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Just after Israel meets face to face with God, they betray Him. They build a golden calf.
It’s a very unnerving and upsetting story. God has rescued Israel from Egypt with signs and wonders, He coddles them in the desert, brings forth water from rocks, rains sustenance down from the heavens, and compassionately tolerates their complaints along the way.
But now, it seems that God has had enough. He tells Moses: “Leave me alone, and I’ll let out my wrath and destroy the people - and I’ll make you, Moses, into a great nation.
Now, stop right there. Imagine that we didn’t know how the rest of the story goes. What do you think is about to happen? Is God really going to destroy the nation of Israel after He has invested so heavily in His relationship with them? And what would would Egypt say? Wouldn’t this be a massive PR nightmare for God? And what about the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?
In fact, those are the exact arguments that Moses makes to God, and... lo and behold...those arguments actually work. God changes His mind!
But what’s going on here? Did God actually need those arguments? Is the nation really spared because Moses is a fantastic lawyer?
Why did God change His mind, and what does this strange bargaining session at the Golden Calf have to teach us?
We’ll explore this and more, this week on the parsha experiment
Hi, I’m Imu Shalev, and welcome to the Parsha Experiment. Let’s bring down our 20-second parsha recap:
Moses gets final instructions for the Tabernacle and the Tablets
The people worry that Moses won’t return
They bring Aaron jewelry, which is made into a Golden Calf
Moses persuades God not to destroy them, shatters the tablets and breaks the calf
Moses begs God to forgive the people; God does...but sends a plague, and says His presence will no longer be among them
Moses asks to see God, but God only shows him His back
God calls Moses back up to Sinai to receive new tablets,
So back the Golden Calf. Either way you slice it, we’re in a bit of a pickle here. Either the people weren’t really deserving of destruction for this sin, in which case, why would God threaten to destroy them? Or they really did deserve destruction. But then why would Moses’s lawyering be able to change God’s mind?
If you think about it, we’ve been in this catch-22 before elsewhere on the Parsha Experiment. Where else do we have a people who have sinned and are corrupt? Where else does God decide to wipe them all out? Where else does God decide to begin again with just one man? It seems eerily reminiscent of Noah and the flood.
And the thematic resonances are only the beginning of the connections between these two stories. Let’s take a look at the language of the Golden Calf and see if there are any further parallels to the flood story.
When God sees that the people have made a Golden Calf He tells Moses: לך רד, Go down the mountain, כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלֵיתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם - for your people whom you took out of Egypt have become corrupt. סָרוּ מַהֵר, מִן-הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִם - they quickly strayed from the way that I commanded them.
And now, look at what happens when God sees the sins in the generation of the flood: God looked at the world, וְהִנֵּה נִשְׁחָתָה - and it had become corrupt. כִּי-הִשְׁחִית כָּל-בָּשָׂר אֶת-דַּרְכּוֹ, - for all flesh had courrupted their ways. Look at that, the same language is used in both the flood and the calf. Both people have become corrupt - שחת - and both have strayed from the path - the דרך.
And perhaps most interestingly, we’ve faced the same catch-22 back in the story of the flood. When God decided to destroy the world, He gives the following reason: וַיַּרְא יְהוָה, כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ, וְכָל-יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ, רַק רַע כָּל-הַיּוֹם. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that the designs of his heart was only and always evil. וַיִּנָּחֶם יְהוָה, כִּי-עָשָׂה אֶת-הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ - And God regretted having made man…God decided to wipe humanity out because the designs of his heart are evil.
But after the flood, God does something curious. He makes the decision never again to destroy mankind, and listen closely to His reason: לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי. I will not again curse the ground any more on account of man; for the designs of man's heart is evil from his youth; nor will I ever again smite every living thing, as I have just done. Take a look at what God just said - God isn’t going to wipe humanity out again because the designs of his heart are evil - which is bizarre because that’s exactly why He made the decision to destroy them in the first place!
Why would God promise not to wipe humanity out again? Either the generation of the flood wasn’t really deserving of destruction, in which case, is God realizing His error and promising never to do it again? Or maybe they really did deserve destruction. But then, why would God decide to change His mind about how He will deal with future offenders?
In our video on Parshat Noach, we suggested that after the flood, everything changed. Before the flood, the world was created in strict justice and was judged accordingly: those who had sinned were immediately punished. When Adam ate from the tree, the earth was cursed. When Cain killed his brother Abel, he was forced to be a wanderer. And when the whole world grew corrupt, it was destroyed. Why? Because the designs of man’s heart were evil. Through the strict lens of justice, they deserved their fate.
But for the very same reason that God destroyed the world, after the flood He recreated it through the lens of mercy, the lens of love. Knowing mankind’s flaw, that the designs of his heart are evil, God recreated a world of unconditional love to rehabilitate mankind, and lead them back to Him.
