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Ki Tissa

March 23, 2006

From Proverbs to Exodus and Back Again
By Anne Heath

Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold,
So is a wise man’s reproof in a listening ear.

Proverbs 25:12

A mochiakh chakham‘a wise judger, a wise reprover, a wise man’s reproof’is to the listening ear at a moral level as a nezem zahav
(earring of gold) is to the ear at a decorative level. This week’s
exploration of the famous biblical episode of the golden calf from
Exodus, Chapter 32, centers on earrings that serve externally as
objects of adornment and internally and organically as instruments of
hearing, especially hearing the Word of the Lord. Earlier in Exodus we
gather information crucial to our exploration. In Exodus 11:2 we read
God’s instruction to Moses to:

Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.

In Hebrew, words that convey the idea of hearing invoke the visual
image of using one’s ears. Here the English translation hides the
fuller meaning of ‘tell,’ which is literally ‘speak, please, into the
ears of (the people).’ Later in Exodus 15:26:

He (Moses) said: ‘If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear
to His commandments and keeping all of His Laws, then I will not bring
upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I
the Lord am your healer.

Here the English translation clearly brings out the underlying
Hebrew verb and translates Moses’ command to the Israelites as ‘giving
ear’ to God’s commandments.

Up until Exodus 24:14 Moses has led the Israelites, with Aaron at
his right hand. They have listened to Moses. He has been their wise
judger, their wise reprover. Now, as Moses prepares to ascend the
mountain of God, he directs the elders to their source of authority
during his absence:

You have Aaron and Hur with you; let anyone who has a legal matter approach them.

Aaron and the Israelites are ‘off stage’ during Chapters 25 through
31, while God gives laws to Moses. When Aaron and the Israelites come
back ‘on stage’ in Chapter 32’our famous biblical episode of the golden
calf’they do exactly as Moses commanded the elders. They turn to Aaron
on a legal matter, for a covenantal ‘reality check.’

Our prior texts about ears and listening allow us to wonder what
kind of listening and obeying Aaron and Israelites are now undertaking.

Is it really a molten calf that Aaron molds from the gold earrings
which all the people take off and give to him? Certainly. But it’s

With the addition of the small innocuous vowel-letter ‘yud,’ the word for calf (eigel) becomes the word for earring (agil). With a broader definition for maseicha‘molten’the
word becomes more than a cast idol; it is a fusion, a founding, a
casting, even a covenant or league. In addition, using an alternate
definition for maseicha, the word becomes a covering, a veil or a mask. Here’s what we now have for possible translations:

  • Molten calf
  • Fused earring
  • Covenant of earring
  • Earring covering/veil/mask

By the way, Aaron is not the only biblical figure who turns gold
earrings into something that causes people to turn away from God’s
commandments and covenant. In the Book of Judges (8:22’27), the
Israelites ask Gideon to rule over them. Gideon refuses and says that
the Lord will rule over them. However, he then asks them to turn over
the loot’gold earrings and more’that they acquired in their recent
victorious battle. Gideon makes an ephod‘the official garment of priests, the garment priests use to lead and to render judgments’and erects the ephod in a prominent place in his city. The people stray from God.

Consider what we know about the story of the golden calf. We know
that the Israelites, in their fear, abandoned the God Who had redeemed
them from Egypt. They no longer could or wanted to listen to God and
His agent, Moses. They turn to Aaron demanding a solution. From their
golden earrings Aaron molds a molten calf’a fusion of earring’a
covenant of earring.

The golden earrings the Israelites removed from their ears had been
gifts from God’made from the gold taken with them from Egypt, worn as
ornaments but signifying the presence of God’s wise judgment and

Let us be willing to entertain such variations in order to open the
way for us to consider this story in our own lives. What is the source
of our own golden earrings of wise judgment and reproof? When and why
do we cast them off to a leader’a person, an institution or an
idea’that creates a false covenant after which we stray. When do we
pressure a person to be someone like Aaron or Gideon to provide false
solutions under demands from us, the assembled community?

Where are you in this famous biblical episode? Where are all of us? What changes are needed?