Ki Tissa ~ The Golden Calf, Women and Leadership | Adath Israel

Our triennial picks up at the moment of the Golden Calf Incident.

~ Who exactly is involved in the collection of the gold? How long does the process of making the calf itself take? What other things are built?

~ What is Aaron’s role? Can you defend what he does? What does he say to Moshe?

~ How do you see God and Moshe’s dialogue? What does God say to Moshe, and how do you understand it?


The first question – Pirkei deRabi Eliezer is the one who begins explaining to us that the women did not participate in the Golden Calf. How do we know that?

Aaron asks on verse 2 “‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them to me.’ But on verse 3 we read “And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron.” (Pirkei de Rabi Eliezer 45). The midrash imagines what happens next: The women heard (this request), but they were unwilling to give their earrings to their husbands; and they said to them: Y’all desire to make a graven image and a molten image without any power in it to deliver!

And then the midrash has a very powerful, women body positive assertion: The Holy One, blessed be He, gave the women their reward … What reward did He give them in this world? That they should observe the New Moons more stringently than the men, and… they are destined to be renewed like the New Moon.”

Meaning, that as a reward for this the midrash explains a custom that has lost its potency in non-orthodox circles: women are supposed to take an extra day off every month, which is the Rosh Chodesh. That’s why we had a resurgence of Rosh Chodesh groups as a feminine space. The same idea that women were not participants is found in Midrash Tanchuma.

And as we continue reading, Aaron builds an altar. The gold is made into a calf, and the people begin exclaiming “this is the god that took you out of Egypt”. And then Aaron and proclaims something odd “tomorrow is a festival of YHV”H. What do both of those mean? Does Aaron know what’s about to transpire? It is not very clear – as his own role is a strange one, and we see that for even having a role we gets to use the frontlet with “kadosh lAd0nai”, about which we talked last Shabbat. And what possess the people to say such words? Have they forgotten the miracles they saw? Have they forgot the giving of Torah completely?

Another midrash, which is Midrash Tanchuma, on Ki Tisa 19 tries to piece together that and the self-effacing answer of Aaron to Moshe: “Out came this calf”!

The midrash tells this story that among the erev rav, the mixed multitude, were two of Pharaoh’s magicians who enchant the gold. They take also some other things – leftover brick from Egypt and the tablet where Moshe had written the enchantments to take the bones of Yosef from inside the Nile. They mix all this with the gold of the ear rings, and then the calf comes out, actually moving. That is the explanation for Aaron’s “out came this calf”! And then if you imagine being in the same place and thinking the same – a walking calf made of gold is a pretty interesting miracle. So wrongfully they think it is the same thing as the other 10 miracles they saw.

When the Talmud is looking at the leadership of Aharon, the rabbis ask the same question of Moshe: what happened? What did they do that you brought this great sin upon this people?! And the rabbis point out that there is something unexplained – Aaron saw “this” says the text on verse 5. What did he see? The mob had murdered Hur, another of Moshe’s helpers. The Talmud sees a hint in the words “vayiven mizbeach” which we translate as “and he built an altar”. They can be reread as “vayaven mi-zavuah” – meaning, he understood from the slaughter. Who was slaughtered by the mob? Hur, who had protested what the people were trying to do. And so he thinks to himself: better they do this than kill another person, because there is no complete repentance for murder. But the Talmud is not really satisfied with that solution, and closes with a warning: Whoever praises Aaron for this compromise is provoking God (Sanhedrin 7a).

The Talmud comes hard on Aaron because he has been put in a position of leadership and can’t do what is right, and can’t be the true leader that the people require. The people is already anxious – note the first verse: Moshe is taking too long, and they can’t wait. They can’t understand that Moshe is not the one who took them out of Egypt, but God was. And the moment they said “the man Moses, who took us out of Egypt” – Aaron, as a leader, should have been more clear regarding that faulty thought but instead asks for the earrings, trying to buy time so Moshe would come and fix the mess. This midrash also brings the real fear of the people to fore: that Moshe has actually died. That’s why, according to the same Tanchuma, they say “the man Moshe.”

The question of how leadership is supposed to act is such a rabbinic worry that Devarim Rabbah, compiled around year 900, brings a lot of those questions. In a particular acerbic one towards rabbis themselves and the rabbinic hierarchy itself (DR 2:19) the text goes on to say that those at the top have a responsibility towards those at the bottom, and that if the top begins acting wrongfully, the effect trickles down – everyone of them is wrong, clearly, but who is eventually responsible for it all, asks the text? The top person who gave the first bad example. The text goes on to say that integrity is fundamental for leadership, one cannot be a leader telling people not to steal, and stealing himself; not to lend on interest and he himself does that.

Recently we learned how certain people in certain positions were fundamental to prevent our democracy from being completely destroyed – and were it not for the integrity of those people, we would be living in a very different reality. And from what I understand those people were not flaming Republicans or Democrats – they were people who simply had integrity in their jobs.

And that is one of the great aspects of Moshe – he is consistent and has integrity. He is not perfect, of course, and we will talk about this in a different Shabbat. But he is consistent in his love for the Jewish people – when God says “this is your people” he answers back: they are your people too. When God says: I’ll finish them off and begin with you again – he says, no thank you. The last midrash I want you to know of today, and you will be able to read it when I post the sources on the blog, is Shemot Rabbah 43:7. In that particular piece of text, the rabbis imagine what kind of words Moshe used to change God’s mind, besides the “what will the Egyptians think of You” facet.

Integrity ^^^                                

And the rabbis see Moshe telling God – come on, a little more understanding for this people! Master of the universe, where did You bring them? Was it not out of Egypt, where they worship calves? This can be compared with a sage that sets a ship for his son. Where is the shop? In the middle of the red district. What does it sell? Perfumes and make up items. The street plied its trade, the perfume business plied its trade, and the lad, like any young man, plied his natural inclination. When the father came and caught him with prostitutes, he began to shout, “I’ll kill you!” But the sage’s friend was there, and he spoke up. “You yourself ruined your son, and now you are yelling at him! You ignored all other occupations and taught him to be a perfumer; you ignored all other streets and deliberately opened a shop for him in the red light district!” Likewise, Moses said: Master of the Universe, You ignored the entire world and deliberately enslaved Your children in Egypt, where the inhabitants worship calves; and so Your children learned from the Egyptians, and now have even made a calf for themselves. Therefore Moses said, “That You have brought forth from the land of Egypt” – bear in mind from what kind of place You brought them forth.

So in the rabbinic mind, Aaron is not a good leader, and deserves the forever reminder on his forehead. And Moshe, for all his anger and foibles, is the one who stands up against God, and teaches God a thing or two about being human.

May this week be a week of integrity in leadership. May we see it, recognize it, and call it out when it is not happening, in whatever side of the isle we happen to find ourselves in.

Shabbat Shalom.