What went wrong?
That is the question that hovers over this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa.
One moment, we are with Moses on top of Mount Sinai, silent witnesses to his intimate encounter with the Divine Presence, watching as he receives the tablets of the covenant, the perfect revelation of God’s word. This is the gift we imagine we long for: The Definitive Truth, placed into human hands. Irrefutable, immutable instructions, tenderly etched into stone by God’s own finger.
And then, in the very next moment, barely out of sight but worlds away, we are standing with the Israelite people at the base of the very same mountain, watching as they wait with growing restlessness for Moses to return. Anxiety quickly turns to agitation, restlessness to outright rebellion. The people want a god they can see. They gather against Aaron, demanding: “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.”
Aaron acts swiftly, gives orders, and huge amounts of gold are collected in no time: “All the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.” This is a mob revolt, executed through the mass performance of a simple gesture – one after another, the sons and daughters of Israel reach up with trembling hands to remove the gold rings from their own ears. It is a strikingly personal gesture of willing participation.
The earrings are gathered, the mold is cast, the precious metal is melted down, and as the golden calf emerges, the people exclaim in delight: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Sacrifices are brought to the god of gold. The camp becomes noisy with the sounds of feasting and dancing.
It’s the noise that gives them away.
As the sound of revelry reaches the top of the mountain, it is God who first understands what is happening below. He instructs Moses to hurry down, threatening to utterly destroy the people and make Moses the leader of a different nation. Moses lingers only long enough to plead for divine mercy: “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand.”
When God relents, Moses turns and begins to descend the mountain, carrying with him the tablets of the covenant. The biblical text reminds us again: “The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, incised upon the tablets”— as if to ensure that we take in the terrible and tremendous magnitude of what happens next: Moses comes into full view of the camp, sees the people dancing around the calf of gold, and in a flash of rage, “He hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.”
It is possibly the lowest moment in all of the Torah, in the relationship between God and the people of Israel.
Shards of stone lie scattered at the base of the mountain.
Sharp edges of what might have been.
Lost fragments of God’s word.
What went wrong? There are countless explanations offered in both classical and contemporary commentaries. Embedded in each of these explanations is an attempt to either assign or deflect blame, to determine who was innocent and who was at fault.
Perhaps it was understandable fear on the part of the people. Or, perhaps it was unforgivable infidelity. Perhaps it was profound cowardice on the part of Aaron. Or, perhaps it was his compassion for the people and a misguided attempt at compromise. Perhaps it was a destructive outburst of uncontrolled rage on the part of Moses. Or, perhaps it was his righteousness, and a sense of reverence for the sacred tablets that the people were so clearly not ready to receive.
An interpretation suggested by the Egyptian Jewish poet and playwright Edmond Jabes may somehow contain all of these explanations and more: Perhaps the shattering of the tablets is an inevitable outcome of the encounter between an Infinite God and finite, flawed human beings. “Could it be that God is what is unattainable within all that we attain?…[Perhaps] in order to be understood by the creature, God’s Word and commandments had to burst into pieces so that the pieces could make it perceptible, that is to say, human.” (“The Question of Displacement into Lawfulness”)
“What went wrong?” Whenever and wherever we stand amidst the fragments of shattered hope, of love betrayed, of broken dreams, we inevitably ask this question.
The Torah doesn’t give us a clear answer – presumably because it wants us to understand that there is rarely, if ever, one answer to this question.
But more importantly, the Torah wants us to turn our attention to a different set of questions – to the questions that remain after the first tablets are smashed and the calf is ground to dust; the questions that emerge as God and Moses, on behalf of the people, find a way forward; the questions they bequeath to us along with a new set of tablets. These tablets, they forge together—tablets of reconciliation and forgiveness, tablets that (according to Jewish tradition) are delivered to the people on Yom Kippur.
These are the real questions of Ki Tissa, the questions we are summoned to ask as we stand and survey the broken fragments that surround us wherever we are: What will we do now? How will we love again? What will we build together? How will we make a home for God in this world?
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld has been dean of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School since 2006. She previously worked as a Hillel rabbi at Tufts, Yale and Harvard universities, and has been a summer faculty member for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel since 1993. From 2011 to 2013, she was named to Newsweek’s list of Top 50 Influential Rabbis in America, and in 2015, Anisfeld was named one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by The Jerusalem Post.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.