The Lesson Of The Golden Calf


This week we read about the Israelites breaking their covenant with God by committing the great sin of worshipping the Golden Calf. When the Torah relates other instances of the Israelites’ rebellion or collective sin, there is usually a ritual section following the account of the sin that helps the people reconnect with God. This occurs in Shemini with the laws of Kashrut [Leviticus 11], in Shelach Lecha, with laws concerning libations and tzitzit [Numbers 15] and in Pinchas concerning daily and holiday offerings [Num. 28]. Here, in Ki Tissa, we find something quite different: a list of middot, attributes, forming a kind of spiritual ladder reaching upward toward God.

Moses asks God, “And now if I have indeed found favor in Your eyes, make Your ways known to me so that I may comprehend…” [Exodus 33:13]. Moses requests more information about the Divine’s ways out of his pure intention to help others, yearning to be the very best leader he could be. What follows is Moses’ intimate encounter with the Divine, in which Moses learns “the Thirteen Attributes of God” [Ex. 34:6-7].

As all is God, and God is the One-ness of the universe in the past, present and future, we realize that God knew the people would commit the sin of the Golden Calf. By keeping Moses on Sinai for a longer time than the people expected, God ensured that the Israelites would become anxious and then rebellious, contributing to the sin happening as it did. The Sages comment, “Moses pleaded: ‘God of the Universe, see from which place You have brought them out: from Egypt where everyone worships lambs (and calves)’” [Exodus Rabba 43:7]. Moses adds, “From where did You bring them out? Was it not from Egypt, from the house of idolatry?” [Deuteronomy Rabba 3:17].

This teaches us that God arranges the circumstances of our lives so that we can learn and grow. The Holy One knew that, even though we had agreed to the Ten Commandments, we were not yet able to carry them out. The Thirteen Attributes are perfectly designed to train us in following God’s ways.

Nachmanides said that the Thirteen Attributes contain three that are specifically about God and ten that are about God’s qualities that we should seek to develop. These Ten Attributes are the very ones we humans find so hard to be: kind, truthful, not easily angered, compassionate, forgiving (of three types of sin and absolving sins) and gracious. The Holy One clearly wanted us to receive these Thirteen Attributes, the description of God’s Divine personality, so that we might have guidance for reconnecting with God when we fall down due to our errors, mistakes and willful sins. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught that this type of failing comes from God, because going down is necessary in order to go up [Likutei Moharan 261]. In effect, Reb Nachman said, don’t be sad when you’re down. You are only down so that you can rise. This is our human way of growth. We don’t grow steadily, in a straight trajectory upward. We fall down, learn from our mistakes, take one step back and only then, two steps forward. The Talmud comments: “Whenever Israel sins, let them carry out this service [of the Thirteen Attributes] before Me, and I will forgive them” [Rosh HaShanah 17b]. And so the Thirteen Attributes are recited repeatedly during the closing service of Yom Kippur.

The sin of the Golden Calf has come down to us as blessing. It teaches us that God does not expect us to be perfect, but urges us to set our intentions to make sincere efforts. In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yehoshua ben-Levi teaches about the verse in Ki Tissa, “The writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets” [Ex. 32:16]. He teaches, read not “engraved” (charut), but “freedom” (cherut¬) on the tablets. God has given us the great gift of freedom: the freedom to make mistakes, to learn, to choose and to rise in goodness. Our sins are precious for they point the way to our becoming.

In Ki Tissa, God gives us a way to take spiritual baby steps forward and upward, as we strive to become more like God. It shows us how we, like Moses, can pursue the great longing we have for completion, for perfect union with the Divine, climbing the ladder of goodness one step at a time. 

Rabbi Jill Hausman is the spiritual leader and cantor of The Actors’ Temple on West 47th Street.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 5:30 p.m.

Torah: Ex. 30:11-34:35

Haftarah: I Kings 18:20-39