The Golden Calf and Worshipping Money
"And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him: Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this man Moses, who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him. And Aaron said to them: Break off your golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them to me. And all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it a molten calf: And they said: These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt."
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language offers a number of definitions for "golden calf." The first definition says it is a golden image of a sacrificial calf fashioned by Aaron and worshipped by the Israelites, and the second definition says it is money as an object of worship; mammon.
The first definition is descriptive of the text and the second definition comes to a surprise to many Jews: this infamous incident in the life of our people is understood as the sin of the worship of money.
Your Torah Navigator
Rabbinic commentary doesn't seem to see this sin as one of greed. Why might others suggest that? Could a root of the anti-Semitic image of Jews as greedy (Shylock) come from this (mis)interpretation of this incident?
Does it matter that the calf was made of gold? What is the role of money in religious life?
Just last week we read (Exodus 25:1-3): "And the Holy One said to Moses saying: Speak to the people of Israel: Bring me offerings; from anyone whose heart desires, you shall take gifts. And these are the gifts you shall take from them: gold and silver and bronze...."
Gold is clearly not a problem here. The Holy One requested that we offer it to build a Mishkan. Beauty and worship have always gone together.
This is not a story of money, but of fear. Where was Moses? Where is "this man" who had disappeared on the mountain 40 days earlier with no food and had not come back? What had happened to him? What would happen to them?
They gave their gold to assuage their fears - to build for themselves a leader, not a God. In Parshat Terumah, God says "they shall build me a holy place and I will dwell among them." Moses, who had spoken God's words to them, had gone. How would they know what to do?
Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman writes:
"They did not ask for a god-calf representing the supreme powers of life and death but merely a substitute for Moses' leadership. [Aaron said:] They only asked me to make them a god who would lead them in your stead since they didn't know what had befallen you, whether you would come back or not. For the meantime while you were still away they required a leader. But once you came back they would forsake it and follow you once more."
And why did Aaron ask them for their gold? Ramban continues: "[Aaron] selected gold... because gold indicates the attribute of justice, its appearance being as the appearance of fire (Ez. 1:27). It is for this reason that the House where the sacrifices were brought was made wholly of gold, as also the altar of incense and the cherubim."
Our search for leadership must always bring us toward justice and truth. By living lives of justice and creating a righteous society we build a place for the Holy One to dwell. May we put our gold to its right use.
Prepared by Rabbi Lina Grazier-Zerbarini; Associate Rabbi, Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Ki Tissa at MyJewishLearning.com.