And the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Arise! Make for us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt – we do not know what became of him.” Aaron said to them, “Remove the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, sons, and daughters and bring them to me.” The entire people removed the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took it from their hand, fashioned it with an engraving tool and made it into a calf of cast metal [Heb. masechah]. They said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”
God spoke to Moses: “Go descend, for your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt has become corrupt. They have turned aside very quickly from the path that I have commanded them; they have made themselves a calf of cast metal! [masechah]” (Exodus 32:1-4,7-8)
This week’s Torah portion Ki Tisa is dominated by the story of the sin of the Golden Calf. In describing both the sin and God’s reaction to it, the Torah mentions the method of making the calf – that it was cast metal. Notice that God did not mention the fact that it was gold. Apparently, the fact that the calf was cast was of greater significance to God than the fact that it was gold.
At the end of this narrative, God relayed a series of laws to Moses, including the following – an obvious reaction to the sin of the calf:
You shall not make for yourselves gods of cast metal. (34:17)
Forty years after this sin, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses recounted many of the events of the sojourn in the desert. Here is Moses’ retelling of God’s initial reaction to the Golden Calf:
God said to me, “Arise! Go down quickly from here because your people has corrupted – whom you took out of Egypt. They have turned aside very quickly from the path that I have commanded them; they have made themselves a cast metal image [masechah]]!” (Deuteronomy 9:12)
Remarkably, not only does Moses omit the fact that the calf was gold. He doesn’t even mention the fact that it was a calf. The only description he gives of it is that it was cast! From all this it is clear that God was angered primarily at the fact that they had made a cast metal image. The fact that it was a calf – or golden – is of secondary importance!
Why? What is the importance of cast metal that makes it so central to this sin?
The Hebrew word for cast metal used in all these verses is masechah. This word has variant meanings. It sometimes means “a mask” or “a cover” (see Isaiah 25:7, 20). Masechah can also mean “leader” or “anointed one” (Isaiah 30:1, see Rashi). This last meaning is a secondary meaning based on the verb “to pour,” which also is used to describe anointing with oil and offering a libation, both of which involve pouring. To sum up this point, the word masecha, which means “cast metal,” is from the root “to pour.”
Masechah – cast metal – is metal that is poured. It is melted down into liquid and then poured into a mold or onto a three-dimensional form. The reason that it is also the word for “mask” is likely due to the fact that a mask is an empty form, similar to a mold for casting.
That the Torah places great importance on the way an object is fashioned should not be surprising. The instructions for the building of the Tabernacle are full of specific instructions regarding the methods of manufacturing the specific items. For example, the altar may not be made of hewn stone due to the use of a metal blade or sharp object for cutting the stone. In the words of the Torah, “for if you have wielded your sword over it, you will have desecrated it.” (Exodus 20:22)
The two objects made of pure gold – the Cherubs and the Menorah – have specific instructions as well. Each of these items was required to be made out of a solid piece of gold. Also, each of these items had to be smithed – not cast (see Ex. 25:18 and 25:31). Smithing is the process of shaping a piece of metal by hammering and beating it into shape. Smithing is a much more difficult and time-consuming method of making these two items than casting would be. Both the Cherubs and the Menorah required a great deal of fine detail work. It certainly would have been quicker and easier to make a wax mold of the Menorah, melt down the gold, and cast it. Nevertheless, the Torah requires smithing – not casting. Why?
As I stated above, smithing is a very slow process. It takes time and precision. Casting happens fast, especially with gold, which cools and hardens very quickly. All that is needed to create a cast object is to heat up the gold and pour it in to the mold. But, you might be wondering, doesn’t it take time to create the mold or form that the molten metal is poured into? The answer is yes, if that’s how the casting is being done. But there is another way to cast an object, and it appears that this was the method used to make the Golden Calf.
The entire people removed the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took it from their hand, fashioned it with an engraving tool and made it into a calf of cast metal
If Aaron was casting the calf, why did he need an engraving tool? Doesn’t casting involve simply pouring the liquid gold into the mold? The answer is yes, if you have time to make a detailed mold. Another way to cast gold, due to how fast it cools and how soft it is as a metal, is to create a crude mold that approximates the final object’s shape, pour the liquid gold into it, and then manipulate the soft, cooling gold as it hardens using a tool to shape it.
Many years ago, I spoke to a friend who worked in the precious metals refining business. I asked him how he would have made the Golden Calf. He said that creating a detailed mold of a calf out there in the desert would have taken too much time. He said he would dig a hole in the ground with four legs to approximate the shape of the body of a calf, melt the gold, pour it in, and then shape it quickly as it was cooling. I’d like to suggest that this is precisely what the verses here describe.
Israel made the Golden Calf because they felt a need for a physical representation of God’s presence. They were not trying to replace God. This is why they said of the calf,
These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt! – Exodus 32:4
They saw the calf as a vessel that would now house God – the same God who took them out of Egypt. The problem with this is that God can not be housed in any physical object. God can not take any physical form whatsoever. For this reason, drawing or fashioning physical representations of God is forbidden.
Liquid has no form of its own. Liquid takes the physical form of whatever vessel it is in. In the absence of a vessel, it will expand and flow endlessly. In casting, liquid metal is given a specific form according to the mold into which it is poured. Casting provides a perfect metaphor for the theological mistake made by those who made the Golden Calf. God – like liquid – has no physical form. To create an outside form and “pour” God into it – to cast God – is heretical. God fills all of creation and can not be restricted or housed by a particular object.
But there is another lesson in the difference between smithing and casting. As mentioned, the two solid gold items in the Tabernacle, the Menorah and the Cherubs, were smithed even though making them by casting would certainly have been much quicker and easier.
I believe that the lesson here is profound. Neither of these objects represented God. The Cherubs represented our interface with God as His spirit enters the world. The Cherubs sat atop the Ark that housed the tablets representing the covenant at Sinai. As I wrote two weeks ago, the Cherubs represented our act of protecting the law through our service of God. The Menorah represented the light that we must bring into the world.
The insistence on smithing these items teaches us a critical lesson for our lives of faith. Casting, as opposed to smithing, happens fast, through the application of fire. This represents the kind of sudden passion and emotional momentum that is inappropriate for serving God with integrity. While we certainly experience moments of sudden inspiration, spiritual high points where we feel close to God, these moments are not what a life of service to God is built on. We don’t experience Mount Sinai or the splitting of the sea on a daily basis. How often have we seen, or experienced, how sudden spiritual highs can be so fleeting, often leaving us feeling depressed when we realize days or years later that we have retained little of that momentary inspiration?
For our service of God to be lasting and meaningful in the long term, it must be built on deliberate, careful work, day after day. A life of faith requires effort, commitment, and consistency. Smithing is the way to serve God, not casting.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and he is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast.