golden calf cow 88.
(photo credit: )
It is difficult to imagine the profound disappointment and even anger Moses must have felt on witnessing the Israelites reveling around the golden calf. After all his teachings and exhortations about the one true God who demands fealty and morality - especially sexual morality and the refraining from activities bound up in idolatrous worship - and after all the miracles God had wrought for them in Egypt, at the sea, in the desert and at Sinai, how could the Israelites have so quickly cast away God and His prophet in favor of a 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 cast from his hands the tablets, smashing them under the mountain" (Exodus 32:19). And whether he broke the tablets in a fit of anger, as it would seem from the text, disgusted with his nation and deeming them unworthy to be the bearers of the Decalogue (Rashi), or whether the sight of the debauchery caused Moses to feel faint and drop the tablets (Rashbam), Moses himself appears to be as broken in spirit as were the two stones. After all, a leader must feel - and take responsibility for - the brunt of his nation's transgressions. All these emotions must have been swirling within Moses's mind and heart while the tablets were crashing down.
But what follows in the text, after capital punishment for the 3,000 leaders of the idolatry, is a lengthy dialogue between Moses and God. This culminates in a second revelation, this time of the 13 divine attributes and the "normative" definition of God in terms of our human understanding. What does this mean for us today?
This was not the first time Moses was disappointed by the Israelites. When he was a prince of Egypt, Moses saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. He looked here and there, and saw "there was not a man" - no one, either among the Egyptians willing to cry out against the injustice, or among the Hebrews ready to wage a rebellion - "and he slew the Egyptian taskmaster and buried him in the sand" (Exodus 2:11). Moses would not have sacrificed his exalted position for one rash act against a single scoundrel. He hoped that with this assassination he would spark a Hebrew rebellion against their overseers.
Moses goes out the next day, expecting to see the beginnings of rebellious foment. He finds two Hebrew men fighting - perhaps specifically about whether or not to follow Moses's lead - and when he chastises one 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?" (Exodus 2:14).
Moses realized that he had risked his life for naught, that the Hebrews were too embroiled in their own petty arguments. Upset with his Hebrew relatives, he decides to give up on social action and devote himself to religious meditation (see Moshe Lichtenstein, Tzir V'tzon). To this end, he apparently chose to escape to Midian, a desert community whose sheikh, Jethro, was a seeker after the divine (see Exodus 2:21, Rashi and Exodus 18:11, "Now I know that YHVH is greater than all the gods...")
Moses spends 60 years in this Midianite, ashram-like environment of solitary contemplation, culminating in his vision of the burning bush: Moses sees an "angel of the Lord in flame of fire in the midst of a prickly thornbush - and behold, the thornbush is burning, but the thornbush is not consumed" (Exodus 3:1-3). The lowly thornbush seems to symbolize the Hebrew people, containing within itself the fire of the divine but not being consumed by that fire. And God sends Moses back to this developing-yet-prickly nation, urging him to free the Israelite slaves from their Egyptian domination.
Apparently God is teaching His greatest prophet that the religious goal must not be divine meditation but rather human action; taking the Israelites out of their enslavement and bringing them to the Promised Land. And God prophesies: "And this shall be the sign that I have sent you: When you take out the nation from Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain [Mount Sinai]" (Exodus 3:12).
Now let us fast forward to the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf. Moses pleads with God to forgive the nation. God 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 God's glory, to understand God's ways in this world. God explains that His face - a complete understanding of the divine - cannot be seen by a live human, but His back - a partial glimpse - could and would be revealed. Moses then stands in the cleft of a rock on Mount Sinai, the very place of God's revelation of the Ten Commandments, and receives a second revelation, a second "service to God on this mountain."
"...Moses arose early in the morning and ascended to Mount 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 [God], compassionate and forgiving, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth..." (Exodus 34: 4-7).
In this second revelation God is telling Moses two things: first of all, that He is a God of unconditional love, a God who loves before one sins and who loves after one sins (Rashi), a God who freely forgives - even without cause. Hence God will never reject His covenantal nation, will always forgive with alacrity and will always continue to guide Israel on the road to redemption. Secondly, if God is fundamentally a god of love and forgiveness, we must be people of love and forgiveness. From the greatest of prophets to the lowliest hewers of wood and drawers of water, just as He loves freely and is always ready to forgive, so must we love freely and always be ready to forgive.
And 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 rest securely in the knowledge that the God of the cosmos loves each and every one of His children, and is always ready to forgive us, no matter what.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.