“The Levites and the Golden Calf: Transcending One’s Own Nature”
(Updated and revised from Kee Tisah 5761-2001)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, we read of the tragic and calamitous rebellion of the Golden Calf.

According to tradition, the People of Israel miscalculated the time that Moses would be with G-d on Mt. Sinai. When Moses 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 Moses returned by asking the people to bring their jewelry, expecting that they would not be very eager to give up their valuables. Uncharacteristically, the people quickly brought their valuables. Aaron received their donations and fashioned the gold with a tool into a molten calf. Aaron tried to delay again announcing 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. When Moses descended from the mountain, he found the people not only worshiping the Golden Calf, he saw them enthusiastically celebrating with song and dance. Moses reacted angrily to this sight and smashed the tablets that he had brought down from Sinai.

The Torah, in Exodus 32:25-29, states that when Moses saw that the people (worshiping the Golden Calf) had gone mad… he stood at the gate of the camp and cried out: מִי לַהַשֵׁם אֵלָי , “Whoever 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 Moses’ call?

Furthermore, asks the Netziv, why was the call of Moses expressed in such a harsh manner? Moses did not 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 reason for his extreme harshness?

Rabbi Miller explores and develops the comments of the Netziv, saying that the Levites’ response to Moses was much more than an ethical, moral or religious response. Rather, claims the Netziv, the Levites’ response emanated from an extraordinarily pure and unmitigated desire to perform G-d’s command. Through their selfless actions, the Levites, in utter self-negation, became an instrument of G-d’s justice, devoid of any human emotion. When Moses calls to the people, (Exodus 32:26), “Whoever is to G-d, come to me!”–he is really asking, who is holy and unreservedly for G-d? Who is capable of utter abnegation of the self in their zeal for G-d? He phrased the question in such a brazen manner specifically because he wanted only those to come who were up to that exalted level.

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

Perhaps, now we 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 own brothers, and subjecting themselves to the possibility of being killed by their own brothers, actually went against human nature.

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

May you be blessed.

The festival of Purim  marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.

This Shabbat is also known as “Shabbat Parashat Parah.” It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.