Ki Tisa (Ramban)
Why Did Aaron Make the Golden Calf?
Most of this week’s parashah is occupied with the traumatic incident of the Golden Calf and its aftermath. It is a difficult chapter to interpret from many viewpoints; among other things, the most obvious question asked by many of the classical exegetes is: How are we to understand what motivated the people to descend into what was offhand forbidden idol worship, and such a short time—forty days—after the overwhelming experience of the Divine Revelation at Sinai? And, in particular, how could Aaron, Moses’ brother and the appointed priest of the exclusive worship of HWYH, facilitate such a thing? Ramban addresses these questions, and at considerable length, near the beginning of the chapters concerning the Calf, offering a rather surprising answer. His comment to Exodus 32:1:
“’…who will go before us.’ They desired many gods, ‘for this man Moses who has taken us up out of the land of Egypt…’ and showed us the way where we should go ‘we do not know what has become of him.’ We now need many gods who will go before us.” Thus Rashi.
His language is not precise; but this passage is a key to understanding the matter of the Calf and the thought of those who made it. For it is known that Israel did not think that Moses was God and that he, with his own power, made wonders and miracles for them. For what reason would there be for them to say once Moses had gone, “Let us make ourselves a god” (32:1)? Moreover, they explicitly said, “a god who will go before us”—not one who would give them life in this world or the next; rather, they asked for another Moses. They said: Moses, who showed us the way from Egypt to here—for their travels were according to the Lord by the hand of Moses—is lost to us. Let us make another Moses, who will show the path before us according to God by his hand. And this is the reason for their mentioning “this man Moses who took us up”—not the God who took us up, for they needed a man of God.
Ramban notices here a kind of contradiction in this opening verse: Why would the people say, “Come, make us a god” when what bothered them was the absence of “the man” Moses? The answer is that they did not mean “god” in the usual sense, but rather a leader, a guide, perhaps even a kind of oracle, who would show them the way to go and take them through the difficulties of wandering in the wilderness. Hence, neither they nor Aaron were guilty of idolatry in the usual sense of the word. He elaborates on this in the next two paragraphs:
And you may also understand this from Aaron’s answer to [the question of] Moses our Teacher: “What has this people done to you that you have brought upon it such a great sin?” (below, v. 21). To which he answered: “They said to me, ‘Come, make us a god…’ And he added: ‘Let he who has gold take it off and give it to me; and I cast it into the fire” (vv. 23-24). And Aaron apologizes to Moses, saying “be not wrath“ (v. 22). And [offhand] he would seem to be adding sin to his transgression [i.e., augmenting his sin], for [it was as if] he was to say: They wanted an object of idolatry and I made it for them with my own hands. Why should [Moses] not be furious with him? What greater sin could there be than that?!
But the matter is as I have said: that they did not want the calf as a god who gives life and death and to accept its divine service upon themselves, but they wished it to be in place of Moses, their teacher of the way—and this was Aaron’s apology. He argued [in Ramban’s words]: “They only told me to make a god who would walk before them in your place, O master, for they did not know what had become of you and whether or not you would return. Therefore they needed one who would show them the way, so long as you would not be with them, but if you would return they would abandon it and follow you as they did.” And thus it was, for as soon as the people saw Moses they immediately left the calf and despised it, allowing him to burn it and to sprinkle its dust upon the water, and no one dissented from him at all. And you shall see that he did not rebuke them and did not say anything to them, but as soon as he came into the camp and saw the calf and the dances (below, v. 19), they immediately fled from it. And he took the calf and burned it and gave it to them to drink, and they did refuse this at all. But had it been their god, there is no way that a person would allow his king and god to be burned in fire; would he burn their abomination before their eyes and they not stone him?! (an ironic paraphrase of Exod 8:22). But it was Aaron who brought out [i.e., fashioned] this form, because they did not tell him what to make—an ox or a sheep or a goat or the like. And this what is meant by the saying of the Sages: “This teaches that they desired many gods” (Sanhedrin 63a)—that they did not know what they would choose and what would seem good to them.
Ramban now turns to another, deeper question: Why did Aaron choose to make a calf, specifically?
And Aaron’s intention was that, because Israel was in the parched and desolate desert, and destruction and desolation come from the north, as is said, “From the north the evil shall come to all the inhabitants of the land” (Jer 1:14). And this does not refer to the king of Babylon alone, as might seem from the literal meaning of the verse, but that from the left side (in Biblical thought, the north is identified with the left-hand side, which it is if one is facing east) the attribute of Stern Judgment comes to the world, to punish all the inhabitants of the earth according to their wickedness. And in the account of the Chariot, it says “and the face of the ox was on the left of the four” (Ezek 1:10); therefore Aaron thought that the Destroyer would show the way to [through?] the place of destruction, for there his strength is great. But as they were serving God there, He would pour out His spirit from on high (after Isa 32:15) as it had emanated upon Moses; and this is what he meant when he said “there shall be a festival to the Lord tomorrow” (v. 5)—that the worship and sacrifices would be for the sake of the Unique Name, to elicit His grace upon the master of the form, for when it was before them they would have intention towards its matter.
