by Rav Chanoch Waxman
In studying Parashat Ki Tisa, we are often drawn to the dramatic events that follow the sin of the golden calf (32:1-6). Moshe’s prayer (32:7-14), the tumultuous and bloody aftermath at the bottom of the mountain (32:15-29), and Moshe’s offer of his own life on behalf of the children of Israel (32:30-35) never fail to grab our interest. Additionally, we are captured by the pathos of Moshe’s third prayer during his dialogue with God (33:12-23), and the revelation of God’s attributes of mercy in Chapter Thirty-four. Sandwiched in between all the action and the passion, lie the obscure and often neglected events of the beginning of Chapter Thirty-three, what may be termed “The Jewelry and the Tent.” What happens in the passage of “The Jewelry and the Tent?” More importantly, how do these obscure events affect our understanding of the action-packed portions of Parashat Ki Tisa?
Let us focus in closely on the narrative in the first part of chapter 33, and on the prominent roles of Moshe’s tent and of what the Torah terms “ed” (jewelry, ornaments or finery).At the beginning of the chapter, God informs Moshe that an angel (rather than God Himself) will lead the nation into the promised land, due to the people’s stiff-necked nature and the consequent danger of their being consumed by God’s Presence (33:1-3). In response to the bad news that God will not accompany them directly, “The people mourned and no man put on his ornaments (edyo)” (33:4). At this juncture, God reiterates His claim that the Children of Israel are a stiff-necked people and orders that the people remove their ornaments (“hored edyekha“) and then “I may know what to do with you” (33:5). The Torah mentions jewelry and ornaments for the third time in recounting the people’s fulfillment of God’s command. “And the Children of Israel stripped (vayitnatzlu) themselves of their ornaments from Mount Chorev” (33:6). At this point, the narrative shifts focus and “the tent” emerges as the central topic. The Torah reports Moshe’s removal of “the tent” outside of the camp, the naming of the tent as “the tent of meeting” (“ohel mo’ed“), the details of Moshe’s journey to the tent, and the conference of God and Moshe inside it (33:7-11).
This brief sketch of the narrative raises many obvious questions. We can easily note at least four.
1) Why do the Children of Israel respond to the bad news that they will not be led directly by God by removing their ornamentation?
2) Next, God affirms the people’s decision not to wear their finery, commanding them, “Remove your finery,” and adding, “[Then] I may know what to do with you” (33:5). What is it about the removal of the finery that causes God to reconsider His relationship with the people?
3) In addition to the above, the Torah draws a connection between the ornaments and Har Chorev (33:6). What is the meaning of this connection to Sinai?
4) Finally, what constitutes the thematic relationship between the narrative of the ornaments and the story of Moshe’s removal of the tent outside of the camp? What explains the Torah’s juxtaposition of the two events?
Let us first turn our attention to the third question raised above, the issue of the connection between the finery and Sinai, the meaning of the phrase “edyam me-Har Chorev” (33:5). This phrase might be interpreted as meaning something like “at Har Chorev” or “from Har Chorev and on.” If so, the Torah simply describes the location at which the Israelites removed their finery, or the chronological point at which the event took place. However, Rashi (33:3), in accordance with the Talmud (Shabbat 88a), claims that “edyam” refers to the “crowns that the Israelites were given at Sinai when they proclaimed, ‘Na’aseh ve-nishma‘ (We will do and we will listen).” Accordingly, the phrase “edyam meihar Chorev” should be interpreted as meaning “from Har Chorev” or “of Har Chorev.”
Rashi and the Midrash provide both an explanation of the textual meaning of the phrase “edyam meihar Chorev” and a conceptual explanation of the ornamentation. “Edyam” consists of the “crowns” received at Sinai. However, on the level of “peshat,” the simple interpretation of the text, if we wish to interpret “edyam meihar Chorev” as meaning “of Har Chorev” or “from Har Chorev,” we must inquire what exactly are the ornamentations of Chorev?
