'The adoration of the Golden Calf’ by Nicolas Poussin.
In this week’s Torah portion, one of the Jewish nation’s most serious transgressions is described: the sin of the Golden Calf.
Moses our Master, the nation’s leader, went up to Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights to receive the Torah and deliver it to the nation. During this time, the nation, camping at the foot of the mountain, created a golden calf and began to worship it.
This sin of avoda zara, idol worship, is very foreign to us nowadays. It is hard for us to grasp the temptation to create an idol and worship it, but the sages of the Talmud tell us (Sanhedrin 102) that in that time, idol worship was very attractive and hard to resist.
After the nation sinned with the golden calf, God said to Moses, “I will not go up in your midst, since you are a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 33:3). Even though He will fulfill his promise to bring the people of Israel to the Promised Land, He Himself will not take part in the journey. He canceled the plan to build the Tabernacle and have His Divine Presence rest among the people of Israel; He will not travel the long route to the land with them, and His House will not reside among the houses of the nation.
The reasoning for this given in the verse is that the Children of Israel are a “stiff-necked people.” The term “stiff-necked” is given here as the reason God is revoking His relationship with the people of Israel – because the nation is stubborn, inflexible and uncompromising.
If God would be among the people and they would insist on sinning, it could be dangerous, since sinning in front of the House of God is a much greater defiance than if God is not part of this journey.
Faced with this decree, Moses asks God to forgive the people’s sin, to stay with them, and not to cancel His plan to build the Tabernacle. He adds a surprising argument to this request for forgiveness: “If I have now found favor in Your eyes, O Lord, let the Lord go now in our midst [even] if they are a stiffnecked people, and You shall forgive our iniquity and our sin....” (ibid. 34:9).
That the people are a “stiff-necked people” – the reason God chooses not to be part of the journey to the Promised Land – becomes Moses’s argument for the opposite decision, for why God should forgive their sin and build the Tabernacle among them.
What is Moses’s argument? Because the Children of Israel are so stubborn and uncompromising, this inflexibility will ensure their loyalty to God. Their deep faith and sense of fateful belonging are so deeply rooted and strong that they will keep the nation connected to its unique history and eternal beliefs.
Throughout history, Moses’s words were proven to be correct time and time again. The people of Israel survived decrees and destruction, torture and horrors, and despite this remained loyal to its heritage and to its God. A Jew never surrenders. He will insist on living in accordance with his values, or – if there is no other choice – not live at all.
Moses teaches us with these words that there is no human trait that is always bad, that has no positive side to it. Every characteristic can always be used for beneficial purposes. Even if it seems to us that parts of our personalities make it difficult for us to move forward and succeed, we must keep in mind that these same traits can become positive ones, if used properly. Taking advantage of our strengths in a beneficial and healthy manner can help us live a better and more complete life.
■ The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.
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