How incredible are the blessings and gifts of God! Every day I wake up is a new start; I recite the “modeh ani” prayer every morning, and before me is a chance to live life fully, to spend time with people I love, to study and apply our magnificent Torah, to enjoy living in the Land and in the city of my great love. Yet, even after experiencing such incredible blessings, too often I so quickly turn from God’s ways! That very phenomenon is a part of today’s Torah portion.
Our people had just witnessed the ten plagues. They had been miraculously delivered out of slavery. The Red Sea split right before them. Pharaoh’s pursuing army was destroyed. The Torah was being given to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, and the people witnessed natural phenomena that attested to the heavenly origin of the Sinai experience. Yet we are nearly slapped in the face, shocked, with the actions of our people. We encounter them and wince. We read of Aaron’s actions and cannot believe what we see!
Now the people saw that Moshe took his time to come down the Mountain, so the people gathered against Aaron, then said to him: “Get up, make gods for us that will go before us, since that man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt . . . we don’t know what happened to him!”
So Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold ear rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons and your daughters; then bring (them) to me.”
And all the people took apart the gold ear rings that were in their ears, and brought (them) to Aaron. Then he took (them) from their hands, and fashioned it with tools; and he made it (into) a calf mask. Then they said: “These are your gods, Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.”
So Aaron witnessed this, and he then built an altar in front of them, and Aaron cried out, saying: “It is a holy day to Adonai tomorrow.” (Exod 32:1-5)
It is here that I catch my breath—every year while reading this. I feel badly for Aaron: he is confronted by faithless, unhappy elements of his own people. Their voices are loud to him; he feels he is outnumbered. Aaron knows that he is planning something that is not kosher (v. 4, making a calf-mask, and v. 5, creating a new “holy” day). But he does it anyway. Perhaps he thinks he has to do these things to hold off a riot or mutiny. In fact, we don’t know how Aaron can justify what he did as the text here is not revealing on that point. As Aaron heard the people say, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (v. 4), how could he have stomached it? I think to myself, “How could he do this?” It’s a good thing at this point that God sent Moses back down the mount to set things in order.
We are faced with a catastrophe that could undo the newly found liberation, that could have damaged the covenant relationship between God and his people beyond repair. As we read this passage, which of us does not feel betrayal, revulsion and sorrow? Even 3,300 years after this event took place, reading this description of what happened ignites such feelings in all of us.
A most remarkable thing, then, is just how merciful and forgiving the God of Israel truly is. This situation could have had any number of outcomes. God does not pull punches. He tells Moses, “Your nation . . . has corrupted itself” (v. 7), and then:
Adonai said to Moshe: “I have seen this people, and look, they are stiff necked. And now, leave me, so my fuming anger will be against them, and annihilate them. Then I will make a great nation from you.” (32:9–10)
We don’t read: “Oh, well, I guess your kinsmen felt leaderless and insecure that you, Moses, were gone for a few weeks. So we have to understand their feelings and not judge them.” No! It is amazing just how honest and straightforward our Torah is in its historical recollections. The bottom line is that God is provoked, and Moses is not happy, either: “Then Moshe got angry, and threw the tablets down, breaking them, underneath the Mountain” (32:19).
Yet, Moses’ amazing plea to God helps the situation:
Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, your servants, to whom you gave an oath in which you said to them, “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and all of this land, that I said I will grant to your descendants so that they will inherit it forever.”
Then Adonai was comforted concerning the harsh actions that he said he would do to his people. (Exod 32:13–14)
Like his ancestor Abraham, Moses is bold in his intercession for his people. And somehow this touches the very heart of God. As a result, while things are not totally calm, the people avoid annihilation, moving instead toward teshuva (repentance), rectifying the crisis. At this point, we breathe a sigh of relief in knowing that two million people will not perish, even though they will go through consequences for their idolatry: “On that very day, about three thousand people from the nation fell” (32:28). Jews had to kill other Jews; this was the outcome, a sad and an extremely serious one.
The inevitable confrontation between Moses and Aaron occurs:
Then Moshe said to Aaron: “What did this people do to you, in order to bring upon you such a huge missing of the mark?” Then Aaron replied: “Don’t get angry, sir! You know the people, that they are evil! And they said to me, ‘Make gods for us that will go before us, because that man Moshe, who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him!’”
“So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it apart and give it to me, so that I can throw it into fire; then this calf came out.” (Exod 32:21–24)
Aaron blames the people. Of course. I’m sure that I would have, too. It’s our common reaction when we disobey Torah and do wrong to others.
What do we learn from this? Here are some things I glean from our parasha:
God is merciful and forgiving.
Yet he does not compromise his righteousness.
It is a blessing to have a strong intercessor as a leader (like Moses).
The battle we face is the same one that Moses and Israel faced: the battle to choose to do what is right (according to Torah) or what is wrong (contrary to Torah).
Our insecurities and unwanted circumstances are not valid excuses for choosing to do wrong.
There are serious consequences for disobeying God’s instructions.
I listed “God is merciful and forgiving” as the prominent lesson. It is the bottom line of our parasha, and probably of most Torah portions. In 33:14, we get a glimpse of the great mercy, forgiveness, and love that God had for his covenant people: “Then he (God) responded (to Moshe): “My face will go (on the journey to Israel with the people), and I will lead you!”
To put it into more human terms, God had been greatly hurt and angered by our ancestors’ behaviour, but he opted for reconciliation. As King of our precious covenant, he could have trashed it all after the incident of idolatry. But he didn’t. In fact, he continued to accompany and lead our people. And what does that show us? That God indeed is merciful and forgiving. His heart toward Israel was one of compassion: “I will have womb mercies on whomever I will have womb mercies” (33:19). Look at how God describes himself (!) in our parasha:
So Adonai passed before him (Moshe), crying: “Adonai, Adonai, Compassionate and Merciful God, long-nosed, and great in covenant love and truth! Locking up covenant love for thousands; carrying away Torah transgressions, crimes, and missings of the mark; but he will not totally sanitize the Torah transgressions, afflicting the Torah transgressions of fathers upon the children, and upon the children of the children, unto the third and fourth generations. (Exod 34:6–7)
So the incident of idolatry is to be remembered throughout all time, due to its inclusion in the Torah. But our God, though he will not compromise with wrongdoing, so loves his covenant people! And I love this emphasis in our parasha.
May it inspire us all to walk in obedience to His Mitzvot!