He offers an answer rooted in an intricate weave of symbolic, Kabbalistic thinking: the ox (or the calf, the young of the bovine species), being located on the “left side” of the Merkavah, the Divine Chariot seen by Ezekiel, which is taken as an archetypal Divine structure, is associated with the attribute of Din: Harsh Judgment, or destructive powers generally. The desert, as a desolate, lifeless place, is dominated by such forces (“satyrs dance there”). But by worshipping God through the symbol of the ox/calf, one somehow arouses those Divine forces which can neutralize and counter these negative powers. (In several places Ramban mentions these destructive forces, and the need to combat them, or even “bribe“ them, on a metaphysical plane; compare his comments about the sending of the goat “for Azazel” into the wilderness in the Yom Kippur atonement ritual in his comment on Lev 16:8, which I briefly discuss in HY XII: Yom Kippur [=Individual & Community].) He concludes here with two midrashic passages that support his thesis and, at the very end, in a section which I have not translated here, mentions an astrological comment of Ibn Ezra, which he dismisses:
And our Rabbis taught us this matter, and revealed its secret, saying (Exodus Rabbah 43.8, with variants): “’I have surely seen the suffering of my people’ [Exod 3:7]. The Holy One blessed be He said to Moses, ‘Moses: you have seen with one seeing, and I see with two seeings. You see them coming to Sinai and receiving the Torah, and I see how they contemplate Me when I go forth in My Chariot to give them the Torah, as is said ‘God’s chariot, myriads upon myriads, thousands upon thousands [the Lord is with them at Sinai in holiness]’ (Ps 68:18), and they release one of My tetramolin, as is said, ‘And the face of the ox to the left’ and anger Me with it.” Tetromolin means “four mules”: tetra in Greek means four, and molin means mules, as in “the mul’ot of the house of Rabbi”—i.e., a metaphor for the four creatures carrying the Divine Chariot.
And in Leviticus Rabbah (10.3) it says that Aaron said: “As I am building [i.e., fashioning] it, I build it for His name, may He be blessed, as is said, ‘And Aaron called out and said: There will be a festival for the Lord tomorrow’ (v. 5). It does not say, ‘a festival for the calf’ but ‘for the Lord.’” ….
A few afterthoughts relating to Purim: 1. My hevruta, Yehudah Gellman, raised the issue of the historicity of Purim, insisting that Purim be better understood in a non-literal and non-historic, archetypal manner (To this I would add that, in light of the fact that there are certain circles in Israel for whom this holiday becomes an excuse for venting generalized anti-Arab sentiments, this becomes all the more urgent). I would agree; the only question is: what archetypal reading seems most correct?
My hevruta suggests seeing it in terms of the struggle with the “Amalek within”: i.e., the Yetzer ha-Ra, or Evil Urge. But if so, I would relate it to a very specific kind of Yetzer Ha-Ra: not that of eroticism, which is what Hazal most often have in mind when the speak of the Yetzer, because the erotic is also constructive, being the root if all creativity, in addition to being the source of sexual love, and as such of new life. Rather, I think of the “inner Yetzer of Amalek” in terms of the forces of blind hatred, violence, Middat ha-Din gone awry—that which destroys for the sake of destruction, what Freud identified with Thanatos. This is also the salient characteristic of anti-Semitism, and more generally of all hatred of the Other. But why Purim? He writes: “There are two ways to attack the Yetzer: the harsh one is to take it seriously, that is, Yom Kippur. The other way is to make fun of it, how ridiculous it is, how silly it acts.”
An alternative way is to see Purim as a time for opening one’s eyes and seeing God’s presence within the depths of the secular, the mundane, the seemingly random, chance, unredeemed world. This is closer to what many Hasidic books teach, as we have discussed here many time in the past. Even if the Purim story is not true literally, it is true existentially—and it need not be an occasion fir moralizing of any kind, heavy or light.
2. If God is present in the Megillah, as in the Rabbinic doctrine that the word hamelekh alludes to “the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He,” can we read certain specific verses as allusions to human-Divine relations? Everyone knows that “On that night the king’s sleep was disturbed” (6:1) is seen as alluding to God as well as to Ahasuerus; indeed, it is a widespread custom to read that verse with a High Holy Days melody. But what about: “Any man or woman who comes into the inner courtyard without being called is put to death, unless the king stretches forward his golden staff” (4:11)—as alluding to the dangers involved in attempting to approach God, in seeking mystical or prophetic visions or “ascents”? Or the seemingly arbitrary nature of those to whom God admits to His intimacy? Or that “A law made by the king, and sealed with the royal seal, cannot be reversed” (8:8) as alluding to Torah, and the king granting his authority to Esther and Mordecai—as a metaphor for Oral Torah and the power of the Sages to reinterpret laws in a broad way? (Needless to say, all this is by way of fanciful speculation, and not intended as serious exegesis.)
3. Some thoughts about the haftarah for Parshat Zakhor (about which I wrote at length in HY II: Terumah and Tetzaveh [=Haftarot], when it was read two consecutive weeks in Jerusalem, when Shushan Purim fell on Shabbat). This haftarah is a central, axial chapter in 1 Samuel, Until that point, the book is dominated by the tension between Samuel and God and Saul , regarding both the institution of the monarchy in general, and Saul’s leadership, in particular. Here, in Chapter 15, he is definitively ousted. The second half of the book is about the choice of David as his successor, the rivalry between the two, Shaul’s growing paranoia, ending with his desperate turning to the witch of Ein-Dor to raise Samuel from the dead (against his own supposed religious principles), and his and Jonathan’s death on the battlefield in Gilboa.
The chapter itself is interesting in several respects. Saul uses will of people, the vox populus, as an excuse for his preserving the best of the flock and the herd. Moreover, he honestly thinks that he is thereby serving God, by offering him the choicest animals as sacrifices. But Shmuel is unforgiving, and gives him no opportunity for teshuvah. Finally, 15:23 is interesting: “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” This verse is among those quoted by the classical Reform and others who invoke “prophetic Judaism” and “ethical monotheism.” But, ironically, he is talking here about killing people, and the chapter ends with Samuel slitting Agag‘s throat, thereby personifying the bitterness of death. What shall w make of this?