He was having the vacation of all time up there on Mount Sinai: not an iota of stress, the
unmistakable sense that everything was a-ok. He was spending time with the best friend a
lawgiver could ever have, and Moses had never felt better. Even some chronic pain that had
recently taken residence in his lower back had all but disappeared. Is it any wonder that, years
later, so many hospitals would be named after this hidden locale in the middle of a desert?
In the future, thinkers with time on their hands would ponder the weighty meaning of
those days atop Sinai, and ask difficult questions about the religious significance of nearly six
weeks spent alone in the presence of the Creator. Notwithstanding the ruminations of future
sages, Moses himself was thinking not one grave or particularly metaphysical thought. He could
care less about the meaning of his human mind communing with the divine mind, and the
epistemological implications of this fact. No indeedy. He was perfectly content being unreflective
during his sojourn there, enjoying history’s most famous forty day vacation.
Oh yes. This was immeasurably more satisfying than facing that riffraff down there,
those undisciplined masses he had helped shepherd across the sea into the desert and had
brought to the foot of this mountain. Oh, don’t get me wrong. There had been extraordinary
moments in the course of his leadership: the burning bush, confronting Pharaoh Time after time
had been a hoot; leading that ragtag band of former slaves across the divided sea. Oh my, wasn’t
that something! Hiking down onto the path that the sea had made for him and his people,
walking in between the walls of water suspended on either side like jelly in a jar, with fish of all
variety staring out at them mystified, then up and out of the sea! That was surely world class.
But then there was that water incident, and so many complaints, a constant barrage of
murmuring, kvetching, his Eastern European descendants would call it, a chronic wah wah wah,
we want, we want, we want, gimme gimme gimme gimme, that preoccupied and wearied Moses
so much that lately, when among his people, he found himself yawning at the most inappropriate
moments, such as when passing judgment on Sabbath stick gatherers. Being a liberator’s not all
it’s cracked up to be. Oh, it’s steady work, all right, and one rarely has to worry about having
one’s personal needs met. There’s always food on the table and a dollar in the bank. But the
hours are terrible and the liberated tend to become just a trifle exasperating after the actual
liberation’s grown cold. Oy!
But up here on the mountain talking with God about Law (not law, you understand,
Law)—that was better even than the burning bush. The bush’s flames moved here and there;
Law was solid as steel. The bush was one time only. The Law was forever. It was glorious
having God for a companion twenty-four hours a day, for—how long had it been now?–for forty
days. At one point Moses realized he hadn’t had a cup of coffee for ages and yet felt a clarity that
lately he’d only been able to achieve from large daily doses of caffeine.
But as always happens, it seems, the divine times were not to last. It came to a head on
the fortieth morning. God and Moses were discussing the Jubilee year, the time when all things
come to a stop and slaves are set free. Declare liberation throughout the land. Oh yes, this was
Law at its best, the equalizing of all things human, the reduction of all human equations to a
single spectacular common denominator. What a law to give to former slaves! How completely
they would intuitively understand its inner truth! Through the very act of thinking the idea that the
Law as Instruction would teach such a simple yet profound truth, Moses slipped into a state of
bliss. Contemplating the theory behind shatnez, the law against mixing wool and flax, had also
thrown Moses into a state of bliss. But this was by far a much better state of bliss. But strong
bliss or weak bliss, bliss was by now a familiar, agreeable condition to Moses our teacher, our
rabbi, who had spent the last forty days in dialogue with the Master of Dialogue.
In the midst of this blissfulness, Moses heard God’s voice boom as he had never heard it
“Damn!” the voice cried so loud the birds all flew away.
“Moses,” God said, in a tone angry and frightening. “Moses, your children are at it again.”
“They’re mine when they bungle, and yours when they do something good, eh?”
“They’re yours most of the time”
“Thanks for the privilege.”
“What is it now?” Moses asked, a despondent feeling creeping over him, accompanied
by that familiar feeling that destiny was once again taking a hand.
“Seems they miss you down there,” said God with just a note of irony. “They miss you. A
“It’s good to be missed, oh God, though I hear something in your tone that tells me you
don’t approve of how they are expressing their longing for my return,” said Moses.
“Well, let me put it to you this way,” said the Master of all creation. “I’m not a great fan of
“What do you mean?”
“May I suggest that you go down and have a look?”
“I have a feeling the right answer to your question in fact gives me very little wiggle
“You might say that.”
“I have a feeling I’m not going to like what I see.”
“You might say that.”
“I have a feeling that we’re saying goodbye to our private time.”
“You might say that.”
So with more reluctance than most humans can imagine, Moses took his staff and the
few other belongings he had brought with him (and how much do you really need when you’re off
to visit your Maker?), and prepared for the descent to the desert.
“Moses,” said God.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Moses thought for a moment. “Ah, yes,” he replied.
