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Torah Commentary
Ki Tisa (February 27, 2016)

Bettijane Eisenpreis


We do not call them “the Children of Israel” unwisely.
The story of the Golden Calf could come right out of a book on child psychology — a perfect example of what not to do, both for the parents and for the children.

First, the children: No sooner does Daddy Moses go out on an errand that they decide he is gone forever and never will return. I remember trying to persuade my son when he was very young that I was not abandoning him when I went out for an evening with his father. By the time he was 3 or 4, he could grasp that concept and happily settle down with the baby-sitter. So the “children” are behaving like 2-year-olds. But the sitter, Aaron, is not doing a very good job. No competent adult would give in to the children’s worst impulses the way Aaron does.

And listen closely to the way he explains it to Moses! “So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off!’ They gave it to me, and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!”

“Out came this calf.” Really, Aaron! Did you think Moses would buy a story like that? You threw the gold into the fire and the calf emerged magically. That sounds a lot like, “The dog ate my homework.” A psychologist would have a field day with this encounter. Aaron, the older brother, has been passed over in favor of his younger sibling. He gets a chance to play leader, and he takes it, allowing the children to make and worship an idol. After all, it makes them happy and makes him popular. And, when his strategy goes bad, he blames everyone else: “The people did it. The calf did it. I had no choice.”

Even before he hears Aaron’s excuse, Moses gets very angry, so angry that he throws the tablets of the Law that God gave him on the ground and breaks them. He also grinds the Golden Calf into a fine powder and makes the Israelites drink it. After Aaron speaks his piece, Moses organizes the Levites, who have remained loyal to the Lord, and conducts a slaughter in the camp of 3,000 Israelite men. But when God threatens to destroy the Israelites and “make of you (Moses) a great nation,” Moses defends the people and persuades the Lord to save them. Like a good father, Moses does love his “children” after all, despite their transgressions.

Eventually, everyone “lives happily ever after” — well not “ever after” but for a while. It is obvious from this story that the children need time to grow up. And they get it — 40 years in the desert, until the generation that was subjected to slavery in Egypt is gone and a new, more mature, nation of Israelites emerges. There is plenty of backsliding in the process. The children complain a lot. Moses loses his temper and is punished by not being allowed to cross into the Promised Land. But that is another story.

The story of the Golden Calf remains a classic — a perfect example of what happens when a downtrodden group of ex-slaves tries to become a nation of free people. It takes time and patience. But with faith, and good parenting, the children do grow up.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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