Tag Archives: Golden Calf

Parshat Ki-Tissa (2013)


Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

How G-d is an Expert at Working with Second Chances

This look at Parshat KiTissa is not going to be a very intellectual undertaking, because intellectualism doesn’t comfort the realities of our pain. This is a look through the eyes of belief; belief that our lives matter, and we deserve dignity, and as dignified beings our sufferings have purpose and merit. May you be strengthened!

brokentabsAs we know, even the name of the Torah portion has a hidden meaning that sums up the entire essence of the whole portion. The Parsha begins with the words, “Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor, ‘Kitissa et-rosh benei-Yisra’el…‘ / And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying, ‘When you take a census of the children of Israel…’”

Our parsha is named after these key words, “kitissa et-rosh” in reference to the commandment of taking the census, however literally these words mean “when you lift the head.” This is also a colloquial phrase that we see similarly used in Genesis 40:13, where we see the phrase, “yisa Paroh et-roshecha / and Pharaoh will lift your head,” meaning to be singled out, given special consideration, to be put on the spot. If we look closely maybe we can find direction for what to do when situations in life seem to be singling us out, when difficulties seem to be squarely directed at as.

In Parshat KiTissa we find that the children of Israel are engaged in the Exodus from Egypt and are encamped at the base of Mount Sinai. This is one of the most pivotal points in all of Jewish history.

As wonderful as the story is of Moses descending with the tablets containing the Law of G-d on them should be, this account is almost immediately overshadowed with the tragedy of the destruction of the first two tablets of the Ten Commandment. And too often we quickly glance over the second part of the story, as the revelation of Torah is redeemed from the catastrophe and a second set of tablets are made.

But before we get there let us familiarize ourself with where we are at, both in the story of the Exodus, as well as our timing in the order of the readings of the Torah portions. Because even in this account there is an amazing lesson.

Bezalel and The Wise-Hearted Person

In this parsha we find that Moses is on Mount Sinai and is communing with G-d. During this time of discussion between Hashem and Moses the entire Torah is being revealed. For 40 days and nights Moses is audience to G-d’s voice and revelation there. When Parshat KiTissa begins we find that a census is being ordered in order to raise money for the rectification of the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle. Torah law prescribes that a census is taken by each person contributing a certain set amount money; the number of people is known by the sum of the money collected. In this respect census was akin to a form of taxation. The preceding sections of Parshat Tetzaveh and Parshat Terumah were entirely about the service of the Tabernacle, and this mention of a census is just a logical stopping off point on its way to explaining how this is all going to come into being. (see Parshat Terumah 2013)

But more than just explaining the finances of how this was all going to come into being, Hashem also elaborated on the human element of how all the holy vestments and items were going to be made. We read with at the beginning of chapter 31:

“And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying:

I have called by name

Betzalel son of Uri, son of Chur,

of the tribe of Judah

I have filled him with divine spirit,

and with wisdom,

and with insight,

and with knowledge,

and with all forms of craftsmanship.”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor:

| Re’eh karati veshem

| Betzal’el ben-Uri ven-Chur

| lemateh Yehudah

| Va’amale oto ruach Elohim

| bechochmah

| uvitvunah

| uveda’at

| uvechol-melachah

Exodus 31:1-3

I find this to be such a beautiful statement.

As one reads through the Torah’s descriptions of the Tabernacle and all its elements it all begins to seem so overwhelming, so awesome in form and sheer size that it seems almost impossible to imagine, let alone build. Even to this day, great minds stumble on trying to conceive of this holy place in all its wonder. I can only imagine that even more so to our ancient ancestors this must have seemed something miraculous to perform. But if it didn’t already lean on the miraculous, it most surely must have when G-d reveled His choice of architect, Bezalel son of Hur. We are told in Talmud Sanhedrin 69b that he was 13 years old when he made the Tabernacle!

In G-d’s choice of selecting a craftsman He selected a mere boy to make the holy vessels and His places of worship. In doing so G-d was displaying His ability to guide man by imparting all form of wisdom, insight, and knowledge to him. He was displaying His desire to impart into man character and ability. All these things He imparted to Bezalel, displaying this young boy as a vessel of otherworldly ability; displaying him to the nation as whole of what He could do through us all! I love the commentary of Artscroll on this verse which explains, “G-d showed that He had not merely redeemed Israel from slavery. He had endowed them with the capacity to serve Him beyond their ordinary human potential.”

