Elohim, singular and plural
TorahParshat Ki Tissa

Elohim, singular and plural

Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

(File photo)
(File photo)

The word “Elohim,” which is one of the most frequently used terms for God in the Torah and in contemporary Hebrew, is a curious word in that it functions both as a singular and a plural word. It is clearly not God’s name, which we know to be spelled with the four Hebrew letters (hence the Tetragrammaton, represented in English by YHWH). Rather, Elohim, like the English “God,” is apparently God’s job description. And when it appears in a singular context (e.g., the first three words of the Torah, Bereshit bara Elohim, “In the beginning God created’), it clearly refers to the one true God. But every now and then the exact same word appears in a plural context, in which case it does not refer to God, but rather to other (false) gods or idols.

One such instance happens in Parashat Ki Tissa, when, following Moshe’s tardiness in descending from Mt. Sinai, the Israelites, recently freed from Egypt, request gods: “Kum, aseh lanu elohim asher yelekhu lefaneinu” (Ex. 32:1). “Come, make us gods who shall go before us,” they say, although many translations render that elohim incorrectly in the singular (e.g. JPS: “Come, make us a god who shall go before us”). But the plural verb yelekhu ( “who shall go”) is a dead giveaway in Hebrew. The Israelites do not want God, or even a god. They want gods.

And of course, the context is clear. This is a generation who does not know God; what they know is the Egyptian pantheon, a whole bunch of gods. And they want what they know.

And so, too, with us. It is entirely too easy in today’s world to see potential gods in everything: in the power of technology to solve all human problems, in placing our trust in politicians to work exclusively toward the betterment of society, in ascribing to market forces the ability to take care of all of God’s Creation. It is altogether too simple to be diverted by all the false gods, all the forms of distraction we have from the essential spiritual message that our tradition gives us: that the one true God gave us the Torah (however we might understand that as having occurred), and it is through this gift to the Jews that all humanity might come to understand the fundamental holiness evident in human relationships.

Our job description, if you will, is to seek that Divine presence in ourselves and in others. Our task is to avoid being distracted by the false gods, to stay mission-focused in our commitment to the mitzvot of Jewish life, which highlight that holiness. Our senses, our discernment must cast into relief the stark difference between Elohim and elohim, between the one God and the many non-gods which haunt our world. And we do that whenever we enter a synagogue, whenever we comfort those who mourn, whenever we learn wisdom from the Jewish bookshelf.

Our traditions, texts, rituals and our singular God continue to guide us, to separate the false paths from the true. We have learned from the mistaken ways of our ancestors; it is now up to us to maintain the beacon of truth for the future. PJC

Rabbi Seth Adelson is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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