The Torah first details the arrival of the Children of Israel at Sinai in chapter 19 of Sefer Shemot. As a preface to “Ma’amad Har Sinai,” the revelation of God at Mt. Sinai (19:9) and the contracting of the covenant (see 19:5), Moshe ascends and descends the mountain, conducting a kind of shuttle diplomacy between God and the Israelites (19:3-9). The language of this section is unusually intimate. God refers to the fact that, “I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to Myself” (19:4). Similarly, God requests the keeping of His covenant and promises in exchange to keep the Children of Israel as “My own treasure from among all peoples” (19:5). Finally, picking up on the image of “bringing and coming,” God states: “Behold, I come to you in a thick cloud.” The images fit the content. God and Bnei Yisrael are negotiating the terms of a meeting. However, this is not just any meeting. It is a meeting to contract and consummate the intimate covenantal relationship between God and Israel.
Immediately following the section of negotiations (19:1-9), the topic switches to preparations for the meeting (19:10-15). The primary preparation for the meeting consists of the command to Israel to “sanctify today and tomorrow… Wash [your] clothes and be ready for the third day” (19:10-11). No doubt in accord with the sanctity and intimacy of the looming meeting with God, the Children of Israel clothe themselves in their finest garments. But as a recently redeemed rabble of former slaves, from whence might they procure appropriate clothes and adornment for so grand an occasion?
The answer lies back in the redemption narrative. As per His promise to Abraham (Breishit 15:14), God ensures that the Children of Israel leave Egypt with great wealth. Just before the Israelites leave Egypt, they request from the Egyptians “jewels of silver, jewels of gold and garments” (12:35, according to the translation of the Septuagint). God causes the Egyptians to view the Israelite’s request favorably, and consequently, “They stripped (vayinatzlu) the Egyptians” (12:36).
To put some of these disparate points together, the chronological and textual flow runs as follows. As part of His covenantal promise to Abraham, God arranges for the Children of Israel to leave Egypt with great wealth in the form of jewels and finery. God then arranges a meeting between Himself and the newly redeemed people, through the intermediary of Moshe, at a mountain in the desert. The purpose of this meeting is to contract another covenant, an intimate relationship between Himself and His people. The people agree and are told to prepare and dress for the occasion. By that point, the explanation of the phrase “edyam meihar Chorev,” the jewels, ornaments and finery of Har Chorev, should readily be apparent. Certainly, the people bedeck themselves in their finest apparel, the gifts they have recently acquired as part of their historical relationship with God, the presents they received from their once and future partner in an intimate covenantal relationship. They stand at Har Sinai clothed in His gifts, awaiting His arrival.
As argued above, the jewelry, ornaments, and finery are part and parcel of the first post-redemption covenant narrative, the events at Har Sinai reported in chapter 19. However, in order to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the role of the ornaments in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, we must first turn our attention to the second post-redemption covenant narrative, the events reported in chapter 24.
The intertwining and flow of events in chapter 24 constitutes a complex and multi-layered structure. However, for the purpose of our analysis, it should be sufficient to note a few key points.
i) First, Moshe descends from the mountain and receives the agreement of the people to the commands (divrei) and rules (mishpatim) of God (24:3).ii) Moshe writes down all the commands of the covenant (divrei ha-berit), gets up the next morning (va-yashkem ba-boker) and builds both an altar and twelve monuments representing the twelve tribes at the foot of the mountain (tachat ha-har) (24:4).
iii) After the offering of sacrifices, Moshe sprinkles half of the blood on the altar, receives the agreement of the Israelites to the contents of the book of the covenant (sefer ha-berit), and sprinkles the remaining half of the blood on the people (24:5-8).
iv) Finally, Moshe and the leadership ascend the mountain, receive a vision of the God of Israel and partake in food and drink (va-yokhlu va-yishtu) to celebrate the occasion (24:9-11).
