Of calves and covenants

Putting the extent of the sin into perspective.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

It seems amazing – not to say embarrassing – that a scant seven weeks after standing around Mount Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments, the Nation of Israel fell so low as to build and worship the golden calf. This entire episode fairly cries out for an explanation.

A synthesis of the major commentaries (chiefly the Ohr ha-Chayyim, Rashi, the Ramban, and the Ibn Ezra on our parashah, and Kuzari 1:92-98) puts the sin of the golden calf into perspective. The people demanded the golden calf, “because this man Moshe, who brought us up out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him!” (Exodus 32:1).

They wanted a replacement for the man Moshe, not for G-d. They had seen how G-d had appointed Moshe as His emissary to the nation, and assumed – wrongly – that He therefore needed an intermediary between Himself and them. Now that Moshe had failed to return from the top of Mount Sinai, they sought an alternative intermediary.

A golden statue seemed to be permitted as this intermediary: after all, G-d Himself had commanded that in the Mishkan, atop of the Ark containing the two Tablets of Stone, were to be two golden Cherubim (Exodus 25:18-20).

Certainly Aaron would never have agreed to have participated in actual idolatry; and had his action been idolatry, it is inconceivable that he could have continued to serve as G-d’s Priest for the rest of his life.

A small minority of the people went way beyond the popular demand for the golden calf and worshipped it as an idol, as a replacement for G-d and not as a replacement for the man Moshe.

Who were these idolaters? – Their words betray their identity: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4). Jews could not have used these words. Had there been Jewish idolaters, they would have referred to “our gods…who brought us up out of the land of Egypt”. Only outsiders speaking to Israel could have used the words “your gods… who brought you up”.

These outsiders were of the erev rav, the “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) – Egyptians and others who tagged onto Israel to get out of Egypt while the going was good, among whom were insincere converts who only joined the nation for their own personal benefits.

Hence G-d told Moshe of what was happening with the words “your nation, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have become corrupt” (32:7). What does G-d mean by “your nation, whom you brought up”? Suddenly Israel was no longer G-d’s nation? The clear inference is that G-d spoke of the mixed multitude – not the people whom He had brought up out of Egypt, but rather the people whom Moshe had allowed to come with them.

The response to the golden calf also puts the extent of the sin into perspective. Moshe instructed the Levites – the men of his own tribe, the only tribe from which no one had worshipped the golden calf – to slay everyone who had worshipped it as an idol. Consequently, they killed about three thousand men (32:26-28) – a tiny fraction of the approximately 600,000 adult men (12:37; compare the tribal census in Numbers Chapter 1, giving a total of 603,550 men aged 20 and over).

Following this, G-d sent a plague as further punishment (Exodus 32:35). “The Torah does not say how many died in this plague, in the way that it says how many were killed by the Levites and how many died in the plagues after Korah’s rebellion and at Ba’al Peor , so maybe no one at all died in this plague; just that G-d condemned them to die before their time” (Ramban, Exodus 32:35).

And then, even though the nation’s trek to the Land of Israel was delayed by almost a year, their national life continued almost unchanged. The Clouds of Glory still covered them by day, the Pillar of Fire still warmed and led them by night, the manna still fell from heaven, and G-d gave them the two Tablets of Stone anew to replace those which Moshe had smashed.

And G-d continued immediately by sealing the covenant with the nation, making it clear that He had not rejected them: “Behold! – I seal a covenant” (Exodus 34:10), and He then defined this covenant: “Before all your nation I will perform such wonders as have never been created anywhere in the world and among any of the peoples; thus the entire nation in whose midst you are will see that the work of Hashem, which I do with you, is awesome. Guard to yourself what I command you today: behold! – I will drive the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite out before you…” (34:10-11).

After promising Moshe that He would drive out the inhabitants of Canaan, G-d continued with the warning against forging any covenants with them: “Guard yourself lest you seal a covenant with the inhabitant of the Land…lest he be a trap in your midst. Instead smash their altars, break their pillars, and chop down their idolatrous trees…lest you forge a covenant with the inhabitant of the Land and go astray after their gods and sacrifice to their gods…” (vs. 12-15).

This warning is amply justified here, coming immediately after the mixed multitude had seduced the nation into idolatry. Moshe and the entire nation had just experienced how easily idolaters among them could be “a trap in their midst”, so now was the time for G-d to admonish them against allowing such a débâcle to recur.

This admonition against idolatry effectively closes the episode of the golden calf, and the next topic in the Torah is the Festivals: “You shall keep the Festival of Matzos… Six days you shall work, and on the seventh day you shall cease from work… And you shall celebrate the festival of Shavuot…and the Harvest Festival [Sukkot] at the turn of the year… Three times a year shall every male of yours appear the Lord, Hashem G-d of Israel…” (vs. 18-23).

