Shabbat candles: 5:38 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 30:11-34:35
Haftarah: I Kings 18:1-39
What could redound to the praise of Israel at this low point in their spiritual history, worshipping the Golden Calf so soon after Sinai? In the bloody aftermath of this betrayal, God’s decision not to go up with them to the Land, but to send an angel instead (Exodus 33:3) was harder to accept than even the loss of many of their next of kin. Plunged in mourning and sufficiently sensitized as to what really mattered in their lives, they were unable to wear the ediot (ornaments) they customarily put on.
Rabbi David Kimchi, the Radak, says that the ediot were crowns with which the Jewish people were adorned when they accepted the Torah at Sinai; ediot deriving from the root edi, witness or testimony. For at Sinai, the people’s role was to bear witness to what they had experienced, and in the form of jewels, these ediot served as receptors to that glory.
In Jewish mystical thinking certain corollaries arise out of the idea that man is created in God’s image. As a vessel for Divine Light, man is actually a replica and mirror of it. This sets up a whole train of correspondences between the worlds above and below, spelling out an inherent symmetry like the relationship between lovers.
This is demonstrated most clearly when Jewish men wind on the straps of their tefillin (ritual objects bearing closest resemblance to the ornaments under discussion), they bind themselves to God with the words He might say to some invisible bride of all Israel: “And I betroth thee unto Me forever….” (Hosea 2:21).
Just as the tefillin appear to have been bridal rings or straps binding earth to Heaven and above to below, so the ediot seem to have also been some form of bridal accoutrements, also bound on with straps, as described in Isaiah: “You shall surely dress yourself with them as with an ornament, and bind them on you, like the jewels of a bride” (Is. 49:18).
The jewels of the Israelites after Sinai may have relayed the glory of the Divine Presence, but after the sin of the Golden Calf, they were broken receptors.
Moses, lingering upon the mountain, was to receive the luchot ha-edut, or the Tablets of Testimony, containing the Ten Commandments, on the people’s behalf. But after the men had stripped themselves of their ediot, he dismantled the ohel ha-edut, or Tent of Testimony, carrying it outside the center of the Israelite encampment.
Just as the Israelite men had lost outer and inner illumination, with Moses the process was reversed. Although he was not wearing any actual crowns, through his contact with the Divine his whole face was illuminated. In his various comings and going down the mountain and in and out of the Tent, unbeknownst to him, all the illumination that had radiated from the people’s ornaments was now vested in him. Moses may have descended the mountain but it was obvious that he had brought down some of that sanctity, and that he and the rest of the people were on entirely separate levels.
Nevertheless, Moses remained their only hope. When the leader of Israel makes his daily round from camp to Tent of Testimony, each man, stripped of ornaments, stands to attention at the door of his own tent, while the Pillar of Cloud, signifying the Shechinah, courteously awaited his arrival at the Tent of Meeting. All eyes were poignantly directed toward the one human being to whom God spoke plainly, as one speaks with a friend.
Inside the Tent begins the humorous debate between God and Moses, picked up and expanded upon by various rabbinic Aggadata. Although God seems to imply that the people are all Moses’ responsibility, Moses, when he dares get a word in, reminds Him that He cannot afford to give up on this human investment. Flawed though they might be, ultimately this nation is still His own. God protests that Moses is the only one He favors at this juncture; Moses need only give his consent and Israel will be consumed and Moses and his descendants the new chosen. Moses rejects this offer offhand, as God hoped he would, saying he would rather die, then lays out his case on Israel’s behalf.
The Ishbitzer says that in all his comings and goings to the Tent outside the camp, what Moses prayed for was that in the future, whenever a Jew sinned, it would be external, somehow artificial and erasable, while at heart they would always remain connected to the Divine.
Though the Jewish people and their great leader were sometimes many levels apart, ultimately both wanted the same thing: for God to play a central role in their lives. The fact that they mourned God’s decision to remove His Presence from them more than all their other sorrows proves that despite any sin they might have committed, what they yearned for was connection.
Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” and “Jewish Folk Art.” She has written for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement, and Partisan Review.