All That Glitters

As we continue to move through the Book of Shemot (Exodus) this week, we find ourselves smack in the middle of many Torah portions focused on the plans and construction details for the building of the Mishkan, the Israelites' portable Tabernacle. Parashat Ki Tissa contains some key details about the Mishkan: instructions for the copper laver, the anointing oil and incense, another mention of Betzalel and the other artisans, and the critical link between the Mishkan's construction and the creation of the world/Shabbat (see Exodus 30:17-31:17 to read up on any of this).

As we continue to move through the Book of Shemot (Exodus) this week, we find ourselves smack in the middle of many Torah portions focused on the plans and construction details for the building of the Mishkan, the Israelites' portable Tabernacle. Parashat Ki Tissa contains some key details about the Mishkan: instructions for the copper laver, the anointing oil and incense, another mention of Betzalel and the other artisans, and the critical link between the Mishkan's construction and the creation of the world/Shabbat (see Exodus 30:17-31:17 to read up on any of this).

But then, leaving off in the midst of this section about the Mishkan, the text veers off in a wildly different direction to tell the (in)famous story of egel ha-zahav, the Golden Calf. As that narrative begins, Moses is still up on top of Mount Sinai, where he's receiving the Torah from God, and down below, the Israelites have started to panic, wondering what has become of him. Exodus 32:2-4 picks up there:

Aaron said to them, “[You men,] take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god," O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”

The story of the Golden Calf raises so many questions... it's really a juicy one for exploring themes of theology, idolatry, leadership, sin, punishment, forgiveness, and more! In addition, an astute reader might wonder: where did all the Israelites' gold come from? After all, the people are in the middle of the wilderness, and hadn't they just escaped from being enslaved in Egypt?! How could it be that they are moving through the desert wearing enough gold earrings to create a giant molded calf statue!?

In order to answer this one, we have to backtrack a few weeks to Parashat Bo where, in the midst of their rush to escape from Egypt, the Israelites had apparently paused from their dough preparation during the tenth plague in order to collect gold and other riches from their Egyptian neighbors:

The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing. And Adonai had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians. (Exodus 12:35-36)

These two short biblical verses are ripe with tension. Did the Israelites really intend to borrow the Egyptians' gold, or did they steal it from the Egyptians, or was it gifted to them freely? One popular rabbinic read is that the property the Israelites took from their neighbors on the way out of Egypt was essentially back-pay for time already worked... in a word, reparations.

Returning to this week's Torah portion, I believe the story of the Golden Calf is embedded inside the narrative about the construction of the Mishkan so readers like us can't help but see the stark contrast between the two building projects. The Mishkan represents creation, creativity, and order, whereas the Calf emerges from chaos and uncontrolled human fears and desires. Theologically, one construction project is commanded and sanctioned, whereas the other is directly prohibited. And, the building of the Mishkan is fundamentally about creating a vessel for holy space where God can dwell amidst the people (it's precisely the empty space within the structure that matters), whereas the Calf is about the object itself, which is part of its idolatry.

Both the Mishkan and the Calf are fashioned from a substantial amount of gold, the same raw material, procured in the same curious manner from the Egyptians upon the Israelites' departure from Egypt. (In the Mishkan, gold plates the inside and outside of the ark, forms the cherubim, the menorah, and more.) If we are to take the path of reading the Israelites' gold as originating from reparations due to our ancestors, the question before us becomes even sharper. We Jews -- both then, in ancient times, and now, in contemporary ones -- have experienced hardship and have also come into possession of material blessings. Parashat Ki Tissa asks us to consider: What will we choose to do with our gifts? How do we ensure that we are investing in holy enterprises and not idolatrous ones?

As we move closer to Passover, we will have more to say on the topic of reparations, and what we might learn from our own history of enslavement and material gain. For this week, though, I invite us all to consider how we might use our "gold" this week. Many Jews have the custom of giving tzedakah just before Shabbat, emptying their pockets of any coins that remain at the end of the week, in service of a higher sense of justice. That seems like a particularly appropriate mitzvah to take on with intention as we head towards the Shabbat of Ki Tissa. This week, our Torah portion reminds us that it is our obligation to use our resources for the best and holiest purposes we can.

Wishing us all a Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum