Ki Tisa - Stepping Towards Forgiveness
Idolatry. Sexual immorality. Murder. The description of the events of the Golden Calf in this week’s portion sound like the outline for a new cable television series. By the end of the portion, the main characters of Aaron and the Hebrews are forgiven for their sin of building the idol of the calf, and allowed to keep going on their journey. But how? Isn’t the crime of the Golden Calf so great that it is unforgivable? How can we be forgiven for mistakes that are so overwhelming, be it as a community or as an individual?
I have always found that one of the beautiful aspects of this portion is not only the teaching that we can be forgiven; but that the text gives us a simple process to open ourselves up to the love and forgiveness of God. But let us first take a brief look at the story. (If you already know the Biblical story, just skip the next two paragraphs.)
The Hebrews have just personally experienced multiple miracles, including seeing the ten plagues culminating in the Passover; the parting of the Sea of Reeds; and the giving of the Ten Commandments. God instructs Moses to ascend the mountain where God will give him the stone tablets and instruct him in the Divine commandments (Ex. 24:12). Moses is given all sorts of assignments which are relayed to us for the next seven chapters, including commandments for the people regarding sacrifices, the Priestly Blessing, how to set up the holy altar, how to observe the Sabbath, and more. While Moses is up on the mountain, the people are worried that he has taken too long and are scared that he has died, and so they tell Aaron to build for them “gods” so that they can pray (Ex. 32). Aaron reluctantly does as he is asked in order to avoid a riot, but stalls in his building of the golden idol in the shape of a calf; and when he does finally present it to the people, he tells them that it is for “a Festival for HaShem” (Ex. 32:5).
The rest of the story is relatively well known. Moses comes down from the mountain and destroys the tablets in his rage upon seeing the Hebrews dancing and partying. God contemplates destroying all the Hebrews and making a nation only of descendants of Moses, but ultimately forgives the people based upon Moses’ pleas. Moses returns to the mountaintop for yet another forty days and a second set of tablets is given, this time written by Moses’ hand (as opposed to the first set which were written by the hand of God).
It is nearly inconceivable that a generation that had seen such miracles would still be able to reject God and worship an idol, but it is what happened. We are taught by our Sages that all sins stem from the sin of the molten calf, and that we broke God’s heart on that day. The sickness of fear that became manifest in the ultimate sin of this molten calf was deep, but God forgave us and we healed from this spiritual wound that we caused upon ourselves.
It is a Jewish philosophy that God always provides a medicine before he creates the sickness. In the verses immediately before the Golden Calf debacle we just recounted is the famous V’shamru passage from the Shabbat service. (Ex. 31:16) “The Children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations. Between me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever that in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested.” (The more literal translation is that “on the seventh day He got a soul” based on the Hebraic conjugation of the word “nafash”, a past tense verbal conjugation of the word for “soul”…meaning that God literally becomes “soul-ed” on Shabbat.) The Sabbath is the covenant with God that transcends time and space. This covenant, the observance of the Sabbath, is the medicine for the fear, greed, lust, and excess that became manifest in the making of the calf. Shabbat is a bond with God so deep that it can even penetrate the darkest veils of the human soul… if we are willing to let it in. As Ahad Ha’Am z”l said, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews”. Through observing and living the Sabbath, the desires that created the Golden Calf become dissolved into a higher and deeper purpose.
Often when we get sick, there is one medicine to take in order to rid ourselves of the problem, and a different one to take in order to keep the sickness away in the future. Similarly, we find right after the Golden Calf fiasco a special piece of preventive medicine that, in conjunction with Sabbath observance, will help thwart our evil inclination in the future: the 13 Attributes (Ex 34:6). These qualities of God are shown to Moses, and we are to make them qualities in our own personal lives. The words themselves have such power that we are taught in the Talmud that everyone who properly understands these Thirteen Attributes and invokes them in his prayers meticulously will never experience that his prayers went totally unheard; and that the people who invoke them will not return empty-handed from their prayer. (Bavli Rosh HaShanah 17b) Striving to have each of these qualities as an integral part of our lives in combination with observing the Sabbath in some way is the best medicine to make sure that we do not get into the same drama as our ancestors did so long ago.
A friend once asked his teacher how one becomes more observant. The teacher replied, “Very slowly”. I don’t know if someone who has never observed the Sabbath can suddenly become Shomer Shabbat; but each of us have the ability to start celebrating the Sabbath a bit more than we do. Maybe it’s just remembering, as my friend Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer says, that “On Shabbat, God gives us a note thanking us for all the hard work we’ve done all week, and letting us know that this one day, He can run the world without our help”. Maybe it’s just starting to light Sabbath candles, or just remembering to not focus on work for a day… but each of us can begin to honor that covenant found in this portion. And while it may be overwhelming to think of emulating all of God’s 13 Attributes, we can try to focus on just one of them: being a little more compassionate or gracious, slow to anger, or forgiving. Each step we take towards either of these processes is a measurable movement away from the destructive nature of the Golden Calf and the resulting pain that is caused. All we need to do is start the process by taking that small step away from the chaos of destruction and make it a step towards the wholeness of the 13 Attributes and the Sabbath.
I find it incredibly comforting that Aaron and the Hebrews were forgiven for their huge mistake. It just makes it easier for me to have faith that each of us can also be forgiven for our mistakes; if, like Aaron, we own up to what we have done and strive to change. If we take the prescribed medicine of Shabbat. If we endeavor to emulate the 13 Attributes. If we just take a step at a time in a new direction.
And may we all be blessed to see those small steps add up to a deeper personal journey filled with health, joy, and peace.
Rabbi Michael Barclay March 5, 2021 21st of Adar, 5781