Torah Thoughts for Today
Wednesday, March 10, 2004
#21: “Murphy’s Law” Downs the Israelites with a Golden Calf
“Murphy’s Law” Downs the Israelites with a Golden Calf

(Hi, hope this is helpful. Related to the Torah portion Ki Tisa (“When Counting”) read in synagogue. Exodus, Chapter 30, verse 11 – Chapter 34, verse 35. English translation and commentary at http://bible.ort.org/books/pentd2.asp?ACTION=displaypage&BOOK=2&CHAPTER=30
Dedicated to my parents.)

If you have ever had the opportunity to read and study some of William Shakespeare’s plays, you will know that they are categorized into three groups: Histories, tragedies, and comedies. Histories are dramatizations of famous people and events. Comedies are meant to be amusing and titillate. But what is a tragedy? It seems so open to interpretation. Yet scholars and critics agree that what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote a tragedy was, in a nutshell: Someone who definitely had the potential to be very great was UNFORTUNATELY possessed of a TRAGIC FLAW OR FAULT, that “jinxed” them from fulfilling their true potential and instead it is TRAGICALLY wasted and destroyed with the result that the TRAGIC HERO eventually lands in a situation that is the opposite of greatness and famous, thereby becoming pathetic or infamous.

“In the plays of Shakespeare, the tragic hero is always a noble man who enjoys some status and prosperity in society but possesses some moral weakness or flaw which leads to his downfall. External circumstances such as fate also play a part in the hero's fall. Evil agents often act upon the hero and the forces of good, causing the hero to make wrong decisions. Innocent people always feel the fall in tragedies, as well. The four most famous Shakespeare tragedies are King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth. Hamlet (who senses correctly that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”) is an emotionally scarred young man trying to avenge the murder of his father, the king…Othello (who "loved not wisely, but too well") is a Moor serving as a general in the military of Venice, victimized as a result of his love for Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian statesman…Macbeth (with “an ambition that does over leap itself”) is a noble warrior who gets caught up in a struggle for power. Supernatural events and Macbeth's ruthless wife play a major role in his downfall…King Lear is a tragic story of an old man's descent into madness as his world crumbles around him (“a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse”). It is also a tale of Lear's pride and his blindness to the truth about his three daughters and others around him…Although the main characters of these tragedies possess different traits, they all can be described as tragic Shakespearean heroes: they are basically good and noble men whose tragic flaw leads to their destruction.” [1]

The events in this week’s Torah portion contain the GREATEST FOLLY EVER COMMITTED BY THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL-THE JEWISH PEOPLE: The worship of a “hand made” Golden Calf, after having heard God SPEAK the TEN COMMANDMENTS, known as THE DECALOGUE, and as they were waiting for Moses to come down with the TEN COMMANDMENTS inscribed on the Tablets of Sapphire Stone, they fall victim to an evil impulse and turn to worshipping an idol of all things! When Moses descends he smashes the Ten Commandments and gets rid of the troublemakers. During the commotion, Moses pleads on behalf of the Children of Israel begging God not to destroy them. Subsequently God grants Moses a SECOND SET OF TABLETS, and because Moses had begged to witness God’s Glory, while Revealing of Himself God teaches Moses the profoundest secrets of forgiveness, which in the Torah is embodied in the recitation and acceptance of THIRTEEN HOLY AND SPECIAL DIVINE ATTRIBUTES OF MERCY.

On the surface there are definitely quite a number of chronological and factual events and personalities that co-join to create a very combustible combination of contributing factors to the culminating chaos and confusion of the cursed calf. But ask yourself: were the Children of Israel really that immature that they suffered from a bad case of national “impulse disorder” and couldn’t hold on a little while longer for Moses to appear? How could such a special nation that had witnessed awesome miracles and the very revelation of God at Mount Sinai not do a “reality check” on themselves and stop themselves going overboard with such foolishness? Surely there is more to the narrative, that can place events into a deeper and more spiritually comprehensive level so that we can reach the forces driving the upheaval and not just glance at the “exterior symptoms”?

