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Torah Attitude: Parashas Ki Sisa and Parshas Para: Golden calf, golden opportunity

In this week's portion, we read in the Torah how G'd's anger flared up when the Jewish people made themselves a golden calf, prostrated themselves in front of it and brought it sacrifices (Shemos 32:9). This week, we also read a special portion (Parshas Para) about the ashes of a red cow being used to purify someone who has become impure through a deceased person (Bamidbar 19:1). By gaining a better understanding of the connection between the golden calf and the red cow, we can gain a better understanding of our own obligations and get closer to G'd.

The red cow

The ashes from the red cow worked in strange ways. The person receiving the sprinkling of ashes became purified, but the one who did the sprinkling became contaminated. King Solomon, the wisest of all men, understood each of G'd's commandments. But when it came to the workings of the red cow, not even King Solomon was able to understand its mysteries.

The commandment of the red cow is known as a "Chok" or decree. It is a commandment that is totally beyond our comprehension. Its reasoning G'd revealed only to Moses. As Jews, we are obligated to follow the decrees of the Torah, even if we do not understand the reasons behind them. We find other decrees in the Torah such as eating only kosher food, and not mixing wool and linen in our clothing.

Although the decree of the red cow is beyond our comprehension, Rashi offers a Midrashic interpretation explaining that on a homiletical level there is a connection between the red cow and the golden calf. The Midrash Rabbah (19:8) provides a parable of the child of a maidservant who lives and works in the King's palace. When the child spills dirt all over the floor, the mother is ordered to clean up the mess. Similarly, the red cow is the mother who atones for the mistakes caused by its child, the golden calf.

The golden calf

In this week's Torah portion, we read that the Jewish people made the golden calf and then proclaimed "This is your god O Israel" (Shemos 32:4). This seems extremely difficult to understand. Only 40 days before this event, the Jewish people were standing at Mount Sinai receiving the Torah from G'd. They experienced the greatest revelation of G'd in the history of the world! How is it possible that the Jewish people could fall so quickly into the worship of a golden idol so soon after this great revelation?

The reference to "your god" teaches us that it was the mixed multitude of peoples, who left Egypt with the Jewish people, who were the ones that actually made the golden calf, and not the Jewish people. However, even so, the Jewish people did not stop the mixed multitude from making the golden calf. Nor did the Jewish people stop the mixed multitude from worshipping the golden calf and many even joined in.

Idol worship

To understand the Jewish people's errors concerning the golden calf, it is important to trace the history of idol worship. The Rambam identifies the first reference in the Torah to idol worship: "Then to call in the Name of G'd became profaned" (Bereishis 4:26). The Rambam explains that people started honouring the planets, stars, and other heavenly forces, as a service to G'd, just as it is proper to honour the ministers, ambassadors and other representatives of a king. Eventually, temples were built in honour of the stars and they started to bring them sacrifices and to serve them in other ways, all with the intention of pleasing G'd. Later, the worship of heavenly forces became a profitable business. False prophets offered revelations. Idol makers offered new models to worship. And people spent more time and effort serving their idols at the expense of their relationship with G'd. People were not originally estranged from their relationship with G'd. However, as time went on, their focus was directed towards their idols rather than towards G'd.

Replacing Moses

Similarly, the Ibn Ezra explains that the Jewish people did not allow the creation of the golden calf to worship it as a deity to replace G'd. On the contrary, they thought Moses had died. They could see that the Manna did not fall on the mountain when Moses ascended to receive the first set of tablets. They knew that no man could survive for 40 days without any food. So the golden calf was created to replace Moses as an intermediary between G'd and the Jewish people.


The only reason why worship of G'd through images and idols is prohibited is because G'd forbids it. On the top of the Holy Ark, there appeared the images of angels with the faces of a male and a female child, known as the Cherubim. The production of these images in the Tabernacle and Temple was commanded by G'd. However, were one to produce these same images of the Cherubim in a synagogue, it would be considered as making idols and would be prohibited.

High spirits, low esteem

Rav Dessler explains that the Jewish people reached the greatest spiritual level at Mount Sinai. In addition, they constantly experienced open miracles, including the Manna and the Clouds of Glory. When the Jewish people thought that Moses had died before he returned with the Tablets from on top of the mountain, they believed that they could not sustain this high level of spirituality. Without Moses to lead them and to provide them with open communications with G'd, the Jewish people deliberately lowered their spirituality by allowing the creation of the golden calf. The image of the golden calf represented serving G'd by seeing His hand in nature rather than serving Him on a level of open miracles.

Intersection of spirituality

Although the Jewish people sinned by lowering their high level of spirituality through creating the golden calf, we today would do well to reach the level of seeing G'd's hand behind everything happening to us to which they dropped. The purification of the recipient and contamination of the one sprinkling the ashes of the red cow is beyond our comprehension. However, one way to think of this enigma is as an intersection of spiritual levels between those on higher levels of spirituality going down and those on lower levels of spirituality going up. The ashes of the same red cow would purify the contaminated and contaminate the pure. In a similar way, the level of serving G'd to which the Jews wanted to lower themselves through the image of the golden calf would be a golden opportunity for us to raise ourselves to understand and see the hand of G'd behind the laws of nature.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel