This week’s parsha is a blockbuster, with the sin of the golden calf and Moses destroying the first set of luchas. It’s a sin that reverberates through history, a major turning point in the relationship between Hashem and His people. Hashem is angry enough at the idolatry that He threatens to wipe out the entire Jewish nation and start over with Moses as the new Abraham. It would be interesting to imagine an alternate timeline where that happened. How different would the world today be? Instead, Moses begs for forgiveness for them, even telling Hashem to “blot me out from the book that You have written,” if Hashem refuses to forgive them. He is willing to be erased from history and the world to come even though Moses wasn’t part of the sin of the golden calf and is promised to have a new nation built from him. His thoughts are only for his people.
Hashem relents and forgives, but there are consequences. He teaches Moses the 13 attributes of mercy to use whenever he needs to ask for forgiveness, which we still use today to call on Hashem’s merciful nature. Finally, Hashem reveals his greatness to Moses and seals the covenant that He has begun with the Jewish people.
There’s so much going on here. We go from the relatively mundane instructions for making annointing oil along with other particulars of the Mishkan suddenly back to the sin of the golden calf and Moses’s anger and then his pleading, and then suddenly some very close and intimate moments between Hashem and Moses, all finally culminating in an even more solid relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem. Before, they were just beginning to understand the basis of the relationship they were going to have. Now, even after their great betrayal, Hashem “seals” His covenant with them and only them.
Not only are they forgiven, but they’re given a deeper commitment than they’ve ever had.
Not only does Moses give up the offer to become a nation of his own, but he even finds himself separated further from his people, having to pitch his tent now outside the camp and, after descending a second time from Mount Sinai, he now has to wear a veil over his face except at certain times. He is closer than ever to Hashem, but now stands even further apart from the people he loved enough to give up everything for. Nothing is ever the same, for anyone, after the golden calf. All relationships are changed.
The older I get, the more I realize that life really is all about relationships. This might seem intuitive for anyone else, but for my blunt-ended engineer mind, it took a while. For most of my life, I focused on knowledge over everything. Knowing “things” was what I spent most of my time on, accumulating a hoard of knowledge like a wall to fortify myself. I put more effort into my studies than my friendships and, as a result, I can say that I really don’t have any childhood friends that I’m still in regular contact with. We drifted apart while my head was in my books and all my focus on earning strings of letters to put under my name. It really took reaching a point in my career where I had to build relationships with my coworkers and customers in order to accomplish technical goals for me to finally begin to wake up and look around me.
In the first years of our conversion process, I was still in that mode. I studied Judaism like I had studied anything else. I devoured books, sat in shiurs and practiced observance of mitzvos like it was any other skill I wanted to master. I tried to fit in socially in my community, but I felt awkward and shy. There, people seemed to assume I was a stay at home mother or that my career was unimportant next to my husband’s. I was humbled when, suddenly, all those letters under my name offered me no support, no standing. I had to re-learn how to connect with people as more than just my job title, but as a person and that…was actually pretty scary to me. My mind jumped up to the rescue and I began to do my best to learn how to interact. Still, it was all intellectual.
I hadn’t yet had an experience that would shake the foundations of that relationship and either make or break it. I was a conversion candidate pre-golden calf.
Years ago, when we took our break from conversion, it was after a moment that felt a little like a golden calf moment to me. I felt hurt and betrayed and, as was my way, I ran. I ran to the solace of the mountains, leaving my community, believing it better to be outside the camp than in after what had happened. I certainly didn’t live up to Moses’s example. His people had hurt him by their betrayal of Hashem, even after everything he’d faced and gone through for them and all the miracles Hashem had shown them. Yet, even so, even though he was hurt and angry, he still put them above himself. He set aside his feelings and begged for mercy for them. He certainly could have run off into the mountains and begun a new nation, secure and close in his own relationship with Hashem. Instead, he was committed to his people.
I failed to do the same when my commitment was tested.
When we came back to our community and conversion, it was humbling. We had to start over…again. We had to admit that we’d been wrong to leave in the first place. Still, we were forgiven. We were allowed to try again, much as the Jewish people were. This year, I began to see how I had changed. I was no longer practicing interacting, I actually wanted to know the people around me. I worried over their illnesses and their kids and I discovered a whole world within the people around me. This extended to work, where I began to ask my coworkers more about themselves rather than only talking about technical subjects. I took on a junior engineer to mentor rather than only focusing on my own work and discovered the pride I could feel as he came into his own. In my own family, I reconnected on a deeper level with my parents and my brother, moving past the pain that I’d felt years ago when my parents had disowned me for marrying my husband, a Jew. I was able to see their fear and concern and forgive them without having to bring it up to them. I’m able to see their faults, but not judge them even as I walk my own path.
My Judaism changed, too. I stopped studying to accumulate knowledge for a test at the Beis Din and began studying more to understand my relationship with Hashem and the Jewish people. I no longer focused on being able to rattle off dates, define terms, or describe obscure, but important halakhic points. Instead, I wanted to know this people through Torah and mitzvos and know Hashem through them.
It’s into this context that my next golden calf moment last week came, learning that we will again have to start over our conversion process after our big move.
The same old feelings came up. Anger, hurt, disappointment, sadness. I’m only human and, to use a term my son used to use as a toddler that felt so profound, this news “cracked my world.” I felt that urge to run again. This time, though, I just breathed through it. I let those emotions have their moment. I cried my eyes out whenever I needed to…and I still sometimes do. And then? I remembered my commitment to Hashem and to the Jewish people and I smoothed out my sheitel and went to go volunteer at shul. As I did, I discovered something…I felt better quicker than I did when I ran. It was easier for me to put this news in perspective as I continued to live each day in the familiar rhythms of observance. It was easier for me to frame it in a positive light for the children.
Relationships are tricky things. They involve perfectly imperfect human beings even when they involve the perfection of Hashem on the other end. There are inevitably misunderstandings and disappointments. In the story of the golden calf, Hashem gives us an amazing example of how to repair relationships as He repairs His relationship with the Jewish people. He backs off His initial reaction, justified as it may be, to simply walk away from this people that has wronged Him. Instead, He and Moses work to not only repair the relationship, but build an even stronger foundation. Being perfect, Hashem could have simply cut right to the end result. He could have told Moses what had happened and jumped straight to the fix, laying out the new rules and what needed to be done. It’s obvious that this story is drawn further out to teach us something, not because Hashem (chas v’shalom) really needed to calm down or reconsider the situation.
We need to calm down and reconsider situations and sometimes, we need an example.
My relationship with Hashem, the Jewish people, and Judaism is more important than the things that I kept letting upset me. For me, it took failing at my own test of my commitment to realize that…and perhaps a couple of years of maturing as well. Most relationships, save for a few really unhealthy ones, really are more important than the small disagreements that I used to allow to get in the way. Most relationships can be strengthened after a conflict.
And, as always, Hashem shows us how.