Ki Tissa

Ki Tissa

The difference between the two sets of tablets that Moshe brings down from Mt. Sinai represent the two completely different spiritual levels that the Jews are on at the time they receive them. The first tablets are described (Shemot 32;15) “They were tablets written on both sides, with the writing visible from either side. The tablets were made by G-d and written with G-d’s script engraved on the tablets”. In contrast, the second tablets are made by Moshe. “Carve out two tablets for yourself, just like the first ones. I will write in those tablets the same words that were on the first tablets that you broke.... Moshe carved out two stone tablets like the first”.

Writing is described as the soul of a book. It needs a physical form, e.g. a scroll or book, to contain it, but it is the words that give inner meaning and purpose to that form. So too with the tablets. Before the sin of the Golden Calf, B’nei Yisrael (Children of Israel) had attained the highest spiritual level. In the forty nine days from the Exodus until Mt. Sinai, they rose up through the forty nine levels of spirituality to reach the level of Adam and Eve before their sin. It was as if their bodies had been directly created by G-d, like those of Adam and Eve. They were therefore able to receive the tablets that had been hewn by G-d Himself. At this level the inner light of the soul permeates the body so thoroughly that it is clearly visible. So too the tablets - the words are visible from either side.

After the episode of the Golden Calf, B’nei Yisrael descended to the level that we remain on today. Our physical bodies are all that we perceive. The only way that we can make the inner light of the soul shine through, is by constantly working on controlling our physical drives and desires, thus elevating our bodies to become a pure vehicle for the soul. This is analogous to the second tablets, which were man made.

We see from this that the way that we are able to receive the Torah is totally dependent upon who we are. In the world of physics it is obvious that a vessel must be suitable for its contents; Pouring boiling hot coffee into a thin plastic cup will melt and destroy the container. What is less obvious is that the same rule also applies in the spiritual realm. For someone to receive Torah at a higher level than that which they themselves are on is destructive. Therefore G-d made the Torah compatible with the spiritual level of the people.

This rule is equally applicable now as it was 3300 years ago when the Torah was given. The Torah is ready and waiting for anybody who cares to seek it. When an individual delves into Torah learning, he or she relives the experience of Mt. Sinai. This is shown in the Halacha regarding the weekly Torah reading. The Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chaim 146;4) states “One doesn’t need to stand while the Torah is being read”, and the Rama adds “There are those who are stringent to stand, and this is what the Maharam did”. The Mishna Brura explains “Even the Maharam agrees that there is no legal obligation to stand, but he holds that it is appropriate to go beyond the letter of the law and stand, because when a person hears the Torah being read he should feel as if he has just received it from Mt. Sinai, and at Mt. Sinai all of Yisrael were standing.”

However, we must make sure that we are suitable vessels to contain the Torah that we learn. If we are not constantly “carving out” our physicality to prepare it as a slate for the Torah to be written on, we run the risk of not being able to contain the Torah that we try to absorb.


One of the most difficult things for a spiritual leader is to remain in touch with his or her people. It is so easy to become drawn into the spiritual realm and leave the physical, material world behind. However in so doing, a leader may become inaccessible and no longer able to relate to others. This was the fear of the people which led to the building of the Golden Calf. “The people gathered themselves together around Aharon, and said to him, “Make us a god who shall go before us, for Moshe, the man, who brought us out of the Land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.” (Exodus 32; 1-2). The people were not abandoning G-d, but thought that Moshe had become lost to them.

They wanted an idol, not as a false god, but to lead them. They saw Moshe enter into the fiery darkness of Mount Sinai and they were afraid that he was no longer able to relate to them as mortals. The Talmud (Shabbat) states that with each utterance of the Ten Commandments the souls of the people would depart, and they had to be revived by angels, and yet Moshe went to speak directly to G-d. The people were concerned that they had lost their intermediary, and no longer had any means of communicating with G-d. Therefore they created a new figurehead for themselves, “to go before them”.

We see that G-d was also concerned that Moshe was losing touch with the physical world, thus becoming unsuitable as a leader. “And G-d spoke to Moshe, ‘Go down, for your people… have become corrupt’” (ibid. 7). Rashi explains that G-d told Moshe to go down from his exalted position, because his eminence is only due to his being the leader of the people. If he is unable lead them he is no longer able to remain before the Divine Presence.
The people chose to make a calf, a domestic beast, because they were looking for a leader to whom they could relate, one who can translate their normal lives into a spiritual experience. A calf is trained to work in the fields, to do the most mundane tasks. That is the sort of leader that the people want and need.

The Torah hints to us why Aharon was the most suitable person to build this intermediary. He was the leader who retained his connection with the material world, despite his exalted spiritual status. The Torah describes Moshe as judging the nation “from morning until evening” (ibid. 27; 13). The Talmud comments on this that though he was not literally judging from morning until night, the Torah ascribes this to him to teach that anyone who judges a case fairly and honestly is considered a partner with G-d in creation, which was also created with day and night.