And Moses picked up the two tablets of the Law, a rather good summary of his time up
here, and made his way down the mountain and returned to the desert. At the foot of it he
encountered Joshua. Joshua, a man of remarkable patience, had been waiting there for quite
some time for his master’s return.
“Boss. It’s great to see you,” said Joshua. “I think we’re in big trouble.”
“What’s going on?”
“I’m not sure, Boss. All I can tell you is that for the last while the noise coming from camp
has been wickedly loud.”
Moses sighed. “Then I guess we’ve got to check it out.”
Moses and Joshua rushed back to the camp where, with a little observation and a not
inconsiderable amount of dismay, they quickly ascertained that the Israelites had constructed for
themselves a golden bovine statue and were in the process of placing their minds and hearts at
its inanimate disposal, resoundingly swearing loyalty to it, praying for it to dispense milk from its
divine golden udders. “Milk. We want milk!” they cried out. “Milk. We need milk. Must have
milk. Milk to drink. Milk for cakes. Milk for cookies. Milk for coffee. Milk for cheese. Milk for the
babies. Give us milk, oh magnificent cow!” And together all the Israelites engaged in this
preposterous activity (and there were more of them than Moses cared to count) sank to their
knees, and, with hands stretched above their heads, in unison they prostrated themselves toward
their lifeless master, uttering in unison a low mooing sound like so many head of afflicted
livestock, punctuating the night air.
Oy, thought Moses. It’s come to this? Sadly he realized, yes, it has come to this. A cow!
My people are worshipping a cow! An eagle—all right; a mountain lion–fine. Even a ram would
have at least projected a noble and powerful image. But throwing yourself on the ground to a
veal chop, even one made of precious metal–this compounded humiliation on top of aggravation.
So. though a part of him wanted to laugh at his kinsmen immersed in the act of supplication to a
baby steer, Moses knew it was action that was called for, forceful and decisive.
Well, dear reader, you almost certainly know what happened next: The tablets smashed,
the statue destroyed, the perpetrators killed, the people cowed and repentant, and history altered.
The People Israel would never be the same.
Later that night, Moses found himself alone with his brother Aaron. Aaron was looking
none too good for wear as he faced his brother over his deed. Aaron, you’ll recall, had with
remarkable alacrity acquiesced to the people’s demand to build the statue.
But Moses wasn’t in the mood for further recriminations. He sat there rubbing his lower
back, facing his older brother, downing a large cup of strong black coffee, his third of the evening,
“Aaron, “he began.
“I have a question. Maybe you can answer it, maybe you can’t.”
“Well, frankly, and don’t get me wrong, I’m puzzled over why you’re alive. You helped
build that thing and by rights you should be dead. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m happy
you’re not dead. You’re my brother and I love you. But it seems to me you shouldn’t be here.”
Aaron answered, “At first, when the dust cleared and I was alive, I was surprised, too.
But as I thought about it, I understood why.”
“You know, Moses. I’m not like you. I can speak well enough. There are priestly
functions I perform well enough, far better than you, as a matter of fact. But the people just don’t
listen to me the way they listen to you.”
“It wasn’t long after you went up the mountain that the complaining began. ‘Where’s your
brother, Aaron? When’s he coming back, Aaron? Who’s gonna take care of us now, Aaron?
Who’s gonna get us out of here, Aaron?’ After a while things started getting out of hand. They
were getting rowdy and I was afraid that if I had to face them alone, it would be curtains for the
sons and daughters of Jacob, Leah and Rachel.”
“All you had to do was hold out. You knew I was coming back.”
“Were you? After a while I started believing that maybe you weren’t. You never said,
‘Aaron, mind the store for a few weeks?’ And if you didn’t come back, who could blame you?
These people are a handful I don’t mind telling you. If I were in your place, I’d think long and hard
about how to arrange matters so I could stay up there. Every time I heard some thunder coming
from the general direction of the mountain, I thought of you. I thought how wonderful it must be to
be there alone with Him.”
“He’s not exactly a Him, Aaron. God is genderless.”
“Whatever. Anyway, when they demanded the statue, I figured that was as good a time
as any to move things along and bring you back. I guess God agreed with me. I guess I did the
It was then that Moses had one of his frequent moments of clarity that most of us are
privileged to have, if we have one at all, once, maybe twice in a lifetime. He had been set up.
The golden calf was a ruse to bring him back. It was so abundantly clear to him now that all he
could do was sit motionless, amazed at the simplicity of the scheme. He had been set up.
Without the golden calf, he may have elected to remain up there on the mountain, and no one
would have the least rational argument to oppose his decision.
Aaron looked at Moses uncertainly. “I guess I did the right thing,” he repeated.
“I guess you did,” Moses sighed.
And off in the distance, if you listened carefully, you could hear God’s soft laughter riffling
through the evening silence.