But of course, there are the nay sayers, those who like to limit G-d by saying that either it was a one time event, or a special act He only performed for one person. For those people the Torah elaborated saying, in verse 6:

“And I, behold, I have assigned with him

Oholiav son of Achisamach,

of the tribe of Dan,

and I have endowed the heart

of every wise-hearted person with wisdom,

and they shall make all

that I have commanded you.”

| Va’ani hineh natati ito et

| Oholi’av ben-Achisamach

| lemateh-Dan

| uvlev kol-chacham-lev

| natati chochmah

| ve’asu et kol-asher

| tziviticha

Exodus 31:6

In the scriptures we see that G-d empowers people with chochma, with wisdom; we also understand this word to correctly mean “natural ability.

Herein we find one of the key factors in the tragedy of the Gold Calf, it was entirely unnecessary. The creation of the Tabernacle itself was in order to rectify the need for a tangible place of worship in order that the people feel a closeness to G-d, there was no need for them to create an oracle in the form of a Gold Calf. The solution was presented before the problem presented itself, in the form of the Tabernacle. Sadly the people’s need to take action into their own hands displayed two terrible characteristics of doubt:

  1. Out right doubt: the people did not believe that G-d was truly able to guide man through his natural abilities to do something truly supernatural and extra-ordinary

  2. Impatience as doubt: the people were so crippled by doubt that even if they could accept that G-d could divinely work through them, they looked at Bezalel as a mere boy and incorrectly assumed that they would have to wait for him to grow to be a man before he could complete his work. They were unwilling to wait, this is reiterated in the people’s inability to wait for even 40 days for Moses to descend from the mountain and instruct them.

The true tragedy is that in the people’s choice of creating the Golden Calf they were seeking out what was fast and easy; an image that was familiar to them, in the form that was immediately available.

It is my hope that as we read this section of the Torah we grasp on to the truth that G-d is still in the business of refining His people! It is my sincere hope that we all learn to grasp hold of a youthful heart like that of young Bezalel, that is malleable and open to being guided by the natural wisdom and ability placed in us by G-d to rise to the challenges presented to us in this life.

The Two Sets of Tablets

Of course as the story goes on we find that Hashem commands Moses to go down from the mountain carrying the tablets of the Law presented to him by G-d Himself, as the people had broken out into adoration of the Gold Calf. As we know, the first set of tablets are destroyed.

This parsha becomes very personal to me at this point. I have often considered the situation surrounding the presentation of the tablets. What should have been a time of rejoicing seemingly turns into a disaster. It appears as though when the tablets of G-d’s Law are smashed so too are the promises and hopes for them. And this is where my heart has been reflecting. How often have our dreams taken form in amazing shape and color, only to crash down and left in a smoldering heap?

Let us understand that the tablets Moses descended with were miraculous and truly wondrous. Of them the parsha reads:

“Moses turned and descended

from the mountain,

with the two Tablets of Testimony

in his hand,

Tablets inscribed on both their sides;

they were inscribed

on one side and the other.

The Tablets were G-d’s handiwork,

and the script was the script of G-d

engraved on the Tablets.”

| Vayifen vayered Moshe

| min-hahar ushnei

| luchot ha’edut

| beyado

| luchot ktuvim mishnei evreihem

| mizeh umizeh

| hem ktuvim

| Vehaluchot ma’aseh Elohim hemah

| vehamichtav michtav Elohim hu

| charut al-haluchot

Exodus 32:15

This statement can also be correctly read to meant that the writing was not necessarily written on all sides, but that it was visible from both sides, thus the Midrash suggesting the tall tale that the tablets were made out of Sapphire. Both the Torah and our Tradition suggest that these tablets were something unique and wondrous.

