From the Rabbi – Tzchok (צחק) in the Golden Calf Narrative

D’var Torah for Ki Tissa, 5778


So Aaron instructed them to bring forth their jewelry, and he molded it into a golden calf, saying, “This is your Elohim...”

And Aaron… built an alter before it … and brought burnt offerings and brought forward communion sacrifices, and the people came back from eating and drinking and they rose up letzachek.

Today we’re going to mine the meaning of that word: “letzachek”, and wonder, a little, about its use here, in this story.

The alters of the Northern Israelite Kingdom, built by King Jeroboam, after the split of the United Israelite Kingdom of Kings Saul and David, were marked by molten calves, and scholars of Near Eastern Archeology don’t, necessarily, think of calves at alter sites to be idolatrous. Rather, an understanding of Near Eastern religious iconography clarifies that a variety of animal figures served as pedestals for gods who appeared astride their backs.

From this perspective, the Golden Calf was meant to invite as the ineffable God of Israel back into their camp, offering Him a new resting place amongst the People after God’s long absence on the mountaintop. The calf was the tangible, visible, platform they fashioned to seat their invisible God, Elohim.

Even though this tradition, with connotations of honoring and welcoming an indwelling god, may have been well known in Northern Israelite circles, the Torah, in the form in which we have received it, clearly denigrates both the cult object and the cultic event described in our Torah reading.

A significant element in the narrative’s defamation of the Golden Calf festival is its characterization as an incident of wild debauchery, signified by use of the root “tz-ch-k” to describe Israel’s celebration. They went out “letzachek,” which we have, commonly, come to understand as meaning, “to revel,” wild, uncontrolled, and depraved.

Surely, joy is an important part of worship, and there has been a case made for understanding the tzchok of the People as simple, joyful singing and dancing, “frolicking”, if you will.

The Torah prescribes rejoicing on festivals and when making offerings to God, but in the mitzvah of joy is expressed by the root s-m-ch, as in simcha: “v’shamachta b’chagecha.”

Litzchok” may mean “to laugh,” but in the biblical parlance, tz-ch-k is a more nuanced, darkly shaded root, and cannot simply be understood as an expression of simcha.

The quintessential lexicon of biblical roots, Brown Driver Briggs offers that letzachek means to jest, to sport, to play, to make sport, as in mockery, or to toy with, as in a conjugal caress. The noun tzchok is laughter but it can be a person made into laughter, a “laughing stock.” And that brings mockery of the ineffable God into the scene of the Golden Calf.

The most notable use of the root tz-ch-k appears in the Yitzchak stories, whose name, after all, derives from this root.

God tells Abraham that Sarah will be blessed to bear a son, and Abraham laughs, saying, “to a hundred-year-old will a child be born? Will ninety-year-old Sarah give birth?” Sarah repeats his incredulousness when she overhears the angels’ annunciation and “laughs inwardly, saying, ‘After being shriveled, shall I have pleasure? And my husband is old!’ ”. She is menopausal, and he is impotent. How, then, will she conceive?

When God asks why she’s laughed, Sarah denies laughing, “for she was afraid.” She was afraid because she’d laughed at God, her tzchok derisive in nature, cynical, disbelieving.

Later in that story the laughter seems to lighten, as the gathering of well-wishers laugh along with Sarah at Yitzchak’s weaning. But our great Biblical translator Robert Alter points out that tzchok, in the Bible, carries, intrinsic to the root, a sense of scorn, even when used in a more positive context. Alter says: “All who hear of [Yitzchak’s birth] may laugh, rejoice with Sarah, but the hint that they might also laugh at her is evident in the language.”

In the Ishmael story, which begins in the very next sentence, Sarah sees Ishmael tzchok-ing, and he is banished. Here, the word is in the emphatic form: “metzachek.” Ishmael’s expulsion is justified by the rabbis, who understand tzchok in the emphatic (piel) to mean sexual behavior, associating Ishmael’s tzchok with the suggestion of sexual activity in Lot’s tzchok with his sons-in-law, also expressed as “metzachek.”  

