We are each Responsible for Our Actions!

16 Adar 5782

For today’s parashah, Ki Tisa, I would like to focus on the Egel Zahav, the Golden Calf. Chapters 32-34 deals with the sin of Israel at the very beginning of their relationship with the Creator. To put this into context, the Israelites had been brainwashed by the Egyptian culture; they had seen all the miracles that God had done for them, from the ten plagues to the giving of Manna; they had just witnessed the manifestation of His Presence and heard the voice of the Creator speaking the Ten Commandments from top of the burning mountain. Now Moshe had ascended Mount Sinai where he would receive the two tablets, inscribed with these commandments by the Finger of God and they were afraid after not seeing him for over a month. (Chap 31). 

Chapter 32 begins: “1And when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him: ‘Get Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.‘ 2 And Aaron said to them: ‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them to me.’ 3 And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it into a molten calf; and they said: ‘This is your god, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’ 5 And when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron proclaimed: ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.’ 6 And they rose up early in the morning, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink and rose up to make merry.”

Our sages make excuses for the Israelites who they tend to idealize, by saying that it was never intended to be a god.  Rather, it was meant to function in place of Moses, as an intermediary to God; but let’s not deceive ourselves – read what it says. There are three major theories from our sages to justify their actions. That Aaron was stalling for time until Moses returned; that he was trying to pacify the people and Ibn Ezracontends that the golden calf was meant to be a pedestal for God – an object whereupon God’s presence would rest. Each had their own reasons to minimize what Aaron did. 

Three thousand died that day at the hand of the Levites after which Moshe had an argument with the Creator. We are not called Israel for nothing. We argue with the Creator until we die. Maybe that’s why we have such a big mouth! The Creator told him… Look at what your people have done.  Moshe said, “no, they’re your people”. Moshe then went down the mountain, witnessed the chaos and broke the tablets. According to our sages it was at Yom Kippur when Moses returned after receiving the second set of tablets. Thus, he would make atonement for the horrendous sin of the people.  In certain ways both leaders had failed, but both would have their leadership roles restored and be even more committed than ever to their calling. 

Chapter 32:30 – 33: “And it came to pass the next day, that Moses said to the people: ‘You have sinned a great sin; and now I will go up to the LORD, perhaps I shall make atonement for your sin.’ 31 And Moses returned to the LORD, and said: ‘Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold. 32 Yet now, if You will forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I beg you, out of Your book which You have written.’ 33 And the LORD said to Moses: ‘Whoever has sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book.” Moses was begging the Creator to forgive them…to not blot them out.  At Yom Kippur we say, may our names be written in the Book of Life knowing that the alternative is unthinkable.

Verse 33 is crucial… “And the LORD said to Moses, whoever has sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.”  The Creator is teaching us that if we do something wrong, no one else can pay for it … we will be held accountable …and that the idea of a person giving his life for another is not a new concept. Here Moshe was willing to give his life for his people, but we know that the Scriptures do not allow for human sacrifice. There are those who teach that someone else will pay for our sins but that is not what the Torah teaches. How often have I heard: God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, so did God suddenly change His mind? It is time that we shift our paradigms even if it is hard. We have learned many things over the years that are simply not true. The question is not whether a person is willing to sacrifice his life for another, the question is “is that possible?” The Creator says “No”.

Now that Moshe was not with them, the people didn’t have a figure to worship, literally a man.  Our sages struggle with this idea since they want to distance themselves from any religion that worships a human god; they blamed the asassouf (the rabble-rousers), saying the problem of the golden calf was caused by the gentiles who had left Egypt with them. It is easy to blame others, but the Torah is very honest and teaches us that we need to be responsible for our actions. It doesn’t cover over any of the bad things that our heroes did, nor does it speak only about how good they were.  A principle of Judaism is that there is no perfection in man while other religions teach that we need to be perfect, but this is impossible. 

The Creator is clear, if you did it, you pay for it… that’s called to take responsibility and it comes with free will. Another principle of Judaism is being responsible for our own actions, which is where we get the idea of teshuva. Saying “I’m sorry” is not enough; we need to recognize what we did, take responsibility by repairing the damage we made and then we can rebuild our relationship with the Creator. There are times when it is impossible to repair past mistakes but that is where “kavanah” comes in…intention. God judges us by our intentions. 

Exodus 33:12 -23 speaks about Moses asking God to show him His ways so that he might know Him.  In Hebrew, “to know” means to have an intimate relationship, as in Adam “knew” Eve. Moshe was worried that God would no longer walk with His people after the incident of the golden calf.  God responded: 19 ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.’  (Notice that the LORD told Moses exactly how to proclaim His name even though our sages say that we are forbidden from pronouncing His name.)

“And He said: ‘Thou cannot see My face, for no man shall see Me and live.’ 21 And the LORD said: ‘Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand upon the rock. 22 And it shall come to pass, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock and will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. 23 And I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.’ 

These few verses, if taken literally, can easily be misunderstood. Obviously, the Creator has no face, back or hands but these terms are anthropomorphisms, used as illustrations.  No one can see the Face of the Creator without dying means that we won’t see Him in any way we want, because the knowledge of Him is too great for us, and to “see” is better understood in the sense of “Oh I see” when you mean, “Oh I understand”.  This coupled with “He would show Moses His back” illustrates that Moses would be able to “see” everything marvelous that the Creator had been doing for them and would continue to do in the present and future. Then they would begin to “see”, understand what it means to be in relationship with the Almighty God.  

This leads us to verses 34:6-9 from where Rambam wrote the 13 attributes of God – “tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy, maintaining his faithful love to thousands, forgiving fault, crime and sin yet letting nothing go unchecked and punishing the parents’ faults in the children and in the grandchildren to the third and fourth generation”.  These attributes have been breathed into each of us. Our Halacha (walk) is to daily work on ridding ourselves of whatever holds us back from being and doing these in our lives. It is not easy, and it is a process, but our God is with us all the way as He was with our people then. 

It’s quite humorous to read how Aaron justified his actions to Moses – saying: the people made him do it; they brought him their jewelry and asked him to make a god to bring them back to Egypt; that he had melted down the jewelry and voila – out jumped a golden calf – it simply wasn’t his fault. Although Moshe was upset, the incident resulted with a positive consequence for him. Until that moment, Moshe, who had been a most reluctant leader, had never wanted to accept his role; now he finally would.  When you come to this community, make it your community, like Moshe finally did with his; take ownership and acknowledge that it is part of your life; when it becomes yours in this way, you want to protect and defend it and even give your life for it. 

The LORD had appointed Aaron, Moshe’s older brother to be his mouthpiece. Notice that there’s a great contrast in their characters. It is obvious that Aaron was the peacemaker, while Moshe was the boss, the one who took charge and put things in order.  Aaron could never have done that.  He was not playing for time, nor was he choosing between the lesser of two evils, he was being himself, a peacemaker and without Aaron, we would have no community. Moshe was the strong authority figure who acted with certainty and brought order to the people, while Aaron was the glue who kept the people together. Both types of leadership are essential in a healthy community.  

The heart of this message is that no matter how badly we fail, we can always start again; no matter how bad a problem we think we have; the Creator has an answer for us. Remember our God never quits on us; we are the ones who quit on Him. This is a call to teshuva today.