This is a direct continuation of the final words that G-d had spoken immediately before the golden calf episode began, “The Children of Israel shall keep the Shabbat, making the Shabbat an eternal covenant throughout their generations...” (Exodus 31:16).

Yes, we had fallen into grievous sin – but once that was over, G-d continued almost as though nothing had happened. He continued from commanding the Shabbat to commanding the Festivals in a very natural progression.

The series of commandments to celebrate the Festivals, which appears after the sin of the golden calf, concludes with an apparent non sequitur: “You shall not slaughter the blood of My sacrifices with chametz (leaven), nor shall the Pesach Festival sacrifice be left overnight until the morning. The choicest of your Land’s first-fruits shall you bring to the House of Hashem your G-d; you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (34:25-26).

From the Festivals to the Festival sacrifices is a natural progression; yet this last phrase – “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” – seems totally disconnected. What connexion is there between celebrating the Festivals and not cooking meat and milk together?

To answer this question, we note that the Torah forbids the meat-and-milk mixture three times. The first time was in Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 23:19), where it also appeared as an apparent non-sequitur directly following a series of commandments to celebrate the three Pilgrimage Festivals.

The second time, in our parashah, is again as a riposte to the commandments to celebrate the Festivals and Shabbat.

The third time is in Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 14:21), where it has a far more apparent context – an entire section dealing with forbidden and permitted foods. Deuteronomy 14:3 commands, “You shall not eat any abomination”, then proceeds to define permitted and forbidden land animals, permitted and forbidden aquatic creatures, then birds, then the general prohibition on eating any creature which was not slaughtered according to halachah, concluding with the injunction against cooking a kid in its mother’s milk.

The Midrash cites Rabbi Yishmael: “Why does the Torah say ‘you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk’ three times? – These correspond to the three covenants that G-d forged with Israel: one at Horeb [Mount Sinai], one in the Plains of Moab, and one at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal” (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Massechta de-Kaspa 5, s.v. לא תבשל גדי and Sifrei Deuteronomy, Re’eh 104).

The first covenant that G-d forged with Israel was at Horeb, when He gave us the Torah. Moshe “took the Book of the covenant and read it in the ears of the nation, and they said: Everything that Hashem has said – we will hear and we will obey! And Moshe took the blood and threw it over the nation, saying: Behold the blood of the covenant that Hashem has sealed with you” (Exodus 24:7-8).

The second covenant was when the entire nation stood before Hashem in the Plains of Moab “to pass into the covenant of Hashem your G-d” (Deuteronomy 29:11), on the last day of Moshe’s life, forty days before crossing the River Jordan and entering the Land of Israel.

The third covenant was sealed at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, the mountains flanking Shechem, in accordance with Moshe’s command in his final few days in this world (Deuteronomy 11:29 and 27:4-26) that after crossing the River Jordan they were to come to there to seal the third covenant.

Sure enough, when Joshua led us across the River Jordan, the conquest of Israel began in the Jordan Valley with Jericho (Joshua 5:13-6:27) and Ai (7:2-8:31). And immediately following, “Joshua built an altar to Hashem G-d of Israel on Mount Ebal, as Moshe the servant of Hashem had commanded the Children of Israel, as is written in the Book of the Torah of Moshe… They sacrificed there burnt-offerings to Hashem and slaughtered peace-offerings. There on the stones he wrote a repetition of the Torah of Moshe” (8:30-32).

These are the three covenants between G-d and His nation Israel, corresponding to which He commanded us three times in the Torah not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk.

So it becomes overwhelmingly significant that G-d commanded “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” for the second time after the sin of the golden calf. Since this corresponds to the second covenant, it was G-d’s way of telling us that despite the sin, His covenant had not been abrogated, that we were still His nation, that He was still our G-d.

The Midrash (Mechilta ibid.) cites several other explanations from several other rabbis as to why the commandment “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” is repeated three times. Says Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: “Once to make it apply both in the Land of Israel and outside of the Land of Israel, once to make it apply when a Holy Temple is standing, and once to make it apply when no Holy Temple is standing”.

When G-d reiterated this prohibition immediately after the sin of the golden calf, we were outside the Land of Israel and the Mishkan (the precursor of the Holy Temple) had not yet been built. The nation had already been commanded to build the Mishkan, but it would only be constructed some eight months later.

Faced with the consequences of their heinous sin, with no Mishkan as yet to provide atonement, the nation must have been terribly demoralised. So now was the time for G-d to encourage and inspire them with a glimpse into their future destiny: “I will drive the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite out before you… Be on your guard lest you seal a covenant with the inhabitant of the Land to which you are coming…”.

And He gave Israel this seemingly out-of-context mitzvah of not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk to reassure them that despite their sin, despite His recent fury, despite the lack of a Mishkan, despite their still being in exile, He nevertheless sealed the covenant which He had forged with Israel just a few weeks earlier.