When I was thinking about a title for this essay, I couldn’t resist thinking of the almost simplistic, yet somehow profoundly true “Murphy’s Law”: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” In fact there are a number of other such “Murphy’s Laws” that in their plebian way, force us to focus on “What went wrong?”: Here is a listing of those telling truisms, from
“Murphy's Laws:
1.) If anything can go wrong, it will.Corollary: It can.MacGillicuddy's Corollary: At the most inopportune time.
2.) If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the one to go wrong.
3.) If anything just cannot go wrong, it will anyway.
4.) If you perceive that there are four possible ways in which something can go wrong, and circumvent these, then a fifth way, unprepared for, will promptly develop.Corollary: It will be impossible to fix the fifth fault, without breaking the fix on one or more of the others.
5.) Left to themselves, things tend to go from bad to worse.
6.) If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.
7.) Nature always sides with the hidden flaw.Corollary: The hidden flaw never stays hidden for long.
8.) Mother nature is a (‘female dog’). 9.) Things get worse under pressure. 10.) Smile . . . tomorrow will be worse. 11.) Everything goes wrong all at once. 12.) Matter will be damaged in direct proportion to its value” [2]

All of these “laws” seem so very true about the “CHET HA`EGEL” – THE SIN OF THE (GOLDEN) CALF.


Here is an outline derived from a variety of classical Jewish sources: Everything in the Torah comes back to the first narrative in Genesis when Adam and Eve are created by God and commanded not to eat from a mysterious and mystical Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve were meant to live eternally as they were the Apex of all Creation. They had wonderful minds and the power of human speech because God had breathed into Adam a Divine Soul, making Adam capable of mirroring in reality God’s presence on Earth. Once Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit they automatically brought Death and Suffering into this world. They gave Evil a home whereas it had previously not had a foothold, existing as an external abstract entity.

After many other generations of humankind fail to improve the world and in fact make things worse by driving the Divine Presence further away, it becomes the job of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then the Children of Israel-The Jewish People as a NATION after the Exodus to finally bring the world back to the level of Adam and Eve to where they were BEFORE they sinned. This was almost achieved at Mount Sinai. But as they say, “almost” doesn’t count. All those dastardly “MURPHY”S LAWS” kicked in and went into high gear and everything that could go wrong went wrong! Why is that? Simply put, THE FORCES OF EVIL AND DARKNESS WENT TO WORK OVER-TIME TO DO ALL THEY COULD TO PREVENT THE CONSUMMATION OF GOD’S UNION WITH THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL THROUGH THEIR ACCEPTANCE OF THE TORAH FROM BECOMING PERMANENT.

IT IS THE TORAH THAT IS CALLED “THE TREE OF LIFE” which in fact was that “OTHER TREE” in the Garden of Eden that God feared Adam and Eve would eat from, and “live forever”, as God Lives Forever. In fact, the classical Jewish teachings say that the Children of Israel did attain a level of ETERNAL LIFE when they WITNESSED THE REVELATION OF GOD AT MOUNT SINAI and HEARD THE TEN COMMANDMENTS SPOKEN BY GOD. This indicates that they were in fact already on that level of eternal life, meaning that EVIL HAD BEEN BANISHED, and that DEATH WAS NO LONGER A FACTOR (IN LIFE), and that they must have then been very near to the Tree of LIFE, if only they could have just held on a little longer!

Note, each time the Torah is returned to the ark, be it weekdays, holidays, or Sabbaths, we actually try to “relive” those past glorious moments of fleeting “eternal life” when we say about the Torah that we hold up and then hold so tight in our right bosom and then carefully replace it in the ark: “LENGTH OF DAYS IS AT ITS RIGHT; AT ITS LEFT, WEALTH AND HONOR. ITS WAYS ARE PEACE. IT IS A TREE OF LIFE TO THOSE WHO GRASP IT, AND ITS SUPPORTERS ARE PRAISEWORTHY.” (Proverbs, Chapter 3, vs. 16 –18).