And for many fundamentalists the story usually ends with the destruction of the first set of tablets. They like to stop and give their commentary on the grave tragedy, but go no further. They can’t get beyond the loss of the “ideal.” But this story, like life, doesn’t just end in face of a tragedy. We find after the fallout of the people’s wrongful acts had passed G-d renews and reinforces His covenant with Israel! Thus we read:

“Hashem said to Moses,

‘Carve for yourself two stone Tablets

like the first ones,

and I shall inscribe on the Tablets the words

that were on the first Tablets,

which were shattered.’”

| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe:

| Psol-lecha shnei-luchot avanim

| karishonim

| vechatavti al-haluchot et-hadevarim

| asher hayu al-haluchot harishonim

| asher shibarta

Exodus 34:1

As I read this parsha I began to be comforted, and I started to understand the position of Chassidut (mystical tradition) that the second set were superior to the first. I had always wondered how this was so. How could this be? One would think that because the first set were priceless and heavenly in composition they would be superior to a set made out of ordinary stone cut by the hand of man. But it is precisely because this second set were “ordinary” in origin that they were far more extraordinary than the first. Something created by the Divine is wondrous, but that is what we would expect, so it is not surprising. But what is surprising is when G-d takes ordinary things, in fact second chances of crude means, and elevates them to holiness equal to anything He could miraculously create.

In Chassidut we learn that every descent is for the purpose of an ascent. That sometimes things in life, challenges and failures are merely a vehicle that Hashem has sent our way to get us to a higher spiritual place. Something things have to be broken in order for us to appreciate the intervention of G-d in our lives!

We go on to read that Moses did in fact carve two stone tablets like the first and carried them in hand up the mountain. (v.4). Then we read that G-d sealed a covenant with Israel, and then lays out the major traditions and holidays of the Jewish people. (v.10-25) When these things are spoken G-d then tells Moses to write the words of this covenant down for himself (v.27). But I love how the Artscroll translation correctly changes the inflection at this point when it comes to the Tablets and goes on to say, “vayichtov al-haluchot et divrei habrit aseret hadevarim / and He wrote on the Tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” This is in agreement with verse 34:1 when G-d says, “I shall inscribe on the Tablets.” This position is also supported by the Rashbam and Ibn-Ezra.

And this is one of the most beautiful lessons of the Torah. That if we take our second chances, no matter how crude and mundane they appear, and present then before Him He will reach in and touch them with His own hand and make them holy! And this, after all, is the purpose of Torah and very meaning of holiness; to take ordinary things and elevate them to greatness!

This is how Hashem makes His words ring true, “I will place My Torah within them and I will write it onto their heart.” (Jeremiah 31:32)


Parshat Beshalach (2013)


Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

Where can you point to G-d in your life?

Torah_shema_yad-2-softOne the greatest pleasures I have in my life is to be able to work with newly religious people and converts. Often times I find myself instructing those that have come home to Judaism because of their infinity with its message of justice and on account of the intellectual rightness of the faith. But many of these people come after seeking answers in the arms of other religions and dogmas, even people who followed personality cults or evangelists. Sometimes I have found people confiding in me that these religious experiences seem much more emotionally appealing than Judaism and it’s correctness. This often comes to the surface when people experience low points in life, and it causes a crisis of faith.

One of the most notorious of cases to show for this in the pop culture is that of “Dr Laura” Schlessinger who fell into obscurity a decade ago. She was well-known for converting to Conservative and then Orthodox Judaism. She was arguably the most notorious convert of her day, often using that as a basis to justify her moralizing as a talk-show host. However when she began to face difficulty and her stability unwind she not so quietly turned her back on Judaism, citing it as cold and rule driven. She then went on to praise the Evangelical Christians that extended themselves to her in the wake of her downfall. She did not care what was intellectually right in the end, she instead was very much preoccupied with being disturbed that G-d was so far off in Judaism. She admired the thoughts of Christianity because it had a personal god with a human name, she spoke of envying that closeness. G-d forbid that I gloat in this woman’s pain, however I use her as well-known example of someone who has put a lot on the record to say about how seemingly impersonal Judaism is. (see “Dr. Laura Loses Her Religion” at The Daily Jewish Forward)

She seems to have unsophisticatedly asked the question that many people often ask when they find themselves at an impasse with their Jewish faith, is the G-d of Judaism so transcendent that He has no virtues of closeness to us? I want us to answer that question for ourselves today. Where is G-d when we need to find Him in our lives? Also, why do we tend to depersonify our Judaism; why do we make G-d above being a person and push aside any personality in our faith?

