Rediscovering Moral Values

Saturday, February 15, 2014

21st Torah portion, 9th in Exodus – Ki Tisa

30:11-31:17 (139 verses)



                Moses takes a census of the Israelites and collects a half shekel from each person. The Israelites are instructed to keep the Shabbat as a sign of the Covenant. After ascending the mountain, Moses receives the two tablets of the Pact from God. Unsure that Moses will return, the Israelites ask Aaron to build them a golden calf. Moses implores God not to destroy the people and then breaks the two tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written when he sees the idol. God punishes the Israelites with a plague. Moses goes up the mountain once more for another forty days with a blank set of tablets so that God will again inscribe the Ten Commandments. Other laws, including the edict to observe the Pilgrimage Festivals, are also revealed. Moses comes down from the mountain with a radiant face.


                The people grew impatient when he was “delayed in coming down from the mountain” (32:1) and they then asked Aaron to make gods for them. Aaron took their gold and fashioned a calf for them to worship. God immediately became angry at the people for building a statue they credit with leading them out of Egypt, so God sends Moses down to punish them.

                Idolatry is not simply taking a statue, bowing down to it a few times and reciting some magical incantations. Idolatry is a serious problem, according to Jim Wallis, author of Rediscovering Values on Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street, “when it leads to choosing the wrong priorities, trusting in the wrong things, and putting our confidence where it does not belong” (page 29).

                No clearer example of choosing wrong priorities is the creation of idols of real estate, hedge funds, mortgage-backed securities and the stock market itself. They “guaranteed” wealth to make us happy, secure and provide for all of our needs. Market mechanisms were supposed to distribute risk so well that even those who tried to manipulate the system would be unable to. We could not have been further from the truth.  Elie Wiesel, who lost much of his personal and foundation’s wealth to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme said, “We gave him everything, we thought he was God, we trusted everything in his hands.” Idolatry has consequences: housing foreclosures, plummeting retirement funds, and loss of jobs.

                Idolatry is an act that separates us from God and divine values. Adam Smith, the father of the free market, understood this blasphemy when he wrote, “To feel much for others and little for ourselves … that is the perfection of human nature” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments). It is too bad that many have not read this book by Smith and through misunderstanding feel his is only the God of the capitalistic market economy. Faith in that system and not in ourselves is what time and again leads to the crisis we face today. Our moral values must take precedence over economic and market values. Financial reward must never trump family, relationships, ethics, community, public service, and social justice.


  1. What do you long for most passionately?
  2. Where do you run for comfort? 
  3. What angers you most?
  4. What makes you happiest?
  5. How do you define yourself to people?
  6. What do you brag about?
  7. If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?
  8. What do you want to control or master?
  9. What comfort do you treasure the most?


We turn from the truth of Sinai when the measure of our worth is based on what we possess, and a day of reckoning inevitably comes. Rambam taught, “Let the wealthy not revel in their wealth . . . but one should glory in knowing and understanding God . . . [so as] to act with mercy, justice, and righteousness” (Guide to the Perplexed 3:54, quoting Jeremiah 9:22–23).