The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
parasha series is dedicated
Le-zekher Nishmat HaRabanit Chana bat HaRav Yehuda Zelig zt"l.
parasha series is dedicated
in honor of Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Rabbi Elchanan Samet.
THE IDEOLOGICAL FOUNDATIONS
OF THE SIN OF THE GOLDEN CALF
A. "While the King was reclining at his board, my spikenard gave off
its fragrance" (Shir ha-Shirim 1:12)
The Gemara quotes the words of the Sage Ulla,
referring - according to Rashi - to the sin of the
"Ulla said: Disgraceful is the bride who
prostitutes herself under her wedding canopy. Rav Mari the son of Shemuel's daughter said, "While the king was reclining
at his board, my spikenard gave off its fragrance."" (Gittin 36b)
"'Who prostitutes herself under her very
wedding canopy' - while the Divine Presence and Israel were still at Sinai,
they made the golden calf..." (Rashi ibid.)
Indeed, this episode is exceedingly difficult to understand. After all the
signs and wonders in Egypt, after the splitting of the Red Sea and the level of
faith in God and in Moshe that the nation attained in the wake of that
miraculous event, and after the climactic experience of the Revelation at Sinai,
with the entire nation "seeing the sounds and the lightning" - how
could they degenerate so quickly, while still stationed at the very same spot,
to such base idolatry? How can we explain the dramatic change that came over Am
Yisrael, from hearing "I am the Lord your God Who brought you out
of the land of Egypt," to crying out, "This is your god, O Israel,
who brought you up from the land of Egypt?"
In this shiur we shall attempt to answer this question.
B. "I KNEW THAT THEY WERE KERUVIM"
First, we must examine the wondrous visions of the prophet Yechezkel.
Yechezkel was the only one among all the prophets
who saw God's "chariot," "carrying" the Divine Presence
from place to place. This chariot is described in great detail in chapter 1 of Yechezkel: it includes four creatures, each with four
faces; they have wheels beneath them and a firmament over them, and above the
firmament - a throne, and upon it "a form with the likeness of a man upon
it, above... this was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God"
(Yechezkel 1:26-28). However, while chapter 1
gives the impression that the vision that Yechezkel
saw was simply that of God's Throne, later on we discover that he sees not only
the Throne, but also the chariot - symbolizing the exile of the Divine
Presence. In chapter 10 we find the terrible prophecy of God going away from
the place above the keruvim in the Temple, to
the chariot that bears the Divine Presence eastward. Towards the end of the
book, in chapter 43, at the center of the concluding prophecies of redemption, Yechezkel describes the return of the Divine Presence, in
the same chariot, back to the Temple.
For the purposes of our discussion, attention should be paid to the
creatures that stand at the base of the chariot. In chapter 1, Yechezkel calls them "creatures" (chayot), while in chapter 10 he refers to them as
"keruvim." If we compare the faces
of the creatures in chapter 1 with those of the keruvim
in chapter 10, one difference stands out starkly:
(1:10) The face of a MAN, the face of a LION, the
face of an OX, the face of an EAGLE
(10:14) The face of a KERUV, the face of a
MAN, the face of a LION, the face of an EAGLE
This comparison teaches us several things:
a. "Keruv" = ox. This
understanding has solid linguistic substantiation: the ox is the classic
plowing beast, and 'plowing' in Aramaic is known as "karba"
(sharing the same root as the Hebrew word "keruv").
b. As noted, in chapter 10 all four of the creatures are called "keruvim." Hence, God's chariot in fact rests
upon four oxen, each of which has four faces.
c. The "transfer" or "moving away" of the Divine
Presence, described in chapter 10, is simply a move from one set of keruvim to a different set of keruvim:
from the stationary keruvim that adorn the
Temple, to the "mobile" keruvim that
carry the Divine Presence eastward. At first, "The glory of the God of
Israel rose above the keruv upon which it was,
to the threshold of the House" (Yechezkel
9:3), and then "The glory of God went out from above the threshold of the
House, and stood over the keruvim" (Yechezkel 10:18). Only in the wake of this
transition does Yechezkel understand that the
creatures that he saw in chapter 1 are actually oxen - keruvim
- whose symbolic function is to move the Divine Presence from place to place:
"This was the creature that I had seen
beneath the God of Israel at the River Kevar, and I
knew that they were keruvim" (10:20).