In this parsha we have a perfect verse that would make a perfect statement to summarize the Jewish faith:

“And Israel saw the great hand

which Hashem used upon the Egyptians

and they feared the L-rd

and they believed in Hashem,

and in Moses His servant.”

| Vayar Yisra’el et-hayad hagdolah

| asher asah Hashem beMitzrayim

| vayir’u ha’am et-Hashem

| vaya’aminu b’Hashem

| uveMoshe avdo.

Genesis 14:31

This verse has all the richness and meaning as that of the Islamic Shahada (“This is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is His prophet…”), a paramount statement of faith for them. These are epic words.

This is the perfect moment in Judaism, here at the height of Israel’s salvation. The patriarchs had pointed forward to this moment, and all the prophets would look back to it as bearing witnesses of G-d’s greatness in crushing injustice and showing mercy towards His people. The enemy Egyptian army is vanquished under the waves and the people have gone free. Seeing all these miracles the people believed in G-d and in His prophet.

But strangely in the commentary of this verse we don’t see any great praises of Moses our Teacher, peace be upon him, instead it passes him right over. We have a phenomenal statement, but what does Rashi do with this text? Instead of taking a moment to pine upon Moses, our ultimate teacher, we instead see him distancing himself from a personality cult. He goes even one step further by choosing to take a moment to challenge anthropomorphism – the description of G-d by human characteristics. In this verse of commentary our tradition goes even above and beyond the tone of even our closest common faith, Islam, which also abhors physical descriptions of G-d as well. Our tradition stands out as even more abstract than that when it chooses to sideline even our prophet, maybe even more than he need be. At times we seem even cold and detached in comparison to Muslims when it comes to our faith. There is not much that we as Jews widely honor aside from our ancestors.

In the commentary for this verse Rashi makes the point that we are only talking figuratively about G-d throughout this story. When we say that G-d used His hand on Egypt we are saying that G-d extended His might towards Egypt. We aren’t saying that G-d has any actual hands that He extends towards anyone. When we speak of G-d’s hand we mean that G-d directs His might towards a certain direction.

Rashi also comments that when we say G-d is an “ish milchamah / a man of war” (Exodus 15:3) we need to tweak the way that we think about that. What we are trying to say that G-d is a warrior, we are not saying that G-d is a man. We are just using descriptions. G-d is not any one thing, nor does He have physical characteristics. Rashi makes this point several times throughout his commentary here.

Most sensible monotheists would agree with these statements. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that us Jews are often overly intellectual even in the most passionate of moments. We are at the pinnacle moment of the Exodus drama, where G-d can be seen in all His awesomeness. This is where Moses really shines. Capturing this moment made Charlton Heston infamous, for creeps sake! And instead of reveling in this glory for our G-d and prophet, Rashi chooses to talk about what G-d isn’t. Talk about anti-climactic.

The reason why is because our rabbis know how this story ends. Right now we have the people saying that they believe in G-d and Moses His prophet because of all the frightening deeds He did in saving them, but soon they will have forgotten about them and worship the Golden Calf. This stain always hangs over the story, even from the beginning.

We often ask ourselves how people could be of such little faith that they forget so quickly how amazing their G-d was and descend into idolatry. For me the reason appears revealed to us in this verse. It was not because of lack of belief, it was because of a strong belief that worked against them. They believed not just in G-d, but also in Moses. The had faith in Moses so much that the moment he disappeared and they assumed he was dead they found themselves lost. (see Exodus 32:1) Once Moses was no longer there for them there was left a vacuum in both physical and spiritual leadership. In disarray they almost naturally went down a path towards idolatry. They had nothing to connect to, so they fashioned for themselves a god out of their gold ornaments using the words, “Ayleh elohecha Yisrael asher he’elucha mei’eretz Mitzrayim / This is your god oh Israel, which brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Or more literally these (ayleh) are your god. (see Exodus 32:4) When in a pinch and asked to show what they really think their G-d is they hold out their gold and declare that to be their true salvation.

Before we get too attached to anything or anyone our rabbis, even in middle of this awe-inspiring moment, choose to tone down the enthusiasm. They make the point that the nouns we use for G-d are irregular, because G-d is not a true noun. We can’t point to any one thing as being G-d, or any one person as being our guide towards G-d, because if we get confused we can start pointing at the wrong things.

