The Seemingly Impossible

This week’s Torah portion contains the account of the Golden Calf: the Israelites, fresh out of Egypt and wandering the desert, build a golden calf to worship instead of God. For this great mistake, many lose their lives. It’s an intense story of action and punishment, or of action and consequence, if you prefer. But in reading it this week, I found a different message. 

Instead of the story of a “stiffnecked people” (a phrase repeated multiple times in this Torah portion) punished by God, I found a story of a people afraid, who make a big mistake, and a process toward healing and wholeness. Let’s dive into it. 

First of all, the Israelites don’t make a golden calf because they are bored and vain. They make a golden calf because they want a god to accompany them through the desert: “The people saw that Moses took so long coming down from the mountain [where he was talking to God], they congregated before Aaron and said, ‘Come, let us make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses — who brought us out of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him!’” (Exodus 32:1). Rashi, a medieval commentator, explains that the Israelites think that Moses is dead, and they need a god to lead the way. What could be more logical than replacing a dead leader with a new guide? Through this lens, their action makes perfect sense!

Next, God (the omniscient), sees that the people have begun to make a golden calf. He tells Moses: “Leave me alone, so that I might destroy them in my anger!” (Exodus 32:10). But Moses advocates on the peoples’ behalf, pleading with God to be compassionate. “Think of what people will say!” Moses appeals to God—it won’t look good if you rescued us from Egypt only to destroy us in the desert. “Remember our ancestors, and the promises you made to them,” Moses adds, and God relents (Exodus 32:14). 

But the story doesn’t end here. When Moses sees the people worshiping the golden calf, he himself becomes incensed. He sees that they have become “out of control” and sends the priests to regain control. Some 3,000 people are killed, and then God sends a plague. But this harsh punishment isn’t the end of the story. 

No, the story ends with God taking some time to cool off and reconsider the next steps. Moses intercedes on behalf of the people—but this time, in full view of the people. They won’t again fear losing him. 

Moses says: “If I have truly gained Your favor [O God], pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. Consider, too, that this nation is Your people.” God responds, compassionately: “I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden.” (Exodus 33:13-14). Wow—what a shift! Once God and Moses have both calmed down, they both seem eager to reunite. Moses says: “Unless You lead us, do not make us leave this place.” 

What an incredible resolution—both sides proclaiming their desire to continue on together. I would have thought that the story of the Israelites could have ended with the golden calf, so angry were both Moses and God! Instead, they tried every tool in their arsenals: calming one another down; then acting from anger; calming down yet again, and finally, refocusing on the bigger picture. 

Perhaps this story of purposeful resolution, despite seemingly impossible odds, can offer us hope—both individually and as we consider the continuation of the painful war in Israel and Gaza—as we look to the days ahead. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Rabbi Sam