Holiness and spirituality can unfold in a flash, as at Sinai, but sometimes they need time to ripen. In this week’s portion (Ki Tisa), we recall that temptations of impatience are mighty, but our capacities for patience and penitence are mightier still.
While Moses was atop Sinai for 40 days communing with God, the people grew restive. Their leader absent, the people rebelled, demanding that Aaron (Moses’ brother and eventual High Priest) make them a “god.” Aaron replied, “Take off the golden rings in the ears of your wives, your sons and daughters, and bring them to me” (Ex. 32:2). Aaron crafted a Golden Calf and the people prayed to it.
How fast the people fell to impatience. Even while waiting at the base of Sinai, already the people broke the First and Second Commandments. If there is a “cardinal sin,” the Golden Calf – confusing gold for God – was it.
Why did God let this rebellious and disobedient people survive? Four answers emerge in how both God and the people reacted.
First, we learn that God deemed the people unready. Impatient and faithless, only their descendants — untouched by slavery and lawlessness — would enter the Promised Land (Ex. 33:1). We learn that even from a loving God, sometimes we need consequences for bad behavior: as good parents know, excess laxity can be unloving and harmful.
Second, we learn about repentance and authenticity. Caught in the act and sentenced to wander the desert, the people mourned. In humility, they took off their remaining finery. God replied to Moses:
Say to the children of Israel: ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if I go up in your midst for one moment, I will consume you. Therefore drop your finery, so I can know what to do with you’ (Ex.33:5).
God converted contrition into a lesson for all time about being real: “Drop your finery!” Drop golden appearance and hubris: these will only tempt you to build Golden Calves in your lives. Drop false images you project about yourselves: they are idols. Be plain and real before Me, so you won’t be distorted.
Third, with the people repenting, Moses asked for a vision of divine glory. God hid Moses in the cleft of a rock and enveloped him in the Thirteen Attributes we invoke on Yom Kippur:
Adonai, Adonai, God, merciful and gracious, patient and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Ex. 34:6-7).
Impatience led the people astray, but God remained patient and forgiving. What’s more, God revealed more — not despite the people’s mistake but because of it. Penance led to revelation. In Talmud’s words, “Where penitents stand, not even the perfectly righteous can stand” (B.T. Brachot 34b). Sometimes only one who errs can achieve spiritual wisdom, by the heartfelt contrition of teshuvah (returning). Descent can be for the sake of ascent.
Fourth, how remarkable that God didn’t disqualify Aaron from the priesthood for building the Golden Calf! We learn that the path of holiness is not perfection but forgiveness, dropping pretense and cultivating the fullest heart that flawed humans can muster.
May the Golden Calf remind us to be real, resist impatience, drop false fineries and forgive. In that merit, may the memory of the Golden Calf smelt our hearts into pure gold.