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  • Alfie Marcus

Overcoming the Stain

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov. Great to be back. Have missed all of you. Hope your yamim tovim have been full of inspiration and joy.

Today’s Torah reading, one that we repeat on many occasions, is about the despair Moshe feels after the sin of the Golden Calf. It is about rehabilitation, renewal, and reinvention in overcoming the stain of this sin.

The reading starts with one of most amazing passages in the Chumash. It takes place after Moses calling for, and executing, indiscriminate killing of people in retaliation for the sin and Hashem killing many more via a plague. Moshe has separated himself from the people and sits outside the camp in a tent, where at the entrance a pillar of cloud would appear and speak to Moshe and the people would bow down.

Speaking to Hashem face to face, Moshe wants to know who will accompany him. Who is his partner in the task of leadership? Is it Hashem? Confused, he does not understand Hashem’s ways. How can it be that the people have sinned so grievously? Are they worthy of Hashem choosing them?

Hashem reassures him that Hashem will accompany Moshe on the journey. Hashem opens his face to Moshe, which emboldens Moshe to ask for more. In the depths of his despair, he seeks a closeness to Hashem he previously has not achieved. He seeks to understand the distinctiveness of the people he is leading. His plea to Hashem is what is so special about this people? After the sin of the calf, they seem to have no distinctiveness, nothing that is special. The relationship between Moshe and the people, an ex-prince and a multitude of roughhewn slaves never has been easy. It never will be easy.

Hashem evades the question. Hashem does not answer in reference to the people. Rather Hashem answers in relation to Moshe and his special relationship to the prophet. The words Hashem has spoken and the actions Hashem have taken are a result of Moshe. They spring from Moshe’s special character.

Flattered, Moshe asks Hashem for more. If his relationship to Hashem is so close, he wants to know more about Hashem. He seeks to have a vision of Hashem’s glory. Hashem’s reply is not to show Moshe the glory but to reveal to Moshe Hashem’s goodness, the freedom Hashem has to show favor and mercy to anyone Hashem chooses. Hashem warns Moshe that though Hashem and Moshe are speaking face to face, Hashem can go no further and allow Moshe to actually view Hashem’s face directly and live. Seeing Hashem’s face directly would mean Moshe’s death. That Hashem says that Moshe cannot see Hashem’s face directly and live is very odd, for are not Moshe and Hashem speaking face-to- face? Moshe may be speaking face-to face with Hashem but Moshe is not really viewing Hashem’s face directly. He is seeing but not seeing. Although directly in Hahsem’s presence, Moshe is missing something that is of great importance.

Hashem refuses to show that something to Moshe directly. He will not show his face straight away to Moshe. Instead, Hahsem takes the odd step of placing Moshe in the fissure of the Rock and passing by Moshe so that Moshe can see Hashem’s back but not his face. According to the Talmud, Moshe views the knot of Hashem’s tefilin tied behind Hashem’s neck. That is the most that Moshe can see.

If that is the most that Moshe, the greatest of prophets, can see then our abilities to see Hashem’s face must be far more limited. Seeing Hashem’s back but not Hashem’s face is the closest Moshe can come to Hashem, the meaning being perhaps that no human being can really understand Hashem’s ways before-the-fact. It is only after the fact that we can interpret the meaning of what is happening. It is only after the fact that we can debate and put into perspective what has occurred. It is only after the fact that we can draw lessons about what to do next. Hashem’s plans are hidden from us before they take place, but afterwards when they have been carried out, we can contemplate about their meaning. Hashem seems to be telling Moshe that only after dwelling on the meaning of the sin of the calf may its purpose become evident.

What is the lesson of the calf? It is that no sin can defeat us. We must rise from the sin and go on. We must take the next step. After the catastrophe, we are called upon to dig ourselves out of the misfortune and reestablish our relationship with Hashem in a different way, perhaps a less intense but even more meaningful way. Hashem commands Moshe to carve, for himself, not for Hashem, but for himself, another set of luchot that are like the original. The broken luchot must be restored but this time they are not brought down from on high by Hashem but they are made by Moshe, a mere mortal, however great he is. Moshe must use his own hands to carve them.

In a similar manner, it is only after the fact we may know why the momentous events of history take place. Only after the fact may we be able to understand the turmoil and turbulence of our times. The nasty covid plague, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, insufficient energy and other resources, an uncertain economy with prices rising seemingly without control have embittered us. Vast inequality, xenophobia, hatred of immigrants, and climate change that has resulted in one natural disaster after another have left us disillusioned. Without the capacity to provide these events with some meaning, we are adrift. Without the will to mend, rebuild, and restore we are lost. The initiatives we take come from the capability Hashem has placed in us to give meaning and purpose to events when otherwise there appears to be none, when all seems senseless.

Incumbent upon us is to keep a keen eye on what is happening and draw lessons of restoration as Moshe did, but no matter how much we try to do so we will come up short since we are mere mortals who confront the unrelenting pressure of history. Therefore, we must have faith in Hashem and recite, and continue to recite, the list of Hashem’s attributes as we have done so many times during the High Holiday season. Hashem, hashem, kel rachum, vechanun. Hashem is compassionate, just, slow to anger, and committed to kindness and truth, and so on. Coming up the mountain with the rebuilt luchot, Moshe and Hashem meet and a careful reading of the text suggests that they almost together utter these words simultaneously. Are they Hashem’s revelation to Moshe of Hashem’s most intimate character, as is conventionally understood, or are they Moshe’s declaration to Hashem of what Hashem should be, of how Hashem should act, should respond to the sin of the calf?

Important to note is that the text we recite in the High Holiday season stops with the phrase preserver of kindness for 1000 generations. It leaves out the next passage found in today’s Torah reading, that Hashem recalls parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generation. By editing this phrase out, the composers of the Selichot and theHigh Holiday tefilah show they are not comfortable with it, as I, and most of you, probably are uncomfortable with it. Why should next generations bear responsibility for a prior generation’s sins? The sins apparently leave a residue. Hashem’s complete forgiveness does not appear in the short term. In the short term it is only natural that Hashem recalls the sin of the calf. It is only in the long term that the sins’ remembrance might be blotted out.

Perhaps, this distinction between the short and long term should influence our view of history and the events occurring around us. In the short term, their calamitous nature cannot be obliterated, but in the long term, we hope that Hashem’s kindness and justice will prevail. The Torah portion continues with a hint of what to do to make it prevail. Hashem establishes another covenant that Hashem’s promises to the people depend on their actions in separating themselves from idolatry and removing it from the land they are about to inherit.

Of course, we know now with the benefit of hindsight, that the people of Israel ultimately failed in this task. Jewish life had be reconstructed again after the destruction of the Second Temple, and it was in a new form in the study hall and in the house of prayer. The people had to rise up and create a new set of Tablets. Maybe that is our challenge as well in our generation, in every generation, to take it into our own hands, like Moshe, and reinvent, rebuild, and restructure our tradition to keep it alive in the face of our human failings.

Restoration after catastrophe resides in human hands. It is up to us to rebuild, to restore, and to rehabilitate the world in partnership with Hashem. We must stand with Hashem, as Moshe did, and call out in Hashem’s name, as Moshe did. We must continue to recite Hashem’s great attributes as we have done so many times during the High Holiday season that Hashem is compassionate, just, slow to anger, and committed to kindness and truth.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Semeach.

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