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The Nation of Israel; A Stiff-Necked People? Torah Through Fine Art

Dr. Shula Laderman, lecturer of Judaism and the Arts at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, interprets Israeli visual artist Avner Moriah’s understanding of the parasha.  Dr. Laderman connects this week’s reading, Ki Tisa, with matan Torah, the giving of the Torah. Evident in this emotive work are Moses’s intentions, his anger towards the Nation of Israel, and his crushed hopes for them. Moriah’s work helps us see the fiery colors in a meaningful light.

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Parashat Ki-Tisa presents a most dramatic event. Moses after being on the mountain for forty days is told by God: “Go, get thee down; for thy people, that thou brought up out of the land of Egypt, have dealt corruptly; they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed unto it, and said: This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” Thus, the Parsha describes Moses as he is descending from the mountain carrying in his arms: “the two stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God,” as in Exodus (31:18).

Approaching the camp of the Israelites and seeing the Golden Calf surrounded by people who are dancing and performing an enthusiastic act of idol worshiping, Moses cannot control his anger and he “hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain” (Ex. 32:19). What a dramatic and a stormy reaction!!

Avner Moriah visualizes this in a painting. He presents Moses as a very large blue figure coming down the hill, his arms are widely stretched out as he threw the two stone tablets towards the slope of the mountain. His hands gestures seem to express, despair, anger, and sorrow. The mountain is painted with stormy fiery colors that bring to mind the description of this very mountain during the giving of the Torah where it says earlier in Exodus (19:18) “Now mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace”. The painting is alluding to this memorable event yet showing now the people’s grave sin of forgetting the prohibition against having other Gods.

Yet, we wonder why was Moses so shocked and traumatized when he saw the Golden Calf? In the biblical story we were told that Moses was informed by God about the Golden Calf before he was told to leave the mountain? Why then was he so shocked and unable to control his anger so as to break the precious stone tablets?

Examining Moriah’s picture we might gain a certain understanding of these queries. Seeing the image of Moses so clearly against the fiery red mountain close to its top and the multitude of the people gathering at the bottom of the mountain brings the viewer back to the scene described in the theophany (Ex. 19:16) “and all the people that were in the camp trembled.” And they pleaded with Moses saying: “Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” (Ex. 20:15). “And the people stood afar off; but Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was” (Ex. 20:17).

Moses in agreeing to assume the task of a mediator created a total dependence of the people upon him. Thus it is understandable then that when he disappeared for forty days and forty nights his absence meant a lack of any visible representative of God. This caused the people to demand of Aaron to provide them a physical presence that could fill the absence of Moses. Thus the Golden Calf became the new mediator.

Moses thought, perhaps, that when the people see him they will be reassured that their visible contact with God has returned but when he saw them so involved with their dancing all around the Golden Calf he realized that these people ‘s problem was not the lack of “physical presence” of God but a clear desire to worship idols. This convinced him that God’s words to him on the mountain were right and that the people were not worthy and qualified to receive the Torah as a covenant with God and therefore it should be destroyed,

Seeing and realizing all this Moses must have reflected back to his argument with God concerning the harsh words about the Israelites being “a stiff-necked people”. About his refusal to accept God’s offer to establish a new nation from his descendants instead of the sinning Israelites.

Up in the mountain Moses had the courage to “implore God and to say to Him ‘Let not Your anger O Lord blast forth against Your people” (Ex. 32:11). Now seeing the terrible scene of the people’s idolatrous worship, he realizes how wrong he was to object to God’s words and how unworthy the Israelites were to receive the law. Thus, his great disappointment and his emotional upheaval caused him to drop the Stone tablets. The many strong colors of the mountain seem to reflect his stormy emotions and also the frenzy of the people around the Golden Calf.

At this point Moses ordered the Levites to put those among the people who had sinned most grievously to death and then he relented. The next day Moses said to the people, you have been guilty of a great sin, yet I will now go up to the Lord, perhaps I may win forgiveness for your sin (Ex. 32:30). He was again ready to ascend and to mediate between God and the people.

Shavua Tov from Schechter

Dr. Shula Laderman worked for many years as a computer programmer and planner at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem. While working there, she studied at  the Hebrew University in Jerusalem towards her Ph.D.,  which she received in  2000. Her topic of research is the “Artist as an Interpreter” – visual interpretation of the Bible in Jewish and Christian Art. She is the author of: Images of Cosmology in Jewish and Byzantine Art- God’s Blueprint of Creation and is co-author with the artist Avner Moriah of: The Illuminated Torah. She taught for many years at Bar Ilan University as well as at the Schechter Institute, where she continues to teach in the Judaism and the Arts track (which she directed in the past).

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