This week's Torah portion contains one of the most dramatic events in the entire Torah, the incident of the Golden Calf. Moses has been on Mount Sinai for a very long time, too long for those Israelites who still carry Egypt in their hearts to wait. They can't maintain their faith in an invisible God without their leader. So they convince Aaron to build them a Golden Calf.
When God tells Moses what has happened at the foot of the mountain, both Moses and God are angry. Moses is able to sooth God's anger, but when he himself descends from the heights of Mount Sinai and sees with his own eyes that his people are dancing around this idol, he smashes the tablets written by the "finger of God."
Moses goes back up the mountain a second time and then a third time, hoping to be able to start over again, praying for another chance, wondering whether God could ever forgive this people—and whether God could ever forgive him. The third climb began, according to Nachmanides, on the first of Elul (see Nachmanides on Exodus 33:7).
Perhaps he was still struggling to block out of his mind the terrible images of seeing all those people out of control, laughing as they danced around this golden idol, a calf like their Egyptian tormentors used to worship. Perhaps he thought: how could they do it, so soon after they had stood at Mount Sinai and witnessed first hand the thunder and lightning of God's presence? Why were they so easily diverted? What made them so confused, so afraid to trust what they had just experienced, so quick to betray what they should have embraced?
Moses was angry at himself as well, because he had lost his composure then too. How could he have smashed the tablets? After all, they were touched by God's own hand! Did Moses actually hurl them against the ground? Or did the holy letters fly away so that all that was left were stones so heavy he couldn't hold them any more?
Tormented by his own despair and dread, he pleaded with the God he knew only as the Eternal One who always was and always would be to "let me behold Your Presence!" (Exodus 33:18). But even as Moses spoke those words, he knew he had asked the impossible, because no one can see God's face and live.
Instead, he heard God's voice reverberate within him. "Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen" (Exodus 33:21-23).
"The Eternal One passed before him [Moses] and proclaimed: 'Adonai! Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin—yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children's children, upon the third and fourth generations' " (Exodus 34:6-7).
As God's Presence passed by, God's Essence was revealed. God was saying: "This is who I am. Adonai, still Adonai, the same before a person sins as after. Compassionate and gracious; abounding in kindness even as I see the frailty of human nature; and forgiving human beings when they sin."
These words must have comforted Moses. They still comfort us. We recite these Thirteen Attributes on major holidays, though we leave off the last phrase to emphasize the quality of mercy. The words are so important that the Talmud says a rather astonishing thing about them: "Whenever Israel sins, let them carry out this service (ya'asu lifne k'seder ha-zeh, Rosh HaShanah "recite [do] these words, and I will forgive them" (Babylonian Talmud, 17b).
Is it possible that just saying these words reminds God of God's attribute of forgiveness . . . and so we will be forgiven? In response, "Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Yehudah said that there is no magical power in reciting the Thirteen Attributes of God. The Talmud does not say 'Let them say this order before me,' but rather 'Let them do (ya'asu) this order before me.' Forgiveness is effected not by the saying, but by the doing. Only when a person makes his or her attributes similar to those of God will that person's transgressions be forgiven. The Thirteen Attributes are not a prescription for forgiveness of sin, but a program for human behavior" (Y. Leibowitz, Discussion on the Festivals and Appointed Times of Israel, pp.184-185). The Palm Tree of Devorah, the synthesis of Kaballah and ethics written by Rabbi Moses Cordovero (1522-1570), takes the Thirteen Attributes as a challenge for human beings to emulate God in everything we do. (Brooklyn: Targum Press, Inc.,1993). If God can forgive, so should we. There are second chances.
So Moses comes down the mountain again, with a second set of stone tablets, this time written with the knowledge of human weakness and the confidence in God's forgiveness. The first tablets were fashioned by God alone, but these were the work of Moses and God together. The first time they were perfect; this time they reflected the reality of human frailty, the disappointment of broken promises, and tarnished hopes.
According to tradition, Moses came down the mountain the last time forty days after the first of Elul. That day was Yom Kippur, the very first Yom Kippur. Our ancestors took these stone tablets, along with the broken shards that remained of the first, and put them in the Holy Ark to carry with them on their journey.
We are still carrying both sets of those stone tablets with us on our journey. The hope for wholeness and the truth of brokenness exist together in each of us. None of us is perfect. Each of us struggles with limitations and weakness; each of us has broken promises and betrayed what we have loved. But in spite of this, forgiveness is built into the deep structure of the universe. God's Essence reveals itself, and it is compassion.
Rabbi Laura Geller is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills in Beverly Hills, California.
Why did the Israelites build the golden calf?
Consider the scene: forty days and nights have passed since Moses left the people and climbed Mount Sinai. The longer he fails to appear, the more uneasy they become. In this state of growing concern, the people demand that Aaron build them a visible sign of God's presence in their midst. We know what happens next? they build the Golden Calf.
Without Moses, the people grew increasingly anxious. Many of them viewed him as their connection to God. When Moses vanished (or so they thought) it was natural for them to want to replace him. For without him, how would they ever be able to experience God's presence again? They misunderstood, not realizing that Moses did not bring God into their midst; rather God had been with them all along.
But it is really no wonder that the people did not "get it." God's intangible nature makes it hard to feel God's presence in times of anxiety and despair. Perhaps then, the Golden Calf was merely a request for tangible proof of God's existence brought on by the insecurity of a people who felt abandoned and alone.
But they were not alone in their need to know an intangible God. Moses too struggled; he asked to see the Divine Presence.
God tried to honor Moses's request, at least partially. Moses is told to hide in a cleft in the rock and God will pass by allowing Moses to see God's back. This encounter strengthened Moses's resolve to do God's will.
Maybe if the Israelites had been presented with such an opportunity, they would not have felt the need to build the Golden Calf. Maybe they too would have felt supported by God and not abandoned by Moses. Perhaps they would have accepted the fact that God is always near, even when no proof of the Divine Presence exists . . . who knows?
Rabbi Jessica Locketz is the associate rabbi and temple educator at Temple Emanuel of South Hills in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11–34:35
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 632–662; Revised Edition, pp. 581–606;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 495–520