But before we get there to that descent into error of the Golden Calf, here in this moment of glory of the Exodus story, we do get a pure glimpse of the Divine where all the people are able to perceive G-d. Moses and the children of Israel begin to sing the Shirat haYam – the Song at the Sea. Lost in celebration they become enraptured in praise of G-d. They sing out:

“I will sing to Hashem

for He is highly exalted,

horse and rider he hurled into the sea.

Yah is my strength and my song

and He has become my salvation;

this is my G-d!

And I will make Him a habitation,

G-d of my father,

and I will extol Him.”

| Ashirah l’Hashem

| ki-ga’oh ga’ah

| sus verochevo ramah vayam.

| Ozi vezimrat Yah

| vayehi-li lishu’ah

| zeh Eli

| ve’anvehu

| Elohei avi

| va’aromemenhu.

Exodus 15:1-2

As I stated, all of biblical and Jewish history points to this one moment in history. This is G-d’s ultimate display of glory. Witnessing this the children of Israel sing their song of praise, a liturgical hymn that we sing in our prayers to this day. Rashi in his commentary makes the most interesting commentary on this:

This is my Gd: He revealed Himself in His glory to them [the Israelites], and they pointed at Him with their finger [as denoted by זֶה (zeh), this]. By the sea, [even] a maidservant perceived what prophets did not perceive. — [from Mechilta]”

זה אלי: בכבודו נגלה עליהם והיו מראין אותו באצבע, ראתה שפחה על הים מה שלא ראו נביאים:

Rashi for Exodus 15:2

I find this absolutely fascinating, especially in light of where the commentary of Rashi has gone so far. Rashi has gone far out of his way to make sure that we understand that G-d is not corporeal nor has any semblance of actual physicality. He harps over and over again on this point, that the voice of the Torah is just being figurative. And then he throws this zinger at us, he has the Israelites literally pointing at G-d with their finger! It may seem odd why he goes there, but if we consider it the word zeh (this) – it has the same tendency to come with a hand motion as the word ayleh (these). Rashi says that in this one moment of glory people were able to perceive G-d so intimately, so closely that they were literally able to point toward Him.

We need to ask ourselves, what is that Rashi means by this? If we are not talking about a physical form, as G-d cannot be described as any one thing or thoroughly by anyone, how is it that they are able to point towards G-d? I believe the answer is found in the words “vayehi-li lishu’ah / and He has become my salvation” that precede their point and exclamation “zeh Eli / this is my G-d.” When they pointed to G-d they had no form to call attention to, the only evidence was His deeds of salvation. They pointed towards what G-d had done for them and they exclaimed “This is my G-d.” They were declaring if one wanted to see their G-d, the only thing they needed to see, in fact the best demonstration of Him was through the things that He has done for them.

My friends, when we consider our Jewish faith I want us to stop judging it in light of the characteristics of other religions. We need to not be disturbed that G-d may be lofty and abstract in our faith. Yes, we worship a G-d that we cannot depict in any manner and whose Name we cannot even intone. There may seem like there is very little personal comforts of religion, it demands a higher maturity of us that not always so comforting. We are called to faith in a way that may seem as sobering as telling a child there is no Tooth Fairy. But it doesn’t have to be that way for us.

We aren’t saying that G-d cannot be seen in our lives, or that G-d cannot be found. No instead our faith is so dynamic that we can even point towards our G-d. But the way we identify with our G-d is by pointing towards His salvations that He has made in our lives, in what He has done for us. This faith is not impersonal, that is a very personal type of faith. G-d is very close, and very easy to be found, we can point to Him in all the trials of life that we have been saved from. We can point to Him being a strength for us in our times of total weakness! Our faith is not dispassionate, quite to the contrary, we have such a dynamic faith when asked to show evidence for our G-d we can just use our lives as examples and say, “See….this… this is my G-d.”