As is appropriate to a covenant ceremony, a deal contracted between two parties, everything comes in pairs. There are two sets of structures, the altar of God and the monuments of the Israelites, and two sprinklings of blood, one on God’s altar and one on the people. In fact, there are even two copies of the treaty document. In parallel to the “sefer ha-berit” consisting of the commands (divrei) and rules (mishpatim) which Moshe writes and the people accept, God tells Moshe to ascend the mountain and receive “the tablets of stone (luchot), the Torah and the commandments which I have written” (24:12). The “luchot,” Torah and commands constitute the divine side of the “sefer ha-berit,” the physical record, symbol and contents of the covenant. Since they are God’s copy of the treaty, they are to be kept in the divine “abode” (the Kodesh Kodashim) underneath the divine “throne” (the keruvim).
Strikingly, after a lengthy digression commanding the building of the mishkan (25:1-31:17), the Torah returns to the topic of the “luchot” as a preface to the narrative of the sin of the golden calf (31:18). This is not just to remind the reader of the nature of the object that Moshe drops and breaks in chapter 31. Rather, an integral connection exists between the events of chapter 24 (the second covenant narrative) and the events of chapter 32 (the sin of the golden calf). Let us work through the key verses that depict the reaction of the Israelites to the creation of the golden calf (32:4-6).The first reaction of the people is to claim, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (32:4). But, of course, it was Hashem who personally redeemed Israel from Egypt, not any sort of idol or intermediary (see 12:12-13). This God had been “seen” by the elders of Israel at Sinai (24:10). Now the Children of Israel look upon a golden calf and proclaim it their God and redeemer. This claim represents complete betrayal of the relationship between God and Israel and an explicit negation of the vision of the leadership in chapter 24.
In addition to this first parallel, the Torah informs us that, just as during the covenant ceremony of chapter 24 Moshe had gotten up the next day, built an altar and offered sacrifices (24:4-5), so too the people get up the next day and offer sacrifices (32:6) in front of the golden calf. Just as Moshe and the elders had eaten and drunk as part of the covenant ceremony, so too the people eat and drink in front of the golden calf. In fact, the events of the sin of the golden calf constitute a kind of counter-covenant or anti-covenant ceremony. Consequently, when arriving upon the scene, Moshe throws down the luchot “tachat ha-har,” at the foot of the mountain (32:19). At the exact same location where the people had stood with the altar of God (see 24:4) and contracted a covenant, they now stand, sacrifice and celebrate to an idol. The record of the covenant, the tangible symbol and contents of the God-Israel relation, lies broken on the ground, emptied of content by the people’s act of betrayal.
This interpretation of the sin of the golden calf as the anti-covenant, the negation of the God-Israel relationship, receives further support from some of the other images in chapter 32. The Torah reports that the people got up to celebrate, “va-yakumu le-tzachek” (32:6). However, the stem tz.ch.k. is not only associated with laughter and happiness, but also with infidelity. The wife of Potiphar accuses Yosef of attempting to “mock her” (le-tzachek bi), of attempting to force her into illicit relations and betrayal of her husband (Bereishit 39:17). Similarly, Moshe grinds up the golden calf and forces the Israelites to drink waters containing its dust (32:20), a ceremony reminiscent of the ordeal of the “isha sota,” a woman who stands accused of infidelity to her husband (Bemidbar 5:18-24). When Israel sins with the golden calf, they not only dissolve and smash the covenant with God but also betray their intimate tie with God, their love relationship.
The last piece of the puzzle brings us full circle to the people’s jewelry. By what means do the people construct their anti-covenantal object, sunder the relation between God and Israel and commit infidelity? By the means of their golden rings which they willingly donate to the cause (24:3). The jewelry that they received as a present from God and that they wore to the covenantal consummation ceremony at Sinai, becomes in their hands a tool and symbol not of the covenant and the intimate relation with God, but rather a tool and symbol of the anti-covenant and infidelity.
