Braid the Parashah

Ki Tisa 5784

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, contains the story of the golden calf. In this episode, Moses is up on Mt Sinai receiving the two tablets of the covenant from God, when the people below get impatient and scared and Aaron instructs them to build and worship a golden calf. 

This week I discovered an interesting detail I had previously skimmed over.  After Moses returns and smashes the tablets in his rage, he then burns the calf, grinds it into a powder and spreads it over water… Then he makes the Israelites drink the water. Why would he do such a thing?

One commentary compares it to a different biblical story where women who were accused of adultery have to drink a liquid to see whether they break out in a skin disease.  If they do, they are guilty, if not, innocent.  The rabbis say the same is true in this case.  If guilty, a person’s belly would swell after drinking the liquid.  If innocent, it wouldn’t.


Though this ritual is clearly an inappropriate method of fact-finding, it makes us reflect on issues of truth, trust, judgment, and accountability. It is powerful to see how our biblical ancestors wanted to ensure nobody is wrongly punished for a crime they did not commit.  

It also lifts up a broader assertion that the vast majority of Israelites were not guilty. The rabbis explain that even amongst those who participated, many did so against their will, worried they’d be punished by death.  These folks were not guilty because the transgression did not come from the heart.  

The idea being that those with a guilty conscience would be the ones whose bodies would expose that guilt in a physical way.  Today this may be compared to something like a lie detector test, or acute observations of body language of folks under oath as a way of recognizing there is a relationship between our mental and physical state.

This is such great food for thought for us today as we recognize that even thousands of years later, we still have not mastered the right methodology for determining what is inside a person’s soul and how problematic that is in trying to determine proper societal accountability. It is both humbling and inspiring to keep at the task!

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