Parshat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim (2012)


Parshat Acharei – Kedoshim
Leviticus 16–20

Goats or Pan: Hairy interpretations of the naturalist vs. the phantasmal

pan-also-known-as-faunus-pipes-and-dances-with-nymphs-and-satyrsSometimes biblical interpretations clash when it comes to explaining certain terms in the scriptures, namely because of one’s preconceived world view. Very rational people will see everything as something naturally occurring and a person given to belief in the supernatural can tend to see all things as providence. I tend to be somewhere in the middle, not completely given to either school of thought. I think most of us are. Now, I do have many friends that are very prone to loving fantastical interpretations of the Torah. Interestingly, not all of them are necessarily religious people or partial to the miraculous. They just like the thrill of keeping the story larger than life.

Most often this becomes an issue when people have to translate the unknown or ambiguous. Believe it or not the supernatural sounding interpretation usually wins out. We have no better example of that than in the over-killed discussion of “the sons of G-d conceived with the daughters of men,” and the whole nephilim debate. (see Genesis 6) One of the others is found here in this parsha. The Torah reads:

“And they shall not sacrifice anymore

their sacrifices for the Se’irim

after which they still stray after;

this is an eternal statute

for them, and for [all their] generations.”

| Velo-yizbechu od

| et-zivcheihem lase’irim

| asher hem zonim ach areihem

| chukat olam tihieh-zot

| lahem ledorotam.

Leviticus 17:7

We aren’t exactly sure what the term se’irim means. But for the most part this is translated as demons, as is seen in the King James Bible and is thus the most widely received understanding. Even bible skeptics will insists on this translation, in the same manner they insist the nephilim references only be understood in light of the folklore simple because it’s juicy material; they rather debate with stuff fit for Ancient Aliens as its a better straw-man, easier to quash than serious scholarship.

What is perplexing to some very rational minded Jews is that this understanding is not without precedence even in our own tradition. This is the understanding of the Chazal – our rabbinic sages from the age of the prophet Ezra until the end of the 7th century that formulated the foundations of Jewish tradition. This in agreement of the midrash, Sifra, and the opinion of geniuses such as S’forno (9th century). So it should come as no surprise that even Rashi holds by this:

LeSe’irim: to sheidim [Heb. demons]

as in “the se’irim dance there.”

(Isaiah 13:21)

לשעירם: לשדים, |

כמו, “ושעירים ירקדו שם:” |

(ישעיה יג כא) |

Rashi to Leviticus 17:7, 11th Century

Now the rationalists among us can find a alternative meaning presented to us by citing this same verse. Here it will be understood by our tradition to mean demons as well, that dwell in the ruins of a fallen city, encroached upon by the animals of the wilderness. And on this note the naturalist will point out that the se’irim are mentioned in the middle of a long list of desert animals; wild-cats, ferrets, and ostriches before it (Isaiah 13:21); then jackals and wild-dogs after it (Isaiah 13:22). It is therefore very logical for us to assume this is some sort of animal, there is nothing to suggest otherwise.

This would actually be a very logical assumption. It is also suggested by examining the word itself. Se’irim in their few references, just like the mere two references of sheidim in the Tanach, are always spoken of in the plural and without definition. But in the singular we get a obvious hint about the entomology; a sa’ir is a buck, a he-goat. Though we have a clear word for goat in Hebrew, אז – instead we find here in Leviticus the need to be very specific. Instead of merely referring at an animal by species it prescribes them by gender and stage of development. Whereas here in Parshat Acherie it uses the term sa’ir for a male-goat, earlier on in this book we will also see used the gender appropriate term for female-goats; in fact used in combination with a clear mention of the species of which animal we are talking about to prove the point:

“… and he shall bring his offering

a female-kid of the goats.”

| …vhai’va karbano

| s’irat izim

Leviticus 4:28

We could try to dig deeper for a linguistic understanding. However, in our attempts to simplify the language it becomes apparent to us that we are often talking about nicknames; not genus (species) or taxonomic qualities. However, nicknames just like classifications often lend descriptive hints to the subject at hand. Just like hares are so named because they are hairy even at birth, unlike their cousins the rabbits who are born hairless; so too in Hebrew are the goat’s so descriptively nicknamed. The root of the nicknames seir, seirim , seirah, seirat are given because they are hairy. As in the scripture:

“Look, Esau my brother is a hairy man

and I am a smooth man.

| Hain, Eisav achi ish sair

| vanochi ish halach

Genesis 27:11

When we look at this evidence and work our way backwards linguistically it seems like the issues is settled. The case is closed. Until we look at the scholarly translations of the Torah, again we turn to the JPS. Now note that Jewish Publican Society is the standard of Jewish academic scholarship. While giving a hearty helping of tradition it loves to wax poetic, but not as often at the expense of reason. So it is intriguing to some, and seemingly justifying to others, when the JPS translates our verse out for Leviticus 17:7 as:

And they shall no more sacrifice

their sacrifices

unto the satyrs,

after whom they go astray.”

