“The Levites and the Golden Calf: Transcending One’s Own Nature”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, we read of the rebellion of the Golden Calf. According to tradition, the People of Israel miscalculated the time that Moshe told them he would be with G-d on Mt. Sinai. When Moshe did not return at the expected time after 40 days, the people demanded from Aaron that he make a new leader for them. Aaron tried to delay the people until Moshe returned by asking the people to bring their jewelry, expecting that they would not be very eager to give them up.

Lo and behold the people quickly brought their valuables. Aaron receives their donations and fashioned the gold with a tool into a molten calf. Again, Aaron tries to delay by saying that there would be a celebration tomorrow. But the people were so eager, that they arose early in the morning and began to joyously worship the Calf. Moshe descends from the mountain to find the people not only worshiping the Golden Calf but enthusiastically celebrating with song and dance. He reacts to this scene by smashing the tablets that he has brought from Sinai.

The bible, in Exodus 32:25-29, says, “When Moses saw that the people had gone mad (in making the Golden Calf)…. he stood at the gate of the camp and cried out: Who is to G-d, come to me!” All the Levites gathered around him. He told them, “Thus says the Lord, G-d of Israel, each of you prepare your sword on your thigh, pass back and forth through the camp and kill your own brother or your own friend or your relative.” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and on that day there fell from the people about 3,000 men. Moses said to the Levites: “Dedicate yourselves to G-d today, for indeed each of you is dedicated through his son or his daughter and have brought on yourselves a blessing this day.”

Rabbi M. Miller, in his Shabbath Shiurim, cites a series of questions raised by the Netziv with regard to the Golden Calf. Clearly, asks the Netziv, since only 3,000 people were killed, these 3,000 (an approximate ratio of one of 200) must have been the guilty ones among the 600,000 people, who were actually involved in the sin. Why then did only the Levites respond to Moshe’s call? Furthermore, asks the Netziv, why was the call of Moshe expressed in such a cruel manner? Moshe didn’t say: Kill every person, even if he is your brother or your friend. Instead he commands “Kill your own brother, or your own friend.” What was the motive behind the naked harshness of this command?

Rabbi Miller explores and develops the responses of the Netziv, saying that the Levites’ response to Moshe was much more than an ethical, moral or religious response. Rather, claims the Netziv, the Levites’ response emanated from an extraordinary level of pure unmitigated desire to perform G-d’s command. They, in utter self-negation, became but an instrument of G-d’s justice, devoid of any human sentiment. When Moshe calls the people (Exodus 32:26), “Mee la’Hashem ay’lay,” Who is for G-d, come to me?–he is really asking, who is holy and unreservedly for G-d? Who is conscious of utter annihilation of the self in their zeal for G-d? He phrased the question in such a brazen manner specifically because he wanted only those who were up to that special level to come.

Among the People of Israel who did not worship the Golden Calf, only the Levites reached that level of self-abnegation. Consequently, only the Levites were able to respond to Moshe’s brazen call to kill even their brothers if necessary.

Perhaps we now understand why the Levites were singled out to be the servants of G-d for all time and to serve as the ministers in the Tabernacle and ultimately in the Temple. The Levites, who were prepared to kill even their brothers, even if it meant that they themselves may be subject to the possibility of being killed by their brothers, actually went against human nature.

While few of us could ever hope to achieve the exalted level of transcendent spirituality reached by the Levites, all Jews should certainly strive to raise their spiritual sights so that we too may become the ministers of G-d in our own modest way.

May you be blessed.