The S’fas Emes points out that Aharon is also considered a partner in creation. He is to light the Menorah from evening until morning (ibid. 37; 20). However there is a fundamental difference between Moshe’s creation and Aharon’s. Moshe takes the day, the clear revelation of the Torah and the Divine Presence, and brings in down to the level of night, the darkness and confusion of everyday life. Aharon’s function is the opposite; to elevate the world, in the chaos of night, and bring it to the level where it can hear the message of Divine Light. This is why Moshe sits in judgement, dispensing the truths of the Torah to the daily realities of life, whereas Aharon lights the Menorah, elevating the physical and turning it into light.

This is why the people asked Aharon to make the idol for them. They were able to relate better to his method of relating to the physical world and elevating it. They were not afraid that he would forget what it is to be human. Therefore he is the high priest of the idol also. Moshe the man has gone, the nation cry out for a new leader whom they can relate to, to bring them G-d’s message. Aharon is the one with whom they can speak, and the calf represents the physicality of the world, and the baseness of human existence, whereas Moshe represented spirituality. Thus the calf had to be destroyed in order to allow the people to attain the spiritual heights shown to them by Moshe. Though they were not on the same level as Moshe, they had the potential to be so and in order to do this the calf had to be destroyed as it held them back spiritually.


In this week’s Torah portion we read about the sin of the Golden Calf. Many questions can be asked on this topic; how could the nation who heard G-d’s voice and accepted the Torah only a few weeks earlier suddenly rebel against Him and begin to worship idols? However, I want to address the issue of why, of all the idols they could have made, they built a calf. (Look in the Ramban’s commentary to this section for a kabbalistic idea). The simple answer is that they had seen the Egyptians worshipping cows, and were merely imitating the rituals of their former masters. However, it seems strange that having seen what happened to the Egyptians, and knowing that G-d was greater than any of their gods they would chose to revert back to that form of idolatry.

If we look at the words of the Torah we find that the original intent of the Israelites was not to build an idol in place of G-d, but rather in place of Moshe: The people gathered around Aharon and said to him, “Rise up and make for us gods that will go before us, for we know not what has become of this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32; 1). The word Elokim which is translated here as gods is also often used to mean judges, and thus the simple interpretation of this verse is that they want another leader in place of Moshe, who has disappeared. Only after the calf was built did some of the people begin to say that it was in place of G-d.

Moshe had been the one to lead them through the desert, meld them into a nation, and provide them with the Manna (which according to the Talmud fell in the merit of Moshe). When they looked for a suitable substitute they remembered Yosef, who had been the viceroy in Egypt, made Egypt into the superpower of the ancient Middle East, and provided food for the people through his careful planning and storing. He seemed like the perfect person to take over in place of Moshe. The only problem was that he had been dead for over 200 years. However, they were carrying his coffin with them, and they remembered the blessing that Ya’akov had given to Yosef on his death bed. “A charming son is Yosef, a charming son to the eye; the girls stepped the see the rising ox” (Genesis 49; 22). Yosef is associated with the image of an ox. When Moshe wanted to find where his coffin was buried in the Nile, he threw in a piece of parchment containing the words “arise ox” and his coffin rose to the surface. That same piece of parchment was used when they built the Golden Calf to bring it to life. (Midrash Shir HaShirim 1; 11).

However, there was also another side of Yosef that the people tried to capture in their idol, that of youthfulness. He is described several times in the Torah as a na’ar, an adolescent. Yosef throughout his life retained qualities of youthfulness, such as a desire to maintain physical beauty, a belief that nothing is impossible, and the naiveté and honesty which led him to be sold by his brothers in the first place. When Pharaoh elevated Yosef to power he tried to turn him into an ‘adult’ by giving him a new name and identity. Yet as we see from the verse above the girls were still after him, and he retained his charming youthfulness.

The people who built the Calf wanted these qualities in their new leader. Idols often take the form of youthful heroes, with invincible powers. The Talmud also tells us that the main motivation for the Jews to build the Golden Calf was to permit to themselves the sexual liaisons that had been forbidden by the Torah and Moshe. Therefore, they didn’t build an ox as their god, but a calf. The proof that the people were primarily interested in the youthful qualities of the Calf is from the Midrash (Tanchuma 8, quoted in Rashi v. 22) regarding the laws of the red heifer (which we read today as our special Maftir). Symbolically the ‘Cow’ came to atone for the sin of the ‘Calf’ as if to say let the mother come and clean up the mess left by her child. The Calf is the young child, created by the young nation, in their quest to escape from the confining laws they had received at Sinai.

The irony of the situation is that Yosef himself went to great lengths to prevent the Egyptians themselves from worshipping cows. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabti 712) explains that when Yosef told the Egyptians to “Bring your cattle (as payment for the grain)” (Exodus 47; 16) his intent was to wean them from their idols. However, his plan backfired on his descendants, who themselves began to worship the very idol that Yosef had removed from the Egyptians.