וְלֹא-יִזְבְּחוּ עוֹד, |

אֶת-זִבְחֵיהֶם, |

לַשְּׂעִירִם, |

אֲשֶׁר הֵם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם: |

Leviticus 17:7 (JPS Translation – 1917)

What are we talking about when we use the word satyrs? We are talking about something like fawns (as in The Lion and the Witch and the Wardrobe), however more precisely this term goes all the way back to ancient Greece where the god Pan is described as being half-man, and yet half-goat on the lower half of his body. panfixPan being the god associated with nature, fertility and spring became so recognizable as symbolic of the ancient gods that he became the universal symbol of Greco-Roman romanticism several times throughout history. Interestingly this symbol has also been similarly associated with classical satanism (belief in devil worship, the concept of a personified evil as prescribed by religious dualism), as the satyr’s form is clearly unnatural and pagan. But given the options you would wonder why JPS would give such an exotic translation.

Truth be told, even though JPS does not mind saying they don’t know what the meaning is many times when the text is unclear, they too follow the rabbinic and midrashic tradition of interpretation. To some extent it is also true that they have tried to not make waves with the “Authorized Version” (meaning King James Bible) that English speakers were accustomed to use before it. But this choice here is in keeping with our tradition, and for this reasons not completely unfounded.

We will find another reference to the satyrs which also sheds some more light on the subject:

“For the Levites left

their open land and their possession,

and came to Judah and Jerusalem;

for Jeroboam and his sons cast them off,

that they should not execute the priest’s office

to Hashem.

_

“And he appointed priests

for the high places

and for the seir’im and the calves

which he made.”

כִּי-עָזְבוּ הַלְוִיִּם, |

אֶת-מִגְרְשֵׁיהֶם וַאֲחֻזָּתָם, |

וַיֵּלְכוּ לִיהוּדָה, וְלִירוּשָׁלִָם: |

כִּי-הִזְנִיחָם יָרָבְעָם |

וּבָנָיו, מִכַּהֵן |

לַיהוָה.|

|

וַיַּעֲמֶד-לוֹ כֹּהֲנִים, |

לַבָּמוֹת |

וְלַשְּׂעִירִים, וְלָעֲגָלִים, |

אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה. |

2 Chronicles 11:15

There are two suggestions being made to us here; that they made sacrifices of seirim (goats) and calves. But not only that, that in the days of the revolt of northern Israel from the kingdom of Judah they rejected the religion of Israel and the Levitical priesthood, with the people once again degenerated into worship of idols of calves and goats; “asher asah” which they made, which they crafted.

This meaning might be news to most of us, and I admit it seems like I’m going out on a limb here, but its not if we really consider it for a minute. If we look at this verse from our parsha it tells us that the people are to no longer offer sacrifices unto the satyrsgoat beings. Not to just not stray after them, but “asher hem zonim ach areihem / after which they still stray.” How can they still be straying after this type of idolatry when we have never heard of it before in the Torah?

My suggestion is this, we actually have heard of it before, but indirectly. When before have we read in the Torah of people making an idol of an animal and then offering sacrifices before it? That’s right, the egel ha-zahav the golden calf. (see Exodus 32:4) Thought we don’t hear of the people worshiping and sacrificing goats before, especially to idols made in their likeness, it appears that the children of Israel did in fact do so or they wouldn’t have been prohibited from continuing to do so. Its not hard to imagine, they did exactly this for calves. The reason why we probably never hear of this before, is because the exodus story so far is trying to deal with primary topic at hand; that of removing the people from slavery, and removing the symbols of that slavery from their mindset in the wilderness journey. The symbol of the calf represented an obvious old way of thinking, but the goat less so. If we examine them both the insight enlightens us to the meaning of this verse.

