Sunday, February 24, 2008

Parshat Ki Tissa

Sorry this was not posted before Shabbos. For a translation of exerpts from Tosefet Beracha on Ki Tissa follow this link.
Tosefet Bracha on Ki Tissa

Idolatry and Yosef HaTzaddik

In this week’s Torah portion we read about the sin of the Golden Calf. Many questions can be asked on this topic; how could the nation who heard G-d’s voice and accepted the Torah only a few weeks earlier suddenly rebel against Him and begin to worship idols? However, I want to address the issue of why, of all the idols they could have made, they built a calf. (Look in the Ramban’s commentary to this section for a kabbalistic idea). The simple answer is that they had seen the Egyptians worshipping cows, and were merely imitating the rituals of their former masters. However, it seems strange that having seen what happened to the Egyptians, and knowing that G-d was greater than any of their gods they would chose to revert back to that form of idolatry.

If we look at the words of the Torah we find that the original intent of the Israelites was not to build an idol in place of G-d, but rather in place of Moshe: The people gathered around Aharon and said to him, “Rise up and make for us gods that will go before us, for we know not what has become of this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32; 1). The word Elokim which is translated here as gods is also often used to mean judges, and thus the simple interpretation of this verse is that they want another leader in place of Moshe, who has disappeared. Only after the calf was built did some of the people begin to say that it was in place of G-d.

Moshe had been the one to lead them through the desert, meld them into a nation, and provide them with the Manna (which according to the Talmud fell in the merit of Moshe). When they looked for a suitable substitute they remembered Yosef, who had been the viceroy in Egypt, made Egypt into the superpower of the ancient Middle East, and provided food for the people through his careful planning and storing. He seemed like the perfect person to take over in place of Moshe. The only problem was that he had been dead for over 200 years. However, they were carrying his coffin with them, and they remembered the blessing that Ya’akov had given to Yosef on his death bed. “A charming son is Yosef, a charming son to the eye; the girls stepped the see the rising ox” (Genesis 49; 22). Yosef is associated with the image of an ox. When Moshe wanted to find where his coffin was buried in the Nile, he threw in a piece of parchment containing the words “arise ox” and his coffin rose to the surface. That same piece of parchment was used when they built the Golden Calf to bring it to life. (Midrash Shir HaShirim 1; 11).

However, there was also another side of Yosef that the people tried to capture in their idol, that of youthfulness. He is described several times in the Torah as a na’ar, an adolescent. Yosef throughout his life retained qualities of youthfulness, such as a desire to maintain physical beauty, a belief that nothing is impossible, and the naiveté and honesty which led him to be sold by his brothers in the first place. When Pharaoh elevated Yosef to power he tried to turn him into an ‘adult’ by giving him a new name and identity. Yet as we see from the verse above the girls were still after him, and he retained his charming youthfulness.

The people who built the Calf wanted these qualities in their new leader. Idols often take the form of youthful heroes, with invincible powers. The Talmud also tells us that the main motivation for the Jews to build the Golden Calf was to permit to themselves the sexual liaisons that had been forbidden by the Torah and Moshe. Therefore, they didn’t build an ox as their god, but a calf. The proof that the people were primarily interested in the youthful qualities of the Calf is from the Midrash (Tanchuma 8, quoted in Rashi v. 22) regarding the laws of the red heifer (which we read today as our special Maftir). Symbolically the ‘Cow’ came to atone for the sin of the ‘Calf’ as if to say let the mother come and clean up the mess left by her child. The Calf is the young child, created by the young nation, in their quest to escape from the confining laws they had received at Sinai.

The irony of the situation is that Yosef himself went to great lengths to prevent the Egyptians themselves from worshipping cows. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabti 712) explains that when Yosef told the Egyptians to “Bring your cattle (as payment for the grain)” (Exodus 47; 16) his intent was to wean them from their idols. However, his plan backfired on his descendants, who themselves began to worship the very idol that Yosef had removed from the Egyptians.

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