Later Yitzchak and Rebecca metzachek playfulness with one another. Everett Fox translates: “…there was Yitzchak laughing-and-loving with Rebecca his wife!”

And the word appears again in Potiphar’s wife’s accusation of sexual advances on the part of Jacob. She grabs Joseph’s garment, but he rips through and leaves in her hand as he flees. Then, holding the garment as evidence for her husband to see, Potiphar accuses: “There came to me the Hebrew servant… to l’tzachek – play around with me!” Everett Fox translates: “play around;” Bible scholar William Propp suggests that a the colloquial paraphrase of tz-ch-k is: “fool around.”

The simplest meaning of tzchok in the Ishmael narrative is that he is a child observed at play, “metzachek.” The most egregious meaning (but the easiest to reconcile with his banishment) is that he played, sexually, with his half-brother, abusing the child.

The root’s variety of suggested affects allows translators of the Golden Calf narrative to choose a particular nuance. The JPS translation prefers: “…and they rose ‘to dance’.” Robert Alter translates: “…and they rose up ‘to play’,” noting that the “play” of tzchok involves dance but, less neutrally, implies a bacchanal of food and drink, song and dance, culminating in orgiastic activity.

Also acknowledging sexual connotation, Everett Fox and William Propp both translate letzachek as “to revel.” To revel is to rejoice, to savor, to feast on and glory in; it is also to indulge. It is to wallow, get high, make merry, cut loose, overindulge or overdo. Revelry is celebration, a fling, a romp, a carnival, a bacchanal.

Sex, to be sure, was not part of authorized Israelite worship. But there is a way in which the Torah describes apostasy, desertion of God, as infidelity. Two chapters later, we read: “…you shall not bow to another god for the Lord, ‘shmo El kana’ – ‘His name is Jealous’, a jealous God He is.”

Robert Alter reads a quasi-sexual characteristic in this jealousy. “The God who has chosen Israel implicitly represents Himself as Israel’s betrothed, spouse, lover, and when the Israelites betray YHWH by worshipping other gods, they go ‘whoring,’ and are unfaithful as an errant spouse is sexually unfaithful.” The revolutionary idea of a single God banning all rivals is powerfully anthropomorphic. “God does not tolerate rivals to the hearts of his people Israel.” Directly after naming God “Jealous,” the next verses invoke the metaphor of whoring three times.

Sexual “play” surpasses implication of a celebration gone too far. It raises the question of Israel’s loyalty to her divine spouse.

The insinuation of sexual frivolity, bacchanalian revelry, and “whoring,” is supported by the punishment Moses enacts, so similar to the ritual of sotah, the ordeal of bitter water, developed to apply in certain cases of suspected adultery. Although he had defended the People in the face of God’s anger, when Moses reenters the camp and sees the calf and the tzchok with his own eyes, he becomes as enraged as God had been.

“His nose flared” in anger. Sotah, too, is enacted when a suspicious husband is incited by anger in his “storm wind of jealousy.” Sotah consists of having the wife drink a vile potion containing the ink of a written curse. Moshe burned the calf, ground it fine, mixed its ashes with water, and had the People drink. RAMBAM puts a fine point to the disgrace of whoring Israel and her concort, as the calf passed through the bodies of the Israelites, reappearing in their feces.

Moses’s smashing of the tablets was not just an emotional display; it symbolized a rupture in the Covenant between Israel and God, between divine husband and chosen wife. Indeed, it was more than a symbolic act. In the Ancient Near East, to destroy a contractual document was to actively nullify its contents. Assyrian vassal treaties were ritually smashed after Nineveh’s fall, and in the book of Zechariah a staff was “cleft in two to annul the Covenant.”

When I look at the incident of the Golden calf through the lens of Biblical Criticism, it is not the object I am drawn to focus on, it’s the tzchok and that word’s contextual meaning as revelry of an unseemly nature, fraught with overtones of mockery and disloyalty, and implicit with undertones of sexual frenzy. Letzachek is so offensive an action (or word!) as to incite, first, God, and then, Moses, to want to break the Covenant.

