Idolatry. Sexual immorality. Murder. The description of the events of the Golden Calf in this week’s portion sounds like the outline for a new cable television series. By the end of the portion, the main characters of Aaron and the Hebrews are forgiven and allowed to keep going on their journey. But how? Isn’t the crime of the Golden Calf so great that it is unforgivable? How can we be forgiven — whether as a community or as an individual — for mistakes that are so overwhelming?
In addition to the teaching that we can be forgiven, I have always found that one of the most beautiful aspects of this portion is that the text gives us a simple process to open ourselves up to the love and forgiveness of God.
We are taught that God provides a medicine before he creates the sickness. Right before the Golden Calf debacle is the famous V’shamru passage, which we sing every Shabbat: “The Children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations. Between me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever that in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested” (Exodus 31:16).
The Sabbath is a covenant with God that transcends time and space. This covenant, the observance of the Sabbath, is the medicine for the fear, greed, lust and excess that became manifest in the making of the calf. Shabbat is a bond with God so deep that it can even penetrate the darkest veils of the human soul — if we are willing to let it in. As Ahad Ha’am said, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” Through observing and living the Sabbath, the desires that created the Golden Calf are dissolved into a higher and deeper purpose.
Often when we get sick, there is one medicine to rid ourselves of the problem and another to keep the sickness away in the future. Similarly, we find a special piece of preventive medicine right after the Golden Calf fiasco that will help thwart our evil inclination in the future: the 13 Attributes (Exodus 34:6-7). These qualities of God are shown to Moses, and we are to make them qualities in our own lives. The words themselves have such power that we are taught in the Talmud that everyone who properly understands these 13 Attributes and invokes them in his prayers meticulously will never experience that his prayers went totally unheard; and that the people who invoke them will not return empty handed from their prayer (Bavli Rosh HaShanah 17b). Striving to have each of these qualities as an integral part of our lives is the best medicine to make sure that we do not get into the same drama as our ancestors did so long ago.
A friend once asked his teacher how one becomes more observant. “Very slowly,” the teacher replied. I don’t know if someone who has never observed the Sabbath can suddenly become Shomer Shabbos, but each of us has the ability to start celebrating Sabbath a bit more than we do. Maybe it’s just remembering that, as my friend Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer says, “On Shabbat, God gives us a note thanking us for all the hard work we’ve done all week, and letting us know that this one day, He can run the world without our help.” Maybe it’s starting to light Sabbath candles or remembering to not focus on work; but each of us can begin to honor that covenant found in this portion. And while it may be overwhelming to think of emulating all of God’s 13 Attributes, we can try to focus on just one of them: being a little more compassionate or gracious, slow to anger, or forgiving. Each step we take toward either of these processes is a step away from the destructive nature of the Golden Calf.
I find it incredibly comforting that Aaron and the Hebrews were forgiven for their huge mistake. It makes it easier for me to have faith that each of us can also be forgiven for our mistakes; if, like Aaron, we own up to what we have done and strive to change. If we take the prescribed medicine of Shabbat. If we endeavor to emulate the 13 Attributes. If we just take a step at a time in a new direction.
And may we be blessed to see those small steps add up to an entirely new journey filled with health, joy and peace.
This week’s teaching is dedicated in memory of Avi Gross-Schaefer, z”l, who tragically died one year ago at the hands of a drunk driver.