The weekly Torah episode is Ki Tisa – Hebrew for ‘The Census’ – in which, among other special guests, the infamous Golden Calf shows up. Moses, up on the mountain is downloading revelation, while his brother Aaron is down below – in charge of the impatient masses – hungry for their fix of the divine dose. The gods they know from Egypt are tangible and sensory – they have faces, eyes, and glitzy substance you can dance around. They have no patience for an abstract faceless God. And so, the first religious fundraising campaign takes place, and one sacred young bull emerges from the fires, a product of countless 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, what with the wrath of Moses, the breaking of the Ten Commandments, and a civil war with 3,000 casualties. What are we make of this story, and what possible relevance may 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 do good intentions go? All they wanted was fast food and instant gratification – don’t we all? One key to help untangle this theological mess may be hidden in the one Hebrew word used to describe what exactly they did on that day – a word, not surprisingly, translated in a variety of different ways.
Ex 32:6 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.
The Hebrew word used here is LETZACHEK meaning to laugh, mock, or play. It is, famously, the word that gives Isaac his name – ‘the one who will laugh’. It is also a word repeated through 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 offers ‘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’.
The fact is that, as usual, no single word in English will serve up the array of meanings in the Hebrew from the innocent to the erotic, from the pagan to the playful. In the end we like “revel” because this word both stands alone and 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 – where the instruction is to celebrate the divine truth by being completely intoxicated –a sacred paradox, a fusion transcending what is top and bottom, mind and body, right and wrong.
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??