Torah Reading for Week of February 9 – 15, 2014
by Tamar Frankiel, PhD, President AJRCA
Much ink has been spilled on the leading incident of this parsha – the making of the golden calf. Why did the Israelites turn to calf-worship so soon after standing at Sinai and receiving the momentous commands, “I am the Lord your G-d…..” “no other gods before me…..” “do not make graven images…”? The psychology of slavery, the culture of Egypt, the fickle nature of the human heart have all been blamed for the debacle – and used as excuses for the Israelites’ weakness. Aharon’s leadership has also been questioned: why did he agree? Was his agreement to make the idol an attempt to delay the people till Moshe’s return? A sign of his own weakness? An essential move to save his own life from a madding crowd? Some commentators, unfortunately in my opinion, blame the erev rav, the mixed multitude, while claiming purity for our ancestors.
These all raise questions about how we try to understand a fundamental aspect of human life: accepting responsibility for one’s actions.
We can recall, back in the Garden of Eden, Adam’s attempt to escape responsibility. “That woman you gave me to be with me – she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). Think also of Cain: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen.4:9) In our parsha, Aharon: “You know this people – they are set on evil!” (Exodus 32:22). How difficult it is to look squarely at mistakes we make — mismanagement of our emotions, our tasks, our time – how many ways those errors affect our own well-being, our relationships, our families and communities!
Truly, one of the fears is that if we start on that list, it will be unending. But the parsha gives us three important clues to the process. First, recognize our limited human nature and ask forgiveness. The people are not able to do that at first. (We also usually hesitate.) Moshe has to intercede for them, asking G-d to remember the ancestors, and remember the larger project G-d has for the world, which destroying the Jewish people will undermine. We recall that G-d regretted having destroyed most of the world’s inhabitants in the flood, recognizing that “the heart of man is evil from its youth.” G-d at this point holds back from immediate destruction and listens to Moshe. As readers, we momentarily hold our breath, until we are told, Vayinachem, “and G-d repented of the evil He said He would do to His people”(32:14).
Second, face up to consequences. Take the bitter medicine – literally here, drinking the water with powdered gold-calf in it. In the parsha, the worst perpetrators are severely punished, with death or, in another verse, G-d’s smiting them. The parsha does not analyze or excuse.
Third, return to humility and commit to the work ahead. In our parsha, the people “stripped themselves of their ornaments” (33: 6) and accepted a shift in their relationship with G-d. Full restoration of the relationship would take time. Yet G-d also offered a unique gift to ensure that restoration would be possible, presenting Moshe with the formula we still use today, the recital of the Thirteen Attributes: “Adonai, Adonai, G-d of mercy and grace, patient, abundant in kindness and truth, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, enduring sin, transgression, and error; and cleansing”(34:6-7).
Only when we face up to our errors can we face ourselves in the mirror and face others in openness. But it helps to know that the form of goodness known as forgiveness pervades the world, into the distant future.