It is difficult to imagine the profound disappointment and even anger Moses must have felt upon witnessing the Israelites dancing and reveling around the Golden Calf. After all of his teachings and exhortations about how G-d demands fealty and morality — and after all of the miracles G-d had wrought for them, how could the Israelites have so quickly cast away G-d and His prophet in favor of the momentary, frenzied pleasures of the Golden Calf?
“And it happened that when he drew near to the encampment and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses burned with anger, and he cast the tablets from his hands, smashing them under the mountain” (Ex 32:19). Ultimately a leader must take responsibility for his nation’s transgression. All of these emotions must have been swirling around Moses’ mind and heart while the tablets were crashing on the ground.
But what follows in the biblical text, after capital punishment for the 3,000 ring leaders of the idolatry, is a lengthy philosophical/theological dialogue between Moses and G-d. This culminates in the revelation of the 13 Divine attributes and the “normative” definition of G-d at least in terms of our partial human understanding.
Now let us fast forward to the sin of the Golden Calf and its aftermath. Moses pleads with G-d to forgive the nation. G-d responds that He dare not dwell in the midst of Israel, lest He destroy them at their next transgression. Moses then asks to be shown G-d’s glory, to understand G-d’s ways in this world. G-d explains that a living human cannot see His face, since that would require a complete understanding of the Divine. But His back — a partial glimpse — could and would be revealed. Moses then stands on the cleft of a rock on Mount Sinai, the very place of G-d’s previous revelation of the Ten Commandments, and he receives a second revelation, a second “service to G-d on this mountain:”
In this second revelation, G-d is telling Moses that He is a G-d of unconditional love, a G-d who loves the individual before he/she sins and a G-d who loves the individual even after he/she sins, a G-d who freely forgives. Hence G-d will never reject His covenantal nation, will always forgive with alacrity and work with Israel on the road to redemption. We must be people of love and forgiveness. From Moses the greatest of prophets to the lowliest hewers of wood, just as He (G-d) loves freely and is always ready to forgive, so in all of our human relationships we must strive to love generously and always be ready to forgive.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.