The Riddle Of Repetition And The Calf


‘Six days shall your creative activity be done, and the seventh day shall be for you sacred, a Sabbath of Sabbaths to God…” [Exodus 35:2].

What is the point of repeating the command to observe Shabbat, when we previously received this law as the fourth of the Ten Commandments [Ex 20:8-11]?  Moreover, barely five chapters ago, we heard God exhorting Moses:  “But you must observe My Sabbaths as a sign between Me and the Children of Israel” [Ex 31:12-17]. Why the repetition?

Also, the last five portions of the Book of Exodus seem to have a rather peculiar order: the text begins with the command to build a Sanctuary” [Ex 25:8]; then the exhortation to keep Shabbat [Ex. 31:12-17]; then the Golden Calf and its aftermath [Ex. 32-34]; returning to Shabbat [Ex. 35:1-3]; and then back to the Sanctuary [Ex. 35:4-40]. Why such a seemingly convoluted order?

A secondary question relates to the role that Aaron plays in the tragedy of the Golden Calf. Aaron accedes to the people’s request to “make us an oracle [elohim] who will walk before us because we do not know what happened to this Moses, the person who brought us out of Egypt” [Ex 32:1]. Aaron then tells them to remove their earrings, and from the earrings he forms the Golden Calf. When Aaron hears the people cry out, “These are your oracles (elohekha), Israel, who took you out from the land of Egypt,” he builds an altar, crying out “there will be a festival to the Lord (Y-H-V-H) tomorrow” [Ex. 32: 2-5]. Why is Aaron not severely punished for building the Golden Calf?

Let me try to piece together what I believe the text is teaching us.  Rashi, based upon the Midrash, tells us that the initial commandment to erect a Sanctuary was given by God on the day after Yom Kippur as part of the forgiveness (Kapparah) of Israel for their worship of the Golden Calf. God did not want or need a place of gold and silver for sacrifice and worship; even the heavens cannot contain God’s omnipresence. However, when the Israelites fear that Moses has left them, they panic and reach back to their Egyptian psyche in search of a substitute — not necessarily for God, but for Moses. They desperately require someone or something that can serve as a ladder, to help them traverse the distance between the material world and a spiritual deity.

Ramban explains and archeology confirms that the gold calf of Egypt was not in itself a god, but rather the seat of the sun god Ra. This is what Aaron was willing to make for them. It was not a God substitute but a Moses substitute. After all, Aaron cries out, after producing the Golden Calf, “There will be a festival for the Lord [Y-H-V-H] tomorrow.” Aaron knows that by the morrow Moses will return.

Tragically, the Israelites take the material Moses-substitute, meant to be merely a means to God, and make it the ultimate purpose of their existence. Aaron tries to prevent this by making an altar for the calf to express the fact that the gold is to be a sacrifice for the true God whom they will worship the next day. But the people bring offerings to the calf itself, not to God. They got up to revel, to orgy, “le’tzahek,” which is the very word the Bible uses in describing the actions of Yishmael, the rejected son of Abraham, which the Midrash interprets as idolatry and sexual immorality.

God understands the human need for some material object of inspiration. He therefore commands, “They shall make a Sanctuary for Me,” but for the express purpose that “through it I may dwell in their midst,” in their hearts, minds and spirits, and not in a material Sanctuary or Temple.

To that end, after commanding the Sanctuary, the sanctity of space and place, God ordains the Israelites to observe the Shabbat, the sanctity of time, the model of a perfect world. Therefore, the Sanctuary and the construction of its magnificent furnishings could not be worked and developed on Shabbat; the Sanctuary, and the sanctity of space-object, is a means, whereas Shabbat and the sanctity of time and spirit is the goal.

This is what God reveals to Moses in His second Revelation at Sinai, the Revelation of God’s Name, God’s glory and God’s ways [Ex 34:6-7]. The ultimate place for God is not a Temple but the human heart; not in gold and silver, but in the internalizing of God’s characteristics, in the performance of actions borne of compassion, loving-kindness and truth.

Do not confuse the means with the end, the Sanctuary with Shabbat. Only then will the calendar become transformed into an eternal Shabbat, only then will the world be transformed into a true sanctuary of God and humans together in a Shabbat-relationship of love and peace. 

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 5:37 p.m.

Torah: Ex. 35:1-40:38

Haftarah: I Kings 7:51-8:21(Ashkenaz);  7:40-50 (Sephard)

Havdalah: 6:39 p.m.