There are all sorts of descriptions of what went wrong on that horrible day. Some say it was a Divine Test by God to see if the Children of Israel could hold fast and abide by the teachings of the Ten Commandments and have faith until Moses arrived to “seal the deal”. Others say that the “Satan” (the arch-angel of all evil) projected an image of Moses’ body which was seemingly “life-less” at the top of Mount Sinai as his Soul had left its body and “transmigrated” to be with God in the Celestial Spheres of Heaven to receive the Torah. The Children of Israel thus thought that Moses had perhaps “died” and so they became hysterical with despair clutching even at an idol. There are those that say that the Golden Calf was patterned after images of God’s Throne which also has “animal-like” depictions which they thought was “kosher” to imitate. A great deal of blame is laid upon the “mixed multitude” – “eruv rav”, of people who had previously been idol worshipers and all sorts of gentiles in Egypt and when Moses’ strong hand of leadership was absent, they took a chance and tried a “coup d'etat” in a plot to take over and subvert the newly established Israelite Nation. Even in our own times, we find that when the newly established State of Israel came into being in 1947 – 8, it had to fight for its survival against Arabs (“eruv”? “rav”?…funny how both these words seem to sound like the Hebrew word for Arab: “aravi”) who wanted to throttle the first Jewish State in 2,000 years.

One of the best teachings that I have come across over the years explaining what it was that really “triggered” the rebellion and the establishment of the Golden Calf is by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (Lithuania, England, Israel, 1891 – 1954) in one of the Hebrew volumes of his work “Michtav Me`Eliyahu”. He explains that the catastrophe of the Golden Calf is actually PHARAOH’S VICTORY. It is the point at which all the efforts of the Egyptian sorcerers and of the culture of the idol-worshipping slave empire of ancient Egypt FINALLY managed to strike out and score a home run against not just the Israelites but against God’s Will for the world, sad to say.

Rabbi Dessler proves his point when he points to specific words in this week’s portion that are the spelling of PHARAOH when describing Moses’ reactions when he saw what had happened when he finally returned:Let’s say the verse in Hebrew first: “Vayar Mosheh Et Ha`Am Ki PHARUA Hu, Ki PHERAOH Aharon LeShimtzah Bekameihem” (Exodus, Chapter 32, verse 25): You clearly see that Moses is describing what he is seeing as something in terms of “PHARUA” and “PHERAOH” with the exact Hebrew spelling and pronunciation of the name Pharaoh in Hebrew. So what does it mean that here, at the site of the Israelites dancing around the abomination of the Golden Calf idol, Moses sees and identifies the tell-tale “FINGERPRINTS” and the “CALLING CARD” of none other than his own arch-rival, Pharaoh? The English translation for this verse reads: “Moses realized that the people had actually been ‘PHARUA’. Aaron had ‘PHERAOH’ them…” Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan cites different interpretations of this “PHARUA’ – “PHERAOH” word: “restrained” (by Aaron from doing worse); “exposed” [without cover]; “exposed to harm”; “undisciplined”; “unrestrained”; “going the wrong way”. [3]
Rabbi Dessler says that this is precisely the point, that the word PHARAOH is connected to the Hebrew word to “EXPOSE” and “EXPOSE TO HARM” to be “UNDISCIPLINED” and be “GOING THE WRONG WAY.” It is in Pharaoh’s “spirit” that all the damage is done. What this means in somewhat more esoteric terms is that, that same ancient Serpent that SEDUCED EVE away from the path of following God’s Will, now comes embodied as a cavorting wild mob of mixed multitude – “eruv rav” devotees whose natural instinct is only one of destruction of what should have been a climactic holy spiritual high, but ends as VAST NATIONAL TRAGEDY as we see the Children of Israel cast as heroes who withstood so much anguish and suffering in their rise from Egypt only to see it TRAGICALLY washed away through their folly.

There is actually an interesting Oral Law Teaching Medrash that says that at the time the Golden Calf was being “designed”, among the mixed multitude there were:“The two Egyptian sorcerers, Yanus and Yambrus (Bilam’s sons [Bilam was the ‘greatest’- most notorious, sorcerer of that time]), now put their power of magic to work. One of them seized two thirds of the gold, and the other, the remaining third. By means of the IMPURE ENERGY FORCES – ‘ruach hatumah’, they were able to draw the radiance of the image of the ox of the DIVINE CHARIOT – ‘merkava’ towards them. Another man, Micha (who as a child had been cemented into a wall in Egypt and was saved by Moses), assisted by casting into the fire a tablet containing the inscription EMERGE OX – ‘alay shor’. This was the same tablet Moses had cast into the Nile to bring up Joseph’s [hidden submerged] coffin. Subsequently, a live calf emerged from the fire, bleating and moving around. God had given Satan permission to entice the Children of Israel. God said to Aaron, ‘You stumbled because of the deeds of the two wicked ones, Yanus and Yambrus; therefore, your sons’ lives will be taken’…In addition to the original image which was pronounced the major one, the mixed multitude – ‘eruv rav’ fabricated another twelve calves, one for each Tribe. Pointing to them, the mixed multitude called out: ‘These are your gods [hence the use of the plural ‘gods’], Israel, that took you out of Egypt.” (Exodus, Chapter 32, verse 4). [4]

