D’var Torah: Parenting issues have parallel in the story of golden calf

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona.


It’s a theme that is familiar to all, whether as expressed in the cliché, “While the cat’s away, the mice will play,” or in the myriad of productions in which the adolescents, in the absence of their parents, do something wild and crazy — inviting their friends for a party which gets out of hand or to taking the parents’ expensive automobile for a joyride ending in disaster. It is a theme which we find also in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa.

In this parashah Moses ascends the mountain in the Sinai to receive the Torah and is away from the encamped Children of Israel for 40 days and nights.  When, according to their miscalculations, Moses has not yet returned, there is a group who begin to influence the entire people, causing them to worry that Moses will never return and that they will be without a leader. According to at least one midrash, the people, long under the influence of Egypt’s idolatry, cannot yet fathom an invisible God and view Moses as God.  In their angst they convince Aaron to construct for them a golden calf which they declare to be Moses’ replacement.  An orgiastic party then follows.

In the movies, when the children’s party is at its height, this is the time that parents usually decide to cut their vacations short, and they often come home to see that their home is filled with raucous, totally out-of-control teens.  In the Torah portion, that scene is repeated as Moses descends the mountain and finds the Children of Israel totally out of control.  In his anger he breaks the two tablets on which the Torah has been inscribed, and the people are punished for their misconduct.

There is yet another concern that parents have, and this, too, is addressed by the parashah.  Parents certainly are concerned for their children’s behavior, for the influence that their peers will have on them and for their ability to discern right from wrong in tempting situations.  However, parents are also concerned over the long term about the legacy which they are leaving to their children.  There comes a certain point in life where parents become very introspective and revisit the model which they have given to their children of the “good life.”  They become concerned that their children will repeat the errors which they committed, not having learned from their mistakes.  Parents also become concerned that what they have done will, in some way or another, affect the lives of their offspring.

There have been cases in which children have had to change their last names in order to be free of the “burden” of their parents’ reputations, where people have judged them, not on their own merits, but on the demerits or merits of their parents.  In small ways people see this, such as those times when they hear their parents’ words issue from their own mouths.  Parents are the first and most lasting teachers.  It is natural for children to emulate them — for good as well as for ill.

So when Moses has a crisis of confidence following the golden calf incident, Moses learns that God does remember the deeds of one’s ancestors and gives credit for the good deeds to children of the thousandth generation and also keeps account of the bad deeds for three and four generations.  Just as people have genetic propensities for certain diseases or genetic factors which make them immune to other diseases, so, too, does one’s genetics play a role in how one is viewed by others and how one plays out the script of one’s life.  It is possible to overcome genetic propensities, and it is possible to change the script written by the previous generation.

Moses, who feels the burden of parenthood most acutely for the Children of Israel, is concerned for the short term behaviors attendant to his absence on the mountain as well as throughout the long journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.  He is also concerned for the long term behaviors which come from the models that parents provide over the course of their lives.  In between these he receives the Torah all over again, the means by which both concerns can be addressed as well as redressed.