The question is why this word is employed, here, defaming what could well be a fully God-centered celebration? After all, this celebration parallels celebration of the Covenant, described a few chapters earlier, after Moshe recounts the Ten Commandments, and the Israelites sacrifice and eat a sacred meal in the presence of their revealed deity.

Aaron declared the Calf, “your God who brought you up from the land of Egypt,” and scholars bring to bear that YHWH’s might as redeemer is, indeed, described in Torah as, “the God, who takes them out from Egypt; he has, indeed, wild-ox prongs!” But despite sociological, archeological, and textual evidence upholding Israel’s allegiance to their God, and evidence of monotheist intent in the Golden Calf incident, the Torah denigrates this alter, this object, and this ritual as being defined by tzchok. Why?

The answer seems to be political.

Even more than it parallels the celebration of the Covenant at Sinai, the Golden Calf celebration resembles description of the cult of Jeroboam. King Jeroboam introduced a calf into cultic worship in the Northern Kingdom, and modern scholars regard the narrative in our parsha as an allegorical attack on Jeroboam.

Our Torah is a redaction of narratives by different authors – a Northern voice and a, different, Southern voice primary amongst them.

Through the lens of Biblical Criticism, a Sothern political agenda – championing the legitimacy of the Bet Hamikdash as the sole site of sacrificial worship, emerges in the authorship of the Golden Calf narrative, which seems polemical, a parody of the cult of the calf at the alters of Bethel and Dan in the North.

William Propp says that, “the Redactor (the one who wove together the various texts that make up our Torah) was a participant in the last days of the epoch battle of the Levites.” It is possible that the sin of the Golden Calf is a telling of the sin of the Northern alters which were established as alternatives to the Levitical center in Jerusalem.

After the Monarchy fractured (c. 920 B.C. E.), the Southern Kingdom kept the sacred Ark containing the Tablets of the Law, an object that had originally been a Northern cultic object, before Solomon took it for his Temple in Jerusalem. Propp calls the Ark a “hostage” that compelled Northerners to continue to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

When Jeroboam was elected king of the ten northern tribes, one of his first acts was to erect alters at the southern and northern edges of his kingdom so that his subjects would have their own sacrificial centers. There was a calf at Bethel and a calf at Dan.

Nowhere in the account of Jeroboam’s inauguration of his calf cult is there suggestion of revelry or of “tzchok.” This unseemliness is added in the polemic of the Golden Calf, suggesting a further degree of depravity in the Northern cult that is being caricatured. The purpose of “tzchok,” and all it implies, may be to exaggerate the Northern sin, undermining the possibility that establishment of these alters was a political solution, departing from Southern human understanding of ideology and human practice of ritual, but not meant to be disloyal to Elohim.

Further, in addition to evidence that the calf was a divine escort or pedestal, and not an idol, and in addition to evidence that the calf symbolized YHWH, not a rival god, there is also evidence that the calf symbolized Ephraim, Jeroboam’s tribe. Jeremiah describes Ephraim as an undisciplined calf, but, still, YHWH’s darling. Hoshea likens Ephrayim to both a child and a calf: “I trained Ephraim, carried him in my arms… with… chords I pulled them, with ropes of love, and I was to them like those who place a yoke over his jowls.”

If the Golden Calf represents the Northern tribes themselves, then they, like the calf, are melted down and consumed, swallowed up by history. But in the next chapter of our parsha the Tablets are recreated and the Covenant is restored.

I like to think that the allegory contains not just defamation, and a wish that the calf-cult dissolve, but also some measure of promise that re-enfranchisement is possible, in the future.

Looking at our parsha through the lens of it authorships and the collage of its voices into the single text we’ve inherited, Shemot is thought to have been redacted after the fall of the Northern Kingdom. And these chapters recounting Sinai, the Calf, and the second set of Tablest, are adjoining narratives of

concord, rebellion, and reconciliation.

The collage created by the Redactor, who has lived the fracture of the twelve Tribes, ultimately offers the Covenant to all of Israel, gathering back in the ten lost tribes, and with the second set of Tablets, reuniting the whole of God’s beloved People in the composite of our sacred story.