Religion & Beliefs

Reveling and Revelations

This weekly Torah episode is Ki Tisa, Hebrew for “The Census,” in which the infamous Golden Calf shows up, among other guests. Moses is downloading revelation up on the mountain, while his brother Aaron is down below, in charge of … Read More

By / March 9, 2007

This weekly Torah episode is Ki Tisa, Hebrew for “The Census,” in which the infamous Golden Calf shows up, among other guests. Moses is downloading revelation up on the mountain, while his brother Aaron is down below, in charge of the impatient masses who are hungry for their fix of the divine dose. The people have no patience for an abstract, faceless God. The gods they know from Egypt are tangible – they have faces, bodies, and are composed of glitzy substances that you can dance around. And so, the first religious fundraising campaign takes place: one sacred young bull emerges from the fires, made from countless gold earrings. The people are ecstatic and they point at the idol exclaiming “This IS your deity, Israel!” – the ancient predecessor to “In God We Trust.” This would have been a funny story had it not ended so tragically, with the wrath of Moses, the breaking of the Ten Commandments, and a civil war with 3,000 casualties. What are we to make of this story? What possible relevance does it have for modern times, when worship, money, idolatry and fundamentalism all seem to be so hopelessly interwoven? The Israelites really believed they were celebrating the divine, but how far did good intentions go? All they wanted was fast food and instant gratification – don’t we all? One key to untangling this theological mess may lie in a Hebrew verb used to describe what exactly they did on that day. This word, not surprisingly, can be translated in a variety of different ways.

And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to make merry (Exodus 32:6).

The Hebrew word used here is “letzachek,” which means to laugh, mock, or play. It is, in fact, the word that gives Isaac his name: “the one who will laugh.” It is also a word repeated throughout the Bible to denote sexual play, general foolery, and, possibly, bloodshed. In this case, the translators give us “rose to make merry,” while the King James and JPS versions offer “rose to dance” and Artscroll likes “got up to revel.” The Pseudo-Jonathan translation uses the quaint "rose up to disport themselves with strange service.” In the English language, there is not a single word that will serve up such an array of meanings – from the innocent to the erotic, from the pagan to the playful. In the end we like "revel" because this word is distinctive, but also appears inside the English word "revelation." “Revel” makes a connection between what is occurring on the top of the mountain and what is happening at its base.
This almost reminds us of the holiday we just celebrated, Purim, when we are instructed to celebrate the divine truth by becoming completely intoxicated – a paradox which suggests there is a sacred link between “reveling” and “revelation.” Lauviticus would like to suggest: “And eagerly they woke up early on the next day, and lit the fires, and offered the meat; and the people sat down to eat and to drink and rose to revel.” Tell us, honestly, had you been there, at the foot of Sinai, with no Moses in sight, would you have reveled, too?