In the case of the calf, it’s not so hard for us to understand why they worshiped it. The entire economy of the Egypt they left surrounded the calf. They were essential for use in labor; both construction and agricultural. They were essential to the diet of Egypt by producing not only meat but also dairy that was a much needed staple. So much was the economy and diet dependent on the calf that when Yosef interprets the dream of famine for the Pharoah his vision is in the form of cattle; both fat and lean, respectively representing years of fortune and famine. (see Genesis 41)

But there was more than just a secular mental connotation, the symbol of the calf was intertwined with the symbol of Hathor (and intern, Isis) – the mother goddess who carried the sun disk between her horns – she was a symbol of rebirth and fertility. According to their mythology, from this cow deity the Pharaohs would suckle nutrients and intern (in a trickle-down effect) these blessing and providence would flow to the people under him. For the Egyptian the calf was central in offerings for worship and in being worshiped. In worshiping the calf the children of Israel were resorting to the old ways of thinking, finding comfort in the old religion and mindset. This was the primary theme of the exodus story, that the children of Israel come out from under that both physically and mentally.

Now if we examine the Egyptian significance of the goat, we are not left without some pretty good examples of goat worship. In fact there was an entire cult centered around worship of the goat and the satyrs in the north Egyptian town of Mendes. There the satyr would become associated with the symbol of Zeus there as well, to whom they would adorn with the head and pelts of a ram. These associations will grow with the more north and the more to the present we come with our mythology (example, the mascot of Thor is the goat). But at the time period of the exodus this symbol of the goat is not yet synonymous with norther paganism.

It goes back to something older, and something they apparently came in contact with again once they reached the highlands of Sinai. You see, unlike in the case of the Egyptians the goat was the central economic currency and lifeblood of the Bedouins who traveled with their flocks of goats. Unlike Egyptians the Bedouin could not herd cattle on huge tracks land, without land they raised hearty animals they could keep on the move. You can’t push goats, but they migrate quite well. And when I say goats are hearty, I mean they are tough. They eat almost anything (don’t leave out a tin can or they might even eat that, really). They can even be outright mean. No matter how small their horns are, they can get you something fierce!

Its the fierceness of the goat symbol that seems to prevail, and in each incarnation going forth we are going to see a scary symbolic nature of this animal taking shape. The reverencing of goats does not stem from or lead to a gentle and nurturing concept of the divine. Instead the apparent reverence towards this concept of deity is going to be based on fear and terror. So much so that going on through out the books of the Neviim and the Ketuvim – the Prophets and the Writings – the symbol of the goat is going to be irreversibly intertwined with the symbol of devils and demons in folklore. This idea is compounded as Edom, the Greeks, the Romans, etc. all continue to be epitomized by the symbol of the goat; people who worshiped idols we do not mind calling false gods, and demons. We only need to look at the capriciousness and inhumanity of their gods to validate why we can so easily can call them devilish. So much has happened to the children of Israel since their days of simple and tranquil goat herders like Yaakov Avinu – Jacob our Father – that now at this point in history the goat is a symbol of fright.

Though there are among our sages those that say the reverencing of the goat in the mind of some people was not necessarily occultic idolatry, they suggests that the cult of the goats was just another way of people trying to connect to the spiritual for protection. (Sforno) In the same way the people didn’t necessarily worship the calf, they just used it as a medium to direct their worship towards the Divine (Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed); so too it was with the goat. This might hold some truth to it, because we do see this come up after the mentions of the different sacrifices that include the goat, including the atonement sacrifices of Yom haKippurim – the Day of Atonements. The symbols and elements of the holy worship of G-d became mingled with the fears and ferocity of the new desert experience. They reverenced it; but maybe a little too much, to the point that the new situation they were in reawakened a primitive fear that had be there under the surface for a while.

During this Omer period I hear a lot of people talking about getting over the tendency to “golden calf it,” to rely on our old comforts and ways of doing things that hold us back from really being free people. But I think its also important that we don’t try to “buck” our spirituality either; that we not give in to fear, fierceness and ferociousness that twists it around. Most certainly we shouldn’t give in to fear that makes us want to see something as ugly, harsher and more unnatural than it really is.


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