Parshat Ki Tisa

“Sounds from the Camp”
By Dr. Tamar Frankiel, Provost

“A sound of war is in the camp,” said Joshua to Moses as they came down from the mountain and heard the people shouting.  Moses replied, “It’s not a sound of cries of victory, nor a sound of cries of defeat; it is a sound of cries that I hear” (Exodus 32: 17-18).

A peculiar answer.  Kol anot, which I have translated here sound of cries (to differentiate simply from kol, which Joshua uses) is used in every clause in this passage, but many translations change the last clause to “a sound of singing.”  Some translate the last phrase, “a voice of blasphemy” or “a sound of celebration.”  The phrase appears nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible.

What did Moses and Joshua hear? Why the ambiguity?  Why does Moses add the word anot instead of using just kol, “sound” or “voice” or “noise”?  Anot can mean “answering,” although as a noun it can mean “afflictions.”  A translation of “singing” seems odd, but often group singing in ancient times was call-and-response, so this could mean “answering-song.”  A reading of “blasphemy” peeks ahead to what the people were doing.  A comment from Rashi generates the “blasphemy” translation, when he says that the word anot suggests that it “distresses” or afflicts the person who hears it.  But so might a cry of defeat.

On the face of it, Moses seems not to know what to answer Joshua.  He doesn’t think it’s a sound of victory, nor of defeat – but it’s definitely a loud cry.  Perhaps he has an intimation of what might be happening, but doesn’t want to say until it is actually before his eyes.  Still we might ask, even knowing the context, why would the singing or shouting of worship sound like a cry of war?

The confusion does not end there. The Torah goes on to say that the people had “broken loose” (JPS; the term is parua), for Aaron had “let them loose to the scorn of their enemies,” implying that they were making fools of themselves or acting in a degraded way.  However, some translators go the opposite direction, saying that Aaron actually “restrained” the people from going even further.  Interestingly, though it’s not etymology, the letters in Hebrew for pra’oh, “he let them loose,” are the same as the title Pharaoh.

The midrash offers, however, a darker dimension to the picture.  You may remember that Hur, who had helped keep Moses’ hands aloft in the battle with Amalek, was left in charge along with Aaron when Moses went up the mountain to receive the stone tablets (24:14).  He then disappears from the story.  The Sages tell us that Hur had tried to block the calf-worship, and the enthusiasts had murdered him.  This was definitely not restraint.   Was it the shriek of the victim or the cheers of his murderers that Moses heard?

In any case, Moses was not restrained in his response, as he transmitted God’s command that the Levites take up the sword and “slay every man his brother… his companion… his neighbor” (32.27).

I thought of this description last week when reading Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, in connection with President’s Day.  Observing what seemed to him an endless war of brother against brother, Lincoln was exhausted and astonished.  “Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.”  He called the continuing war a “scourge” and suggested, dramatically and painfully, that it might be God’s judgment that each drop of blood taken from slaves had to be matched by a drop from a soldier fallen on the battlefield.

Are the sounds of war like the shouts of frantic worshippers and murderous mobs?  Are the scourges of war and of idol worship both the result of people “broken loose” from their moorings, desperate for a leader but not willing to listen to any?  People confused, uncertain, looking for an easy answer, and oblivious to the forces they had unleashed?

Lincoln himself, and many others, had tried to restrain the drift to war but had nevertheless been forced to lead the nation in battle – not unlike Aaron making the calf and Moses responding to the collective rebellion.  Lincoln could explain how it broke loose only by invoking God’s judgment; Aaron likewise had a weak explanation.  Today, we are more likely to allude to the dark depths of the human psyche for explanation, perhaps because we think that if we understand, we can exercise some control – but I’m not sure the twentieth century proved itself any better than the nineteenth in that regard, and – much to our surprise as to Lincoln’s – the 21st isn’t showing marked improvement.

The parsha does not tell us how to prevent wars or mob violence.  Moses will plead again and again with the people before he dies:  follow the Torah.   Later tradition encapsulated:  “Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace” (Prov 3:17).   We have wars of words rather than swords now in the United States, political and social conflict rather than military. But many have already broken loose from civility and respect, the normal processes of human discourse.  Lincoln’s advice from out of the midst of painful conflict is also worth remembering. “With malice toward none, with charity toward all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” We need those gifts of humility and strength.

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