This was all on the dark side. There was however also a bright side. Firstly all the commentators agree that the WOMEN DID NOT PARTICIPATE. The men literally ripped off their gold jewelry. Secondly, the Tribe of Levi refused to partake and DID NOT JOIN IN the idol worshiping and general mayhem. Thirdly, there were even those who resisted with force of arms against the mob’s madness. The commentators say that Hur and the Seventy elders defied the demands of the mixed multitude and that they were actually killed by the mob and so are considered as having died as martyrs – “al kiddush Hashem” – Sanctifying the Name of Heaven by not following the dictates of an evil gathering of idol worshippers. And finally, there are quite a number of great benefits and “counter measures” that arose as a result of the great mistakes that were made.

“Moses carved out two stone tablets like the first. He then got up early in the morning and climbed Mount Sinai, as God had commanded him, taking the two stone tablets in his hand. God revealed Himself in a cloud, and it stood there with [Moses]. [Moses] called out in God's name. God passed by before [Moses] and proclaimed, ‘God, God, Omnipotent, merciful and kind, slow to anger, with tremendous [resources of] love and truth. He remembers deeds of love for thousands [of generations], forgiving sin, rebellion and error. He does not clear [those who do not repent], but keeps in mind the sins of the fathers to their children and grandchildren, to the third and fourth generation’.” (Exodus, Chapter 34, vs. 4 – 7). [5]

So something eternal and positive does come out of this complex episode that we practice to this very day, especially on the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, from the Jewish New Year – “Rosh Hashanah” and the Ten Days of Repentance till the Day of Atonement – “Yom Kippur”:

“At the time when Moses asked God to reveal to him His Glory, God taught him how the Jewish people should pray in order to achieve forgiveness for their sins. ‘Had you not mentioned the merit of their forefathers after the Sin of the Golden Calf, I would have consumed them. I will therefore teach you MY THIRTEEN ATTRIBUTES OF MERCY. WHENEVER THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL APPEAL TO ME BY THESE, THEIR PRAYERS SHALL FIND A RESPONSE.’ God, as it were, wrapped Himself in a PRAYER-SHAWL (‘TALIT’) functioning as a public emissary of prayer (the ‘Chazan’- ‘cantor’), and taught Moses His Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.” [6]

Rabbi Ezra Bick, a contemporary rabbi in Israel, [7] asks:“It is still true that the ‘selichot’ (penitential prayers), and the ‘Thirteen Attributes of Mercy’ that lie at the heart of them, are central to the understanding of Yom Kippur. This is felt most clearly in the waning moments of the day, during ‘Ne'ila’, when they are repeated over and over again (seven times in most versions). The basis for reciting the Thirteen Attributes of mercy is found in (the Talmud, Tractate) Rosh Hashanah 17b.
‘God passed by him and called...’ (Exodus, 34,verse 6) Rabbi Yochanan said: ‘Were this not an explicit verse, we could not have said such a thing. It tells us that the Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped Himself (in a ‘talit’) like the prayer leader (‘chazzan’) and showed Moses the order of prayer. He said to him: ‘Whenever Israel sins, let them perform this order and I shall forgive them. ‘HaShem’ (God), ‘HaShem’ (God) - I am He before man sins; I am He after man sins and repents’ ... Rav Yehuda said: ‘A covenant is made over the Thirteen attributes, that they are never ineffectual, as is written, ‘Behold I am making a covenant’.’” (Exodus, Chapter 34, verse 10).

