STEADY THE RUDDERLESS SHIP
Rabbi David Walk
This week's Torah reading features, perhaps, the most difficult and disturbing story in the entire Torah. The sin of the Golden Calf is a narrative which continues to haunt us even 3300 years later. How could the same people who had witnessed the ten plagues and who had experienced the epiphany at Sinai turn so quickly to idolatry? It is beyond belief. Throughout the centuries our Sages and commentaries have struggled to deal with the enormity of the crime. I believe that all these attempts to comprehend the incomprehensible can be placed into two categories: those explanations which emphasize the vast magnitude of the treachery and those which try to minimize the extent of the sin. In the latter group are the comments which push the responsibility onto the eirev rav or mixed multitude of Egyptians and other ethnicities who accompanied the Children of Israel in their flight from Egypt to freedom. This limits the culpability of our ancestors. Also included in the positions which endeavor to diminish the severity of the transgression are those observers who hold that the Jewish people weren't looking for a substitute for God; they were trying to replace Moshe. I'd like to expand upon this last idea.
There is ample support for this last idea in the text itself. The Jews only began to freak out when they perceived that Moshe hadn't returned from his sojourn in heaven on time. The verse records: And when they saw that Moshe delayed in descending from the mountain. The whole nation assembled before Aharon, and said to him, 'Arise, make for us a god who will walk before us, because we don't know what happened to this man Moshe, who took us out of Egypt' (Exodus 32:1).' Although there are other verses which can be interpreted differently, and there are many ambiguities in the story, it seems that this critical verse implies that the people hadn't given up on God, but had despaired of ever seeing Moshe again. Let us, therefore, assume that their loyalty to God remained intact. So, this parsha and its grievous sin are about Moshe and how the Jews viewed him. I don't really know the theological nuances of what the average Jew in the camp thought. I'm not sure that many of them thought through the spiritual ramifications of their actions. They were just scared. However, the terror that they felt was connected to the absence of Moshe. Remember, already at Mount Sinai the Jews begged Moshe to remain between them and God. The direct communication with God overwhelmed their senses. They truly relied on Moshe for connection to the Divine.
In other words, the main topic of our Torah reading is the evolution of Moshe as a leader. Moshe' s tenure begins with him begging God to find another person to fulfill the task of redeeming the Jewish people. Many commentaries believed that Moshe didn't think that the Jews were worthy or ready for redemption. And the Jews had an ambivalence towards him, too. Even though he is initially greeted warmly by the nation and its elders, after Pharaoh increased their workload, the Jews accosted him claiming that he was endangering the nation, putting a figurative sword into the hands of the Egyptian overlords. From that point on, they refuse or are unable to listen to him. Even after the exodus, the Jews seem skeptical of Moshe's power and ability to save them from the Egyptian army at the shores of the Sea. But after the passage through the Sea, the nation seems to realize how indispensable Moshe is. They may continue to complain (and how!), but for the next period of time (until the rebellion of Korach) his leadership is unquestioned.
More germane to our story is the development of Moshe. The man who didn't want the job is now ready to die for the mission. When God tells Moshe that the Jews must be expunged from the Divine ledger, he rises to the challenge and demands that he be erased from God's book. A shepherd who loses even one lamb feels failure. Moshe contemplates the ignominy of losing the entire flock. Here's the sound byte: I implore! And now if You would but forgive their sin! But if not, erase me now from Your book (32:31-32).
The essential question now becomes what happened to Moshe? What changed in his attitude to transform this former prince turned shepherd from unwilling leader into the devoted caretaker and guardian of the nation? I think that the light bulb moment came when he debriefed Aharon about the sin. At that moment he found out that the Jews had declared to Aharon that they couldn't go on without Moshe. This new found sense of being indispensable moved Moshe in ways that God's demands of him never could. Once he became aware of the nation's urgency, he sprang into action in two ways, which were reminiscent of our patriarch Avraham, but on steroids. First, he pleads with God for the lives of the Jews just like Avraham did for Sodom, but with even greater passion, because these are his people. Then he wants to know how to deal with God and these Divine decrees. This is similar to Avraham's request to understand how God's promises work. The answer to Avraham was the establishment of a covenantal or irrevocable relationship at the brit bein habitarim (Covenant between the Parts). The response to Moshe was the Thirteen Attributes of God's compassion. God informs Moshe that no one can really understand the Infinite One. We're just too different. However, the Jewish nation should understand forever that God is open to granting compassion, forgiveness and atonement when we ask for it in sincerity. A new Moshe emerged from this experience, one who felt the mantle of fatherhood.
Moshe continues to inspire us with his love and devotion to the nation. But this approach to the story which I've presented, I believe, offers an another, deeper message. One of the very few concepts in which I believe with perfect faith is that every human being has a unique role to play in this world. If it's true that we each have a job to do which no one else is tasked to accomplish, then we should learn to live our lives with the passion of Moshe when he realized that he was irreplaceable. Live with gusto, because you're irreplaceable, too.