C. UNDER HIS FEET WAS A KIND OF PAVED WORK OF SAPPHIRE STONE, LIKE THE VERY
HEAVEN FOR CLARITY"
Let us now return to Benei Yisrael
encamped in the wilderness of Sinai, facing the mountain. At the end of Parashat Mishpatim
we read another description of the Revelation at Sinai, in which Benei Yisrael merited to see God's Throne:
"They saw the God of Israel, and under His
feet was a kind of paved work of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for
This description brings to mind the vision described in Yechezkel
chapter 1. There we read of a firmament above the creatures which are at the
center of the chariot, "and above the firmament that was over their heads
- a kind of vision of sapphire stone in the form of a Throne" (Yechezkel 1:26). Benei
Yisrael, then, saw God's Throne - the same Throne that rests upon the
four keruvim. Indeed, Ibn
"Here [in Parashat
Mishpatim] it is written, 'They saw the God of
Israel', while there [in Sefer Yechezkel] - 'This was the creature that I had seen
beneath the God of Israel'. For he grasped this intuitively, for it was beneath
the firmament, which was also beneath the Throne, and all of it beneath the
Holy God" (Ibn Ezra on 24:10).
This interpretation sheds altogether new light on the story of the golden
calf. At the end of Parashat Mishpatim, Benei Yisrael
already saw God seated upon oxen. Now, after Moshe had ascended the mountain
and was late - by their calculations - in returning, the nation demanded of
Aharon that he return the Divine Presence to them, so that it could go before
them. Therefore Aharon built them a new "chariot," fashioned in the
mold of the chariot that they had already seen:
"They made a calf at Chorev and bowed down
to a molten image. They exchanged their glory [according to Chazal,
the verse implies "MY glory"] for the form of an ox that eats
grass" (Tehillim 106:19-20).
From Aharon's point of view, the calf was never
intended to serve an idolatrous purpose; he himself declares, "There will
be a festival FOR GOD tomorrow" (32:2). Aharon's
sin lay in the artificial attempt to "bring down" the Divine Presence
on the back of a keruv-ox, by means of a
"do-it-yourself" calf, instead of waiting for the Divine Presence
itself to choose its seat and location.
However, it seems that the nation misunderstood Aharon's
intention. At first, when we read that they called out, "This is your god,
O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt," we are still not
sure whether they were pointing to the calf itself or rather to somewhere above
the calf, to the place of the seat upon which the Divine Presence was supposed
to descend; perhaps it was in reference to that spot that they called,
"This is your God, O Israel." But later on it becomes apparent that
at least the majority of the nation, remembering the keruvim
and the Throne from the Revelation at Sinai, confused the seat with that which
was supposed to be upon it:
"They have turned aside quickly from the
path which I commanded them and have made for themselves a molten calf, and
they have bowed down to it and have offered to it, and said: This is your god,
O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt."(32:8)
D. "I SHALL MEET WITH YOU THERE, FROM BETWEEN THE TWO KERUVIM"
As we know, there is a controversy among the commentators as to whether the
command concerning the building of the mishkan
preceded the sin of the golden calf or whether the parshiyot
are recorded in their chronological order, such that the mishkan
command came about only after the sin. To Rashi's
view "There is no chronological order in the Torah; the episode of the
calf preceded the command concerning the mishkan
by a long time" (31:18). Ramban, in contrast,
maintains that "In accordance with the literal text, Moshe was commanded
concerning the construction of the mishkan
before the sin of the golden calf" (Vayikra
Much has been written about the spiritual significance of this controversy
(see Nechama Leibowitz;
"New Studies on Sefer Shemot, pp. 337-343), which boils down to the question
of whether the mishkan was 'le-khatchila' (the original Divine ideal) or 'bedi'avad' (a post-facto concession or compromise).