Let us return to the beginning of chapter 33 and to some of the questions we posed above. Previously, the stripping of the people’s ornamentation in response to God’s decision to lead them indirectly had appeared rather opaque. Let us carefully reconsider the text. The Torah states “when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned and no man put on his ornaments” (33:4). We may be inclined to interpret the dressing down as no more than an act of mourning. However, in light of our analysis, the removal of the finery appears to constitute much more than a mere act of mourning. The finery constitutes the gifts received from God, the clothing of the covenant ceremony, and symbolizes the intimate relation between God and Israel consummated at Sinai. When the people hear the evil tidings that God will not lead them directly, they recognize that the finery has become no more than frivolous accoutrements. The relationship and covenant they symbolize no longer exist. Consequently, the people take them off.
On a deeper level, the mourning of the people consists of the realization that they are no longer deserving of the gifts of God, that they have sinned gravely and destroyed their intimate connection with God. Finally, the shedding of the jewelry represents an understanding that they have utilized some of those very gifts to betray God, to construct and create the anti-covenant. In sum, the removal of the finery reflects the beginnings of recognition of guilt, the seeds of shouldering responsibility and the incipient yearning that things be different. It represents the stirring of repentance for the sin of the golden calf (see Ibn Ezra and Ramban).
In this light, we need not be troubled by God’s reaction to the Israelites’ removal of their finery. God’s mercy is immediate. He affirms the people’s decision to remove their ornamentation and opens the door to reversing His decision: “Put off your ornaments and I will know what to do with you” (33:5). Although God does not change His mind arbitrarily, the gates of repentance stand open to the people.
At this stage, let us turn our attention to the last question raised above, the problem of the thematic relationship between the narrative of the ornaments and the story of Moshe’s removal of the tent outside of the camp. What constitutes the connection between the people’s removal of their finery and Moshe’s removal of the tent?
As pointed out previously, the narrative of “The Tent” (33:7-11), describes more than just (i) Moshe’s removal of the tent. It also details (ii) his renaming of the tent as “ohel mo’ed,” the tent of meeting (33:7). Furthermore, it describes (iii) Moshe’s journey to the tent now located outside of the camp and the people’s observation of the journey (33:8). Finally, the section also includes (iv) a description of the meeting of God and Moshe in the tent and the people’s reaction to the meeting (33:9-11).The key to understanding the placement of this section lies not just in the events it describes but also in the terminology and imagery the text utilizes in presenting the events. The Torah emphasizes from the start the placement of the tent outside of the camp. The phrase “mi-chutz la-machaneh” (outside the camp) appears twice in the opening verse (33:7), along with the parallel phrase, “harchek min ha-machaneh” (far from the camp). The tent is not just outside of the camp, but far from it. The result of the tent of meeting (ohel mo’ed) and Moshe being outside of the camp is that “everyone who sought the Lord went … outside of the camp” (33:7). God cannot be found in the camp of Israel, but rather only outside of it. In the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, the sundering of the covenant and intimate relationship between God and Israel, God has decided to lead the people indirectly rather than through direct contact. Consequently, He cannot be found in the camp. Moshe, and those who seek him, must relocate to outside of the camp.
In addition to the above, the Torah twice describes the meeting of Moshe and God in the “tent of meeting” as involving the descent of a cloud (“anan“) at the door of the tent (“petach ha-ohel“) so that God may speak (“dibber“) with Moshe (33:8-9). This imagery clearly echoes the imagery the Torah often utilizes to describe the “mishkan” (tabernacle). In Parashat Tetzaveh, after commanding the regimen of daily sacrifices, the Torah states that the sacrifices will take place “at the door (petach) of the tent of meeting (ohel mo’ed), where I will meet you to speak (le-dabber) with you” (29:42). Of course, God’s presence in the meeting at the door of the “ohel mo’ed” will be symbolized, as always, by a cloud (see Shemot 40:34 and Vayikra 9:15-23). The meaning and spiritual significance of the meeting can be found a few verses later: “I will dwell (v-shakhanti) among the Children of Israel and will be their God” (29:45). Apparently, as a result of the sin of the golden calf, the betrayal of the covenant and the disruption of the God-Israel relationship, the people no longer deserve the gift of the tent of meeting. The plans for the mishkan (25:1-31:11), the place where God would dwell amongst the people, meet with them (25:8,22) and be their God (29:42-46), have apparently been cancelled. Now the tent of meeting and God’s presence reside outside of the camp. Now it is only Moshe who is privy to interaction and communication with the divine presence (33:6,11). The national tent of meeting of God and Israel has been transformed into the private tent of meeting of God and Moshe.
