Our Sedra tells of the Nation’s inconceivable fall from grace and horrendous sin when 3,000 of its members worshipped the Golden Calf, merely days after they all had personally experienced the extraordinary spiritual encounter with G-d, hearing His voice proclaim to them “I am Hashem your G-d Who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” It is difficult, to say the least, to grasp how after such an experience these privileged humans could have done such a thing. We probably never will be able to fully understand this. Our Sages have warned us against such judgementalism when they said “Don’t judge your fellow until you have come to similar circumstances (and then see how you yourself act.)” With this in mind let us look at a verse and Rashi’s comment on it.
“And the People saw that Moses had delayed in descending from the mountain and the People gathered around Aaron and said to him “Rise up, make for us gods who will go before us, for the man Moses, who brought us up of from Egypt - we do not know what became of him.”
Who will go before us: RASHI: They desired to have many gods.
On what basis does Rashi conclude that the people wanted “many gods” ? Maybe they just wanted one god to replace Moses, as they seem to be saying.
Do you see which word(s) (in the Hebrew) indicate that they wanted many gods?
WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?
An Answer: The Hebrew has “asher yai'lchu” meaning “who will go (in the plural verb) before us.” So it wasn’t one god that they asked for, the plural verb shows that it was gods, in the plural, that they desired.
QUESTIONING THE DRASH
A Question: But this interpretation is problematic, because the word “elohim,” meaning god, is always in the plural even when it refers to the One G-d, Hashem. So the plural verb ( “they will go”) is appropriate. Maybe they desired only one god and referred to him as “elohim” just as Hashem is also called ‘Elohim” (in the plural)?
Can you justify the drash?
UNDERSTANDING THE DRASH
An Answer: Hashem is referred to as Elohim in the plural, as a sign of respect (in English this is called “the Royal We”). Just as “Adonoi,” another name for Hashem, literally means “my Lords” in the plural. BUT whenever Hashem is called Elohim, in the Torah, the verb is always in the singular. As in the oft repeated phrase “Va'ydaber Elohim…” = “And God spoke…” the verb “spoke” is in the singular. But in our verse the People used the plural “they will go,” indicating that they desired many gods. This is the basis for Rashi’s interpretation.
THE MEANING OF THIS DRASH
What is the significance of this request in the plural? What difference does it make if they desired just one god to replace their leader or if they desired many? Both requests are blasphemous. What message does such a request convey?
UNDERSTANDING THE MESSAGE
An Answer: It is not the arithmetic difference that makes the difference. We could just as well ask: What difference does it make that Hashem is one? What’s the big deal?
The idea that there is only one ruler of the universe is that one ruler demands and deserves complete allegiance. More than one ruler would mean that a person might, at times, follow one and at other times follow the other god’s demands. The decision who to follow at any one time would undoubtedly depend on which demand was more appealing to the believer. This is not just a matter of “dual loyalty,” that is insignificant. More to the point and more significant is the fact that one’s service to his masters is, in the final analysis, a “service” to his Lord which is actually just a front for a self-serving a worship; a self-centered religion. His god can make no demands of him which would require the worshipper's self sacrifice because he can always appeal to his other master, his other god, to find an easier path.
To make the matter more concrete we can take as an example disciplining one’s child.
As in known to too many parents, when father and mother don’t agree on matters of discipline, the child can always escape the rigorous demands that discipline always requires, by appealing to other parent’s mercy. When the child succeeds in this maneuver, he remains undisciplined and may often cause a battle between the gods of the household ! While he walks away Scott free.
Such is the heresy of “serving” many gods!
"What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi."
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