses, but Moses who had influenced G-d to redeem them. They had not yet absorbed the Jewish concept that man has direct access to G-d but it is G-d, not man, who established the actions and instruments via which He can be reached. (6)

A Physical Object

When they thought Moses died, it appeared crucial that a replacement be found. Without one there would be no further access to G-d and no method of securing his grace. But this time they sought a physical object rather then a living human.

Physical objects, they reasoned, can be safely preserved; they don’t walk away and disappear as Moses did. (7)

Aaron’s Role

Aaron understood that they were wrong but recognized that if he refused or rebuked them, they would proceed on their own with unrestricted license. (8) He decided to engage them and draw out the process so as to gain a little time. He knew full well that Moses would soon return.

He first demanded that they remove their gold earrings, which the people promptly did. (9) After melting down the gold Aaron embarked on the pain staking process of designing and carving out a calf. (10) For this purpose he used an engraving tool and adorned the calf with beautiful images. (11)

Upon completion of the calf, he set about building an altar for it. Insisting that only the high priest may build G-d’s altar, he refused all help and painstakingly built it through the night. Fully expecting that Moses would return in the morning, Aaron underestimated the people’s zeal. They woke early in the morning and, with Aaron still asleep, (12) deified the calf and worshipped it.

Only a handful of Jews were guilty of idolatry that morning by actually declaring the calf to be “the G-d of Israel.” (13) Most were only guilty of deifying a physical object in their quest for a link to G-d. As soon as Moses returned, their need for the calf was obviated and they did not rebel when Moses destroyed it. (14) (15)

The Tabernacle

The tabernacle succeeded where the calf failed because physical objects become sacred only when they are so designated by G-d. Unlike the calf, the tabernacle was chosen at G-d’s behest and therefore became sacred.


  1. Exodus 32, 1. See Commentary of Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki Troyes 1040-1105) Abarbenel (Don Yitzchak Abrabanel- Spain-1437-1508) and Malbim, (Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, Russia 1809-1879).
  2. Exodus 32. 2-6
  3. Exodus 20, 3-5
  4. This concept was first proposed by R. Yhudah Halevi (Spain 1075  –1141) in his philosophical treatise the Kuzari and elaborated upon by later commentators such as Ibn Izra, (R.Avraham Ibn Ezra – Spain- 1089-1167) Ramban, (R. Moshe Ben Nachman, Spain 1194-1270). R. Bachye, (R. Bachya ben Asher, 1255-1340 Saragossa, Spain,) Abarbenel, (Don Yitzchak Abrabanel- Spain-1437-1508) Malbim, (Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, Russia 1809-1879) Kli Yakar, (R. Ephraim Shlomo of Luntshitz, 1550-1619) Orach Chayim R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (Frankfurt -1808-1888) and others.
  5. Their mistake was that those objects had been chosen by G-d to become a vehicle for his manifestation. Man may, however, not choose his own vehicle, let alone endow it with divine properties, and appoint it a link to G-d.
  6. See R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on the story
  7. This may explain why they asked for a “leader who will walk before us,” not one who climbed mountains and walked away from them as Moses did. This may also explain why they didn’t ask Aaron to succeed his brother. See Abarbenel commentary to the story
  8. Furthermore they may even have killed him (Aaron) as they killed Chur, Aaron’s nephew, when he rebuked them. While Aaron did not fear a noble death in sanctification of G-d, he was concerned for the people’s guilt and the inevitable punishment that would follow.
  9. This was also in subtle reproof. The ears that were adorned with the golden opportunity to listen to the Ten Commandments should not now betray them. See Malbim Commentary to the story.
  10. Several reasons are offered for his choice of a calf. Here are but a few. Ibn Izra argues that it was an arbitrary choice. Anything would have worked as long as it was a physical frame endowed with G-d’s glory. Ramban argues (based on Midrash Rabbah Exodus 3,3) that it represented the northern face of Ezekial’s prophetic chariot, which was that of an ox. Our tradition is that evil stems from the north and by utilizing the ox face on the northern side of the Chariot, Aaron invoked a counterbalance to the forces of evil. Isaac Raphael Hirsch understood the calf as a weaker version of the ox. The ox, a beast that places himself in the service of man, is a proper allegory for a link that would place itself in the service of man’s devotion to G-d.
  11. This follows Rashi’s second translation for the word Bacheret in verse 4. Abarbenel, and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch among others follow this translation. See Malbim for a somewhat different understanding. However, most commentaries follow the Mirdashic tradition that the calf miraculously appeared from the fire. See Midrash Tanchumah Ki Tisa 19 and a slightly different version in Pirkei D R. Eliezer ch. 45
  12. See Abarbenel and Malbim commentary to the story
  13. Shemos Rabbah 42 6 explains that the impetus for the switch from a link to outright idolatry were the Mixed Multitudes, the Egyptians who joined our ancestors when they left Egypt. Nevertheless the commentators agree that the three thousand men who were later executed by the tribe of Levi (less then half a percent of the Jewish population) were Jewish men who were influenced by the Egyptians.
  14. See Nachmanidies’s Commentary to the story.
  15. These Jews were still deserving of punishment for theirs was a heathen approach. Man must not represent G-d in corporeal form, thereby bringing G-d closer to him but subordinate the whole of his being to G-d, thereby bringing himself closer to G-d.