This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11-34:35.
Ki Tisa is full of fascinating details concerning building the mishkan and its components, receiving the second set of inscribed tablets and the revealing of God’s 13 attributes. But this parshah is known primarily for the sin of the molten calf (usually known as the Golden Calf, although that term is not used in the Torah).
The molten calf story is the sole topic of Chapter 32. But with the first words of Chapter 33, it is treated as a thing of the past, not mentioned again until Moshe retells a much abbreviated version in Deuteronomy, while he is reviewing the history of the past 40 years.
This event is often seen as the quintessential sin of the Jewish people, but such a view greatly distorts the facts. Here is a people, who for 400 years lived in slavery in a polytheistic society, and who had fled not three months before to seek their religious and political freedom.
True, they had heard God deliver the Ten Commandments 40 days before, but the Torah really says they heard thunder (19:19: “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking…”) And even if, as some commentators have construed those words, they did clearly hear the commandment against idolatry, they only heard it once.
Would this single experience be sufficient to override 20 generations of life in Egypt? Absolutely not! As we know, slavery does long-term damage to a people’s identity.
I would also argue that the rest of the Bible supports this assessment. The Torah goes on to tell how the people built the mishkan with remarkable generosity and devotion. In the books of the Prophets, the molten calf error is never mentioned, and the Prophets were certainly never slow to be critical.
And the event gets but a single sentence in the Writings, in Nehemia, 9:18: “Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, ‘This is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt.’”
The rabbis of the Talmud occasionally use it as a admonishment, perhaps nowhere more harshly than in Sanhedrin 102a: “R. Isaac said: ‘There is not a misfortune that Israel has suffered which is not partly a retribution for the sin of the calf,’” but generally it is not something that elicits much attention.
Early Christian anti-Jewish polemics, not Jewish guilt, is what elevated this event to its “unforgivable sin” status, using it as “proof” that the Jews broke the covenant immediately, and it was never restored.
Still, this forced the hand of medieval rabbis to constantly address the topic with apologetics, and it has come down to us as the major event it never was.
Stephen Berer is a writer, working on the epic story of the Eternal Jew. He is also education coordinator at Shirat HaNefesh.