“Come, let us make Elohim that shall go before us, because this man Moses […] we don’t know what has become of him.” So begins the story of the golden calf. The word “Elohim” is a plural form of God. “Let us make new gods!” the Israelites declare. These are people who just watched an ocean split in half, saw food rain from the sky, watched a pillar of fire and clouds guide them. Did they REALLY decide, after witnessing all this, to go with another god?!
Sometimes Elohim can mean ‘God,’ (Gen 1:26), elsewhere ‘gods,’ (Samuel 28:13), or even ‘lords’ (Ex 12:12). Maimonides says, “the term Elohim is a homonym, denoting God, angels, judges, and the rulers of countries…” Taking the last meaning, the Israelites’ actions become clearer – their ruler (Moses) is missing, and they need connection to the one that led them out of Egypt. So they build an idol. Misguided, yes, but not senseless.
There’s a natural human urge when times are trying or confusing, when we don’t know what the next step is: we look for a new ideal or new leader – we try to find new ‘Elohim.’ The moments we lose faith in our guides are our most vulnerable. That’s when we risk creating “false gods.” We live in uncertain times, but Ki Tisa encourages us to not let our uncertainty drive us to rash action. “The whole of Judaism,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “is an extended seminar in individual and collective responsibility.”
Director of Jewish Student Life
University of Arizona Hillel