Was the Golden Calf Black Magic?

Was the Golden Calf Black Magic?

The Golden Calf.

How exactly did Aaron make it?

Our medieval commentators liked precision. This is their kind of question. So, I’ll rely on their help to answer it.

How did Aaron make the golden calf? The Torah gives us two accounts.

First, the narrator’s account. Aaron took [the gold] from their hands and formed it with the cheret, making it into a cast metal calf (Ex 32:4)

Second, Aaron’s report to Moses. They gave me [gold], I threw it into the fire, and this calf emerged (Ex. 32: 24).

These sure look different, don’t they? The narrator describes an intentional act of artistic creativity. Aaron, however, makes it look like an accident.

Yes, Moses is in a murderous rage. And Aaron does not want to be raged at. Maybe Aaron chooses words of self-protection.

Still, it’s hard for me to imagine Aaron as a liar. He’s an accurate spokesperson. A spiritual leader. A man who runs towards danger to save others.

Maybe Torah’s two accounts of the production of the golden calf aren’t that different.

So, let’s take a look at the first one again:

Aaron took [the gold] from their hands and formed it with the cheret, making it into a cast metal calf (Ex 32:4).

What is a cheret?

Rashi, our most famous medieval commentator, knows. Rashi says cheret has two meanings in biblical Hebrew.

First, a cheret is a pouch fastened with a cord. As in: Na’aman tied the silver coins in two pouches (charatim) (II Kings 5:23).

Second, a cheret is a tool for writing or engraving. As in: Write on it in common script (cheret)  (Isaiah 8:1).

Wouldn’t Aaron have used both a pouch and a tool? He would have worked a three-step process. (1) Collect gold in a pouch. (2) Melt gold in a crucible. (3) Cool it, then shape it with a tool.

Maybe our narrator describes steps (1) and (3). While Aaron describes step (2). Thus, Aaron isn’t lying. He is speaking shorthand.

Problem solved? Not really.

Because cheret has a third meaning. And Rashi knows it, too. He alludes to it — even though he doesn’t list it.

cheret is a magic spell. A chartum is a magician. As in: Aaron cast down his rod. It became a dragon. Pharaoh called in sages and magicians. Chartumei (the magicians of) Egypt also cast spells, and did this. Each cast down their rod. They became dragons (Exodus 7:10-12).

Aaron is a skilled magician. He transmutes matter to energy to matter. God gave him this gift. Obviously, he uses it as high priest. He reshapes physical offerings into spiritual healings.

In Aaron’s hands, inanimate matter comes to life. Isn’t this exactly what the narrator says?

Aaron took [the gold] from their hands and formed it with the cheret, making it into a cast metal calf (Ex 32:4).

Rashi knows this. And he admits it. As soon as Aaron makes the calf, Torah says, Aaron saw (Exodus 32:8). Rashi asks, what did Aaron see? And Rashi answers: Aaron saw the calf had become a living being.

Isn’t this exactly what Aaron confesses to Moses?

They gave me [gold], I threw it into the fire, and this calf emerged (Ex. 32: 24).

“Please don’t be angry, boss!” Aaron says. “I couldn’t control my powers! You know the people — there’s some bad energy here.”

Aaron does not lie to his brother. Instead, he confesses the truth.

And Moses forgives him. But later, Moses institutes strict protocols around Aaron’s use of spiritual energy.

What’s the lesson for us?

Some of us do have Aaron’s gifts. Both literally and metaphorically. We turn ideas into reality. Our non-anxious presence helps heal the sick. The music flowing through us inspires people to change.

These are powerful gifts. Dangerous gifts. We must use them wisely. Carefully. Protect them from exploitation. Ourselves from confusion and exhaustion.

If you have these gifts — and you do — you know what I mean.

For more perspectives on Parshat Ki Tisa and the Golden Calf, click here.

7 Comments
  1. God is alive, magic is afoot…
    This I mean to whisper to my mind
    This I mean to laugh with in my mind
    This I mean my mind to serve ’til
    Service is but Magic
    Moving through the world
    And mind itself is Magic
    Coursing through the flesh
    And flesh itself is Magic
    Dancing on a clock
    And time itself the magic length of God. (Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers)

  2. Wonderful Laura. I wondered too, did Aaron lie. Your explanation seems sound to me. We all have gifts . There is danger. We can avoid it.

    1. Thank you, Shira. I’m glad you have a keen eye for life’s dangers. I’m still learning every day!

  3. Thank you for this. I have always believed that words are powerful…and this interpretation has given me much to think about.

    1. Thank you, Jenn. You give a lot of good advice about how to use words well on your website. Wishing you success!

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