Translation by Yehoshua Siskin
A woman wrote me that she never learned the weekly Torah portion and therefore did not understand what the golden calf that I mentioned yesterday was all about. And so for her sake as well as my own desire to summarize the various aspects of the golden calf episode, I am providing five aspects of the story below.
1. At first glance, the central subject of this week's Torah portion is the sin of the golden calf. After Moshe Rabbeinu ascends Mount Sinai, the nation of Israel waits for him at the foot of the mountain. However, it is written that Moses "was late" in coming down with the tablets of the covenant and that's when the people demanded that Aharon "make us gods that will go before us." So Aharon takes their golden earrings and fashions them into a calf. The people dance around the calf and offer sacrifices to it. When Moses sees the people rejoicing around the calf, he breaks the tablets. We learn from here that impatience, as exemplified by the people's unwillingness to wait for Moshe's return, can have catastrophic consequences.
2. But perhaps the main subject of this Torah portion is actually the reconciliation that comes after the sin of the golden calf. Moshe Rabbeinu ascends Mount Sinai again, prays and pleads for the nation of Israel that God wants to destroy, and succeeds in having God forgive the nation. Many commentators explain that by Mount Sinai we were given the Torah, and by the golden calf we were given the capacity to make amends and atone for our misdeeds.
3. God had pleaded for the nation for 40 days and, after God grants His forgiveness, Moshe Rabbeinu stays on the mountain an additional 40 days and then returns with a new set of tablets. His return happens on Yom Kippur which became a symbol for the fact that it's always possible to be granted forgiveness and begin anew.
4. From that moment on, the nation of Israel journeyed in the desert with both the new set of tablets and the broken pieces of the old. In other words, we would always take with with us a souvenir of our sin with the golden calf, a permanent scar that would never allow us to forget what we did.
5. The climax of God's forgiveness comes with the appearance of the thirteen attributes of mercy ("Lord, Lord, benevolent God, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth . . ." ). We have repeated these words countless times since, especially during Selichot and High Holiday prayers. God gave us these words as a kind of code for opening the safe in which His forgiveness would be found, not only after the sin of the golden calf, but for all time.
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