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Parshat Ki Tisa

March 16, 2017

by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

This week’s parashah, Ki Tisa, includes one of the most dramatic episodes in the entire Torah, the Golden Calf. The description found in the Torah has rebellion, passion, emotion, idolatry, and violence, all of the ingredients needed for a good story. I would like to focus on something that happened after the calf was constructed and Moses descended from Mount Sinai.

Moses saw that the people were out of control—since Aaron had let them get out of control—so that they were a menace to any who might oppose them. Moses stood up in the gate of the camp and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, come here!” And all the Levites rallied to him. He said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor, and kin.” The Levites did as Moses had bidden; and some three thousand of the people fell that day. (Exodus 32:25-28, trans. JPS)

Moses was faced with some difficult decisions. He was on Mount Sinai receiving God’s revelation and when he descended from the mountain he saw that “the people were out of control,” and according to the Torah the person who was responsible for this situation was Aaron. So not only was Moses confronted with an apparent popular rebellion against God, but it was one that was led by Aaron his brother. Moses’s reaction was swift and bloody, with the result being three thousand dead Israelites.

One can find within rabbinic commentaries on the Torah and midrashim an attempt to mitigate the brutality of Moses’s response to the Golden Calf. On the words “and slay brother, neighbor, and kin,” the Midrash Tanhuma commented “anybody who has witnesses [who can testify to their wrongdoing] and was forewarned [before they acted], was killed immediately.” (Tanhuma, Ki Tisa, par. 26) We find here an attempt to read back into the Biblical text procedures that are found in later rabbinic literature without which the death penalty could not be carried out.

The fourteenth century Midrash Hagadol expanded upon the explanation found in the Tanhuma:

Since Moses saw [the people worshipping the Golden Calf], he sat with his court (beit din) and said “Whoever is for the LORD, come here!” Anybody who didn’t participate in the act [of the Golden Calf] should come to me…“Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp,” He said to them, “establish many courts, anyone about whom witnesses will come and testify that they worshipped idols after they were forewarned will be put to death.” (Midrash Hagadol, Ki Tisa, par. 26-27)

The thirteenth century Spanish commentator Moses Nachmanides was also troubled by the apparent arbitrary killing. He  wrote:

Since there were many worshippers of the calf, and they could not have all been brought to the court, therefore Moses commanded all of the sons of Levi to put on their swords, in a similar way to that which our Rabbis said, that if you cannot administer to the guilty the specific kind of death mentioned for his case, you may execute him by any means that you can. Now this procedure was a decision only for an emergency, (hora’at sha’ah) in order to sanctify God’s name, (lekadesh Hashem) since those who worshipped [the calf] had not been forewarned [of the death penalty], for who had warned them beforehand? The sons of Levi, however, recognized those whom they killed as the worshippers of the calf. (Ramban: Commentary on the Torah, trans. Charles B. Chavel)

All of these interpretations were the product of the tensions between the Biblical text and certain sensibilities about fairness and the severity of the punishment meted out to the Israelites after the episode of the Golden Calf. These commentators were unwilling to deny what was written in God’s Torah, but they were also unwilling to deny what they felt was a fair or just response to the Israelite’s behavior, however sinful it may have been.