By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Parshat Ki Tisa – Exodus 30:11 -34:35
“Lord, Lord a G-d of Compassion…” (Exodus 34:6).
It is difficult to imagine the profound disappointment and even anger Moses must have felt upon witnessing the Israelites dancing and reveling around the Golden Calf. After all of his teachings and exhortations about how G-d demands fealty and morality –and after all of the miracles G-d had wrought for them in Egypt, at the Reed Sea, in the desert and at Sinai, how could the Israelites have so quickly cast away G-d and His prophet in favor of the momentary, frenzied pleasures of the Golden Calf?
“And it happened that when he drew near to the encampment and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses burned with anger and he cast the tablets from his hands, smashing them under the mountain” (Ex 32:19). Whether he broke the tablets in a fit of anger, disgusted with his nation and deeming them unworthy to be the bearers of the sacred teachings of the Decalogue (Rashi), or whether the sight of the debauchery caused Moses to feel faint, to be overcome with a debilitating weakness which caused the tablets to feel heavy in his hands and fall of themselves, leading him to cast them away from his legs so that he not become crippled by their weight as they smattered on the ground (Rashbam, ad loc), Moses himself appears to be as broken in spirit as were the tablets in stone. After all, ultimately a leader must feel and take responsibility for his nations’ transgression! All of these emotions must have been swirling around Moses’ mind and heart while the tablets were crashing on the ground.
But what follows in the Biblical text, after capital punishment for the 3,000 ring leaders of the idolatry, is a lengthy philosophical – theological dialogue between Moses and G-d. This culminates in the revelation of the thirteen Divine attributes and the “normative” definition of G-d at least in terms of our partial human understanding. What does this mean in terms of Moses’ relationship with his nation Israel after their great transgression, and what does this mean for us today, in our own lives?
This was not the first time that Moses was disappointed by the Israelites. Early on in his career, when he was a Prince in Egypt, Moses saw an Egyptian task-master beating a Hebrew slave. “He looked here and there, and he saw there was not a man” – no Egyptian was willing to cry out against the “anti-Semitic” injustice and no Hebrew was ready to launch a rebellion – “and he slew the Egyptian task-master and buried him in the sand” (Exodus 2:11). Moses was no fool; he would not have sacrificed his exalted position in Egypt for a rash act against a single Egyptian scoundrel. He hoped that with this assassination he would spark a Hebrew revolution against their despotic captors.
Moses goes out the next day, expecting to see the beginnings of rebellious foment amongst the Hebrews. He finds two Hebrew men fighting – perhaps specifically about whether or not to follow Moses’ lead. But when he chastises the assailant for raising a hand against his brother, he is unceremoniously criticized: “Who made you a master and judge over us? Are you about to kill me just as you killed the Egyptian?” (Ex 2:14).
Moses realized that he had risked his life for nought, that the Hebrews were too embroiled in their own petty arguments to launch a rebellion. Upset with his Hebrew relatives, Moses decides to give up on social action and devote himself to G-d and to religious meditation rather than political rebellion (see Lichtenstein, Moshe, Tzir V’tzon).To this end, he apparently chose to escape to Midian; a desert community whose Sheikh, Yitro, was a seeker after the Divine.
Moses spends sixty years in this Midianite, ashram-like environment of solitary contemplation with the Divine, culminating in his vision of the burning bush when Moses sees an “angel of the Lord in flame of fire in the midst of a prickly thorn-bush, – “and behold, the thorn-bush is burning with fire, but the thorn-bush is not consumed” (Exodus 3: 1-3). The prickly and lowly thorn–bush seems to be symbolizing the Hebrew people, containing within itself the fire of the Divine but not being consumed by it. And G-d sends Moses back to this developing, albeit prickly Hebrew nation, urging him to lead the Israelite slaves out of their Egyptian servitude.
G-d is teaching His greatest prophet that his religious goal must not only be Divine meditation, but also human communication; and specifically taking the Israelites out of Egypt and bringing them to the Promised Land, no matter how hard it may be to work with them.
Now let us fast forward to the sin of the Golden Calf and its aftermath. Moses pleads with G-d to forgive the nation. G-d responds that He dare not dwell in the midst of Israel, lest He destroy them at their next transgression. Moses then asks to be shown G-d’s glory, to understand G-d’s ways in this world. G-d explains that a living human cannot see His face, since that would require a complete understanding of the Divine. But His back – a partial glimpse – could and would be revealed. Moses then stands on the cleft of a rock on Mount Sinai, the very place of G-d’s previous revelation of the Ten Commandments, and he receives a second revelation, a second “service to G-d on this mountain:”
“… Moses arose early in the morning and ascended to Mt. Sinai…taking the two stone tablets in his hand. The Lord descended in a cloud and stood with him there, and he called out with the Name Adonai (YHVH). And Adonai (YHVH) passed before him and he proclaimed: Adonai, Adonai, El (G-d), Compassionate and forgiving, Slow to Anger and Abundant in Kindness and Truth…” (Ex 34: 4-7).
In this second revelation, G-d is telling Moses two things: first of all, that He is a G-d of unconditional love, a G-d who loves the individual before he/she sins and a G-d who loves the individual even after he/she sins (Rashi ad loc), a G-d who freely forgives. Hence G-d will never reject His covenantal nation, will always forgive with alacrity and work with Israel on the road to redemption. Secondly, if G-d is fundamentally a G-d of love and forgiveness, we must be people of love and forgiveness. From Moses the greatest of prophets to the lowliest hewers of wood and drawers of water, just as He (G-d) loves freely and is always ready to forgive, so in all of our human relationships we must strive to love generously and always be ready to forgive. This second Revelation is the mirror image of the first, yes, we must firmly ascribe to the morality of the Ten Commandments, but we must at the same time be constantly aware that the G-d of the cosmos loves each and every one of His children, and is always ready to forgive us, no matter what.