The people’s reaction to the removal of the tent outside of the camp and the alienation from God it symbolizes, constitutes the final piece of the puzzle. The Torah states:
Whenever Moshe went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand, each at the door of HIS tent (petach ohalo), and gaze after Moshe until he had entered the tent. And when Moshe entered the tent the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of THE tent (petach ha-ohel)….When all the people saw the pillar of cloud poised at the entrance of THE tent (petach ha-ohel), all the people would rise and bow low, each at the entrance of HIS tent (petach ohalo). (33:8-10)
At first glance, the Torah seems to be playing some sort of word game. Just as the meeting of Moshe and the pillar of cloud is twice described as taking place at “petach ha-ohel,” the door of THE tent (33:9-10), so too the people, each and every individual, are twice described as located at “petach ohalo,” the door of HIS tent (33:8-10). However, this is much more than a word game. The point is to link the events at the “ohel moed,” the tent of meeting, and the events at the individual Israelite’s tent, “ohalo.”
The people gaze wistfully after Moshe when he leaves their camp for the tent of meeting, and bow and worship when God’s presence arrives. From their perspective, there is little they can do. God has decreed that they will be led by an angel and has removed Himself from their encampment. The luchot, the symbol of their covenant with God, lie smashed, and the tent of meeting designed to house them is rendered a thing of the past. They can do no more than watch from afar and worship from a distance. Ironically, these very acts constitute the foundations of a new beginning.
Like the removal of “edyam,” the people’s ornamentation, the act of watching and yearning serves as an act of mourning. The people envy Moshe and mourn for the loss of their direct relationship with God (Rashi 33:8). At the very least, they are conscious of what they have lost. The first stage of return stirs in the hearts of the people.
The act of bowing, “ve-hishtachavu” (33:10), moves the repentance from the realm of the heart to the realm of the body. In informing Moshe of the sin of the golden calf, God told Moshe that the people “have made a molten calf and have bowed (va-yishtachavu) to it” (32:8). Whereas before the people bowed to an idol, now they bow to the divine presence. In sum, like the story of the jewelry, the story of the tent describes the beginnings of repentance, mourning for what has happened and yearning for things to be different. These are the necessary conditions for receiving God’s mercy.
To conclude, in thinking about the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf and God’s eventual forgiving of the sin, we often focus exclusively on Moshe and his power of prayer. Moshe’s invokes the merit of the forefathers and the honor of God (32:11-14). Moshe places his own life on the line and demands atonement from God (32:31-34). Finally, Moshe speaks face to face with God, begs for guidance and revelation, and eventually prompts God’s unilateral declaration of the thirteen attributes of mercy (33:12-34:8). I have tried to argue that there is in fact nothing at all unilateral about God’s mercy and the revelation of the thirteen attributes of mercy. Buried in between Moshe’s second and third prayers, as a preface to the revelation of the attributes of mercy, lies the seldom noticed section of “The Jewelry and the Tent” (33:1-12), the story of the people’s mourning and repentance. God is merciful and God forgives. Moshe’s prayers are fervent and powerful. But it is the people who have sinned, and the people who must begin to mend, rebuild and repair their relationship with God.
This essay originally appeared on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash and is republished here with permission.