Commentary on Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35)
The Golden Calf is one of the most spiritually disturbing incidents in the narrative of the Israelites’ journey through the desert. While Moses is away on the mountain with God, the Israelite camp dissolves into a chaos of mistrust and idol worship under the care of Aaaron. Despite having just experienced God’s presence and relationship through their miraculous freedom from Egypt and revelation at the mountain, Moses’ brother and flock engage in a massive spiritual betrayal when they build a false idol to worship and celebrate. But who is to blame for this violation?
At first glance, the responsibility lays with Aaron. After all, he’s the one who assembles the people, demands their jewelry as raw material, and fashions the Golden Calf for his community to worship. It is Aaron, too, who declares a festival day in honor of the idol and builds an altar for the calf. When an infuriated Moses storms down the mountain to find the Israelites engaged in idolatry, the Torah narrative tells us in Exodus 32:25 that the prophet sees immediately that Aaron is to blame for what has occurred.
But when God metes out punishment for this spiritual betrayal, a plague is leveled against the entire Israelite people, not only their priest (Exodus 32:35). Each individual Israelite is held ultimately responsible by God for this idol worship. Even though the calf was not their idea, their donation of gold and participation in Aharon’s invented festival rendered them complicit.
The global arms trade has placed the United States’ and Israel’s respective leaderships in a similar enabling position to that of Am Yisrael in our Torah portion. Today, our highly valued objects are not gold and precious metal but munitions, sought after by genocidal governments.
The Burmese military is engaged in a massive ethnic-cleansing campaign against the Muslim Rohingya minority in the Rakhine province of the country, using advanced weapons purchased from Israel. According to a recent UN report, at least 10,000 Rohingya were killed by Burmese forces in a violent series of “clearance operations” in late August 2018; an additional 725,000 people have been forced to flee Rakhine province. Victims have been sexually assaulted, seen their villages burned, and fled their homes under gunfire.
The United States has also engaged in arms deals with nations accused of gross human rights violations. The largest global customer for U.S. munitions is Saudi Arabia, which continues to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen through the use of airstrikes on civilian targets, often employing American weapons in their attacks.
We can, of course, empathize with the Israelites, imagining all the reasons why they might have given Aaron their gold for the idol. Moses had been away from camp for days, leaving them leaderless. The Israelites were still likely in a communal recovery from centuries of slavery in a land where they had all but forgotten their religious identities, amidst an Egyptian culture that wed representational idols to ideas of national strength and security. In Israel and the United States, our respective governments may engage in spiritually ruinous munitions deals out of a similar flavor of anxiety: Perhaps they seek to keep our nations’ industries economically supported through the arms trade, or act in order to fund their own defense systems.
The Burmese and Saudi Arabian militaries are directly perpetrating ethnic cleansing, but our Torah narrative insists that our respective governments must consider themselves complicit in this violence through their contribution of arms. What is then to be done in the face of this increasingly nefarious global arms market? Rereading the narrative of the Golden Calf, the midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah offers a daring suggestion.
וַיִּתְפָּֽרְקוּ֙ כָּל־הָעָ֔ם אֶת־נִזְמֵ֥י הַזָּהָ֖ב אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶ֑ם וַיָּבִ֖יאוּ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹֽן׃
And all the people took the gold rings that were in their ears, and brought them to Aharon. (Exodus 32:3)
While the Hebrew verb “ya-yitparku,” “they took off,” is masculine plural, it is conventionally read as a reference to a mixed-gender group of Israelites. Bamidbar Rabbah 21:10 chooses to read the phrase literally: “They [the men] took” asserts that it was only the Israelite men who opted to participate and give over their gold. The Israelite women, says the midrash, refused to donate their valuables or to participate in idolatry.
Torah demands that we hold ourselves responsible for the broader outcomes of our choices—to enable someone to enact wickedness is to be held accountable alongside them. Today, we must resist complicity in building a idol to the false god of violence: constructing a calf made not of gold but of missiles, drones, and patrol boats.
But our tradition also emphasizes the power of our smaller righteous actions: to demonstrably refuse to abet the construction of evil in our midst is a mighty act. Our voices of protest are sacred tools, and the refusal to sell these weapons can be a clarion call for those we supply. American and Israeli Jews must emulate the sacred noncompliance of our spiritual foremothers and insist that our governments refuse to continue to arm nations engaged in human rights abuses.
Margo Hughes-Robinson is a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and an alumna of the T’ruah Israel Fellowship. She currently serves as a Marshall T. Meyer Rabbinic Fellow at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City.