Either way, the connection between the sin of the golden calf and the mishkan is clear. In the mishkan,
once again, we find the keruvim serving as the
basis of God's seat:
"I will meet with you there, and I will
speak with you - from above the covering, from between the two keruvim which are upon the Ark of Testimony - of all
that I shall command you to pass on to Benei Yisrael"
In other words, even though the sin of the golden calf arose, initially,
from a blurring of the distinction between the tangible seat and its spiritual
"occupant," in the process of 'tikkun'
(repair) for this sin God did not choose to obliterate His seat. For the
future, too, Am Yisrael is required to remember the difference
between the Throne and He Who sits upon it.
The nation still needs tangible symbols to express the manifestation of the
metaphysical Divine Presence, but the limits are clear; there are, admittedly, keruvim, but Am Yisrael is not
permitted to see them. The only person who sees the keruvim,
on one day in the year, is none other than Aharon. It is specifically Aharon
who, despite his sin - which we have explained above - was able to distinguish
between the Throne and the "festival to God," is able to enter the
Holy of Holies without fear, with the knowledge that the Ultimate Essence is to
be found above the Ark covering, BETWEEN the two keruvim.
E. "HE MADE TWO GOLDEN CALVES..."
It seems that there are no perfect solutions. Many generations internalized
the message of the sin of the golden calf, until Yeravam
ben Nevat came along and
caused the nation to sin.
In Sefer Melakhim I we read that Rechavam ruled over Jerusalem and the Temple. Yeravam worried that "If this entire nation goes up to
offer sacrifices in God's House in Jerusalem, then the heart of this nation
will return to their master, to Rechavam, King of
Yehuda, and they will kill me and return to Rechavam,
King of Yehuda" (Melakhim I 12:27). Therefore, Yeravam
decides to place two gold calves at the country's borders - one in Dan, in the
north, and the other in Beit El, in the south. Then he declares, once again:
"You have ascended enough to Jerusalem; here
are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt" (Melakhim
A profound ideological intention underlies Yeravam's
act. The nation has already become accustomed to the fact that God rests
between two keruvim. For this reason Yeravam does not suffice with one calf-keruv,
but rather fashions two. The significance of placing these keruvim
at the borders of Israel is an expansion of the area in which the Divine
Presence is manifest. Instead of the Divine Presence dwelling between the two keruvim in the Temple, it will henceforth rest
between the two calves in the north and in the south - i.e., throughout the
borders of Israel. Thus Yeravam sought to attain his
true objective: that the nation would cease to view Jerusalem and the Temple as
the place of God's Presence; instead, they would perceive the entire land of
Israel as the place where God rests His glory. It is also possible that when Yeravam declared, "This is your God [or 'these are
your gods'] who brought you up from the land of Egypt," he was not
pointing to the calves, but rather to the expanse between them.
But what happened to Aharon when he fashioned the calf, happened also to Yeravam when he fashioned the two calves:
"This thing became a sin, and the people
went [to worship] before the one as far as Dan" (Melakhim I 12:30).
The nation once again failed to distinguish the calves from what they were
meant to symbolize. Exactly the same sin repeats itself, and instead of serving
God - even in a way that was intentionally wrong - Am Yisrael
soon began serving the calves themselves: "To offer sacrifices to the
calves which he had made" (Melakhim I 12:32). This was Yeravam's sin, and it led all of Israel to sin along with
The failure to distinguish between the means and the end, between the
tangible and the abstract, between the symbolic and the essential, stands at
the root of Israel's sins throughout all of Tanakh.
This phenomenon finds expression in the distorted relationship towards the Mikdash and the sacrifices, towards the king and the
royalty, and towards the different paths in understanding Divine service. But
eventually, promises the prophet, when the Day of God arrives and God's
Kingship is revealed to the entire world, then all will realize that all
actions of mortal man have no tangible value or meaning:
"Man's loftiness will be bowed, and man's
haughtiness shall be brought low, and God alone will be exalted on that
day" (Yishayahu 2:17)
Translated by Kaeren Fish