Rabbi Bick goes on to ask: “There are a number of perplexing points about this Gemara (Talmud). Why did God have to demonstrate to Moses how to recite the Thirteen Attributes? Why did he ‘dress up’ like a ‘chazzan’ and pretend to be one who prays? Why are the thirteen attributes guaranteed to succeed more than any other prayer, and what is the meaning of the ‘covenant’, which is the basis of that success? Finally, examining the Thirteen Attributes, we find that they are merely names and descriptions of God, not a prayer at all. Nothing is actually requested. What is the significance of reciting attributes of God? Surely a plea from the heart for forgiveness should be more effective!”He answers: “How do the Sages know that the thirteen attributes, conveyed to Moses in a mysterious and powerful revelation after the sin of the golden calf (Exodus, Chapter 34, vs. 5-7), are a means of obtaining forgiveness? The answer to this question is found in a later incident in the Torah. When the Jewish people, after hearing the report of the spies concerning the Land of Israel, seek to return to Egypt, God tells Moses that He is planning to destroy them. Moses pleads and argues with God, finally saying, ‘And now, the strength of God shall increase, as You have spoken, saying: HaShem (God), long-tempered and great in mercy, who bears sin and iniquity, and shall cleanse but not cleanse....Forgive the sin of this people by the greatness of your mercy, as You have borne this people from Egypt unto here.’ And God said, ‘I have forgiven by your words’.”

“THE ATTRIBUTES OF GOD, IN JUDAISM, ARE NOT THEOLOGY. They are revelations, manifestations of God's presence in the world. But God does not impose His presence on the world. God is found where people, created in the image of God, call on His name. Every day, at every prayer, Jews declare: ‘Yitgadel ve-yitkadesh shemei raba’ – ‘His Great Name shall be Sanctified and Increased’! This is precisely the meaning of COVENANT – ‘A covenant is made over the Thirteen Attributes, that they are never ineffectual.’ A covenant is not a promise; it is a two-sided agreement. It creates something which exists only in partnership. The Thirteen Attributes exist in covenant, because God has agreed that His presence in the world will depend on the free-willed calling of humans, who shall be the bearers of His name, His presence, His glory.”

“This then is the meaning of the Gemara (Talmud) quoted above. God appeared to Moses wrapped in a ‘talit’ – ‘prayer shawl’, as the leader of the prayer, because the Thirteen Attributes are not a prayer TO God. He is not listening, receiving, considering. He is part of the prayer itself. The words are not TO Him, they are about Him. They, as it were, create the Presence of God Himself. God is changing Himself (‘rising from the throne of judgment and sitting on the throne of mercy’). He is as much part of the recitation as we are. Properly speaking, before the creation of the covenant, ONLY God could have ‘recited’ the Thirteen Attributes. God has to show Moses how this is to be done, for He is giving over to Moses and the Jewish people something which belongs to Him alone. He is making the Jewish people the bearers of God's Presence in this world.”

“The Gemara (Talmud) states that there are Thirteen Attributes of mercy found in Exodus, Chapter 34, verse 6, but does not actually enumerate them. There are various opinions found in the commentaries. The most widely accepted is that found in Tosafot (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 17b):
1. ‘HaShem’ - God (before the sin)
2. ‘HaShem’ - God (after the sin)
3. ‘Kel’ -Lord (power)
4. ‘Rachum’ (merciful)
5. ‘Chanun’ (grace)
6. ‘Erech apayim’ (long-tempered)
7. ‘Rav-chesed’ (great in mercy)
8. ‘(Rav) emet’ (great in truth)
9. ‘Notzer chesed l'alafim’ (keeps mercy for a thousand generations)
10. ‘Nosei avon’ (bears iniquity)
11 ‘(Nosei) pesha’ (transgression)
12. ‘(Nosei) chata'a’ (sin)
13. ‘Nakei’ (cleanse).
The meaning of and difference between each attribute is a subject worthy of extended discussion, which will have to await a later date.” [8]

Best wishes, and have a wonderful Shabbat. Please let me know what you think!

[1] Shakespeare's Tragedies, http://www.springfield.k12.il.us/schools/springfield/eliz/shaktragedies.html
[2] http://www.murphys-laws.com/murphy/murphy-laws.html
[3] The Living Torah, English translation, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, p. 452- 453.
[4] The Midrash Says, Book of Sh`mos – Exodus, English translation, pp. 319 –320.
[5] The Living Torah, Ibid. p. 459
[6] The Midrash Says, Ibid., pp.339 – 440.
[7] The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, Rabbi Ezra Bick,
[8] Ibid.

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