What happens when a child loses his way, and gets into trouble? What if, in his own self-destruction, he betrays his relationships to his family, to his parents? In his betrayal, he may have severed the connection between you, he may have hurt the relationship to its core -- but sometimes, when consequences aren’t enough to bring a child back, unconditional love is what is needed. Why? Because love isn’t always about what is, it’s about what was, and what still could be.
A parent raises their child, knows their strengths and weaknesses, remembers a time in their relationship where everything was good, potential was infinite. And even when the child strays, the relationship isn’t over, because the parent still believes in them.
And so, in the new world that God creates after the flood, there is mercy. Mankind has strayed, but God will wait for them. And after Noah came Abraham and from Abraham came Israel, and the relationship began to heal. Until...
The sin of the Golden Calf. From the lens of strict justice, Israel deserved destruction. God, in a just anger tells Moses: “Leave me alone - הניחה לי - and I’ll destroy them!”
And here is something amazing... notice that the root of the word הניחה is נח. It’s almost like God is saying: “Moses…be my Noach. Let me destroy the people, and I’ll restart with you --- just as I did with Noah!
But Moses takes the the very words of indictment and uses them to mount a defense - He says שׁוּב מֵחֲרוֹן אַפֶּךָ - turn away from your wrath, וְהִנָּחֵם עַל-הָרָעָה לְעַמֶּךָ - and relent of this evil against the nation.” That word, Hinachem, that’s the same word God used back at the flood when deciding to wipe out humanity - וַיִּנָּחֶם יְהוָה, כִּי-עָשָׂה אֶת-הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ - And God regretted having made man. In the pre-flood world, in the world of strict justice, vayinachem was used for God to express His regret at having made man. But in this post-flood world, Moses uses the same word to appeal to God’s love, and begs that God relent in His mercy.
Moses’ play on words shows how far we have come from the pre-flood world - Moses understands God’s message - Israel is deserving of destruction. But Moses also sees the opening that God has left for him and for the entire people of Israel: instead of appealing to God’s justice, He appeals to God’s mercy. He says: “זְכֹר לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדֶיךָ” - Remember the covenant you made with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob! Remember, Father? Remember that time when it was good between us? Think of our patriarchs, and look toward our potential - look at what we could possibly become.
Amazingly, this works. God listens to Moses. וינחם ה’ על הרעה. God relents.
By linking the story of the Golden Calf to the flood story, we are able to see just how far humanity’s relationship with God has come. The near-replay of the flood story shows us how things could have turned out. For this sin, we could have -- and perhaps should have -- been wiped out. But God has changed the way He interacts with us -- not simply through justice, but through love, and He gives us not just the opportunity to fix this mistake, but grow closer to Him.
Even after the people are spared, God tells them that He won’t be traveling in their midst but will send an angel to lead them. The threat to the relationship devastates the people and they mourn, and eventually Moses successfully requests that God’s presence travel along with them. Amazingly, not through any particular merit, the people achieve further closeness with God simply by showing that they actually want to be closer to Him. And that’s what’s remarkable about the new post-flood world, a world of love and mercy.
The lessons of the Golden Calf are many, but perhaps most inspiringly, it is the story of deep closeness, a terrible fall, powerful love, unshakeable mercy, and a renewed bond between God and Israel. As we see over and over again, the Torah is not a story of perfection, but of deep struggle, and of a love that prevails. And it teaches us, even today, that no matter what stage of our lives we are in, we can always come home. Closeness is yours for the taking, just as long as you want it…
Join us next week on the Parsha Experiment.
1. The Parsha Experiment - Bereishit: Is The Torah One Big Story?
2. The Parsha Experiment - Noach: The Failure of Humanity
3. The Parsha Experiment - Lech Lecha: Was Abraham The First Wandering Jew?
4. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeira: the Power of Abraham's Influence
5. The Parsha Experiment - Chayei Sarah: Find Me A Find, Catch Me A Catch!
6. The Parsha Experiment - Toldot: All's Well That Ends Well
7. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeitzei: To Deceive Or Not To Deceive, That Is The Question
8. The Parsha Experiment - Vayishlach: Difficult Conversations
9. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeishev: Harlots & Coats & Goats, Oh My!
10. The Parsha Experiment - Miketz: Hello From The Other Side
11. The Parsha Experiment - Vayigash: A Speech That Turns The Tide
12. The Parsha Experiment - Vayechi: We Are Family - Culmination of Abrahamic Legacy
13. The Parsha Experiment - Shmot - Every Saga Has A Beginning: Meeting Moses
14. The Parsha Experiment - Va'era: The Exodus and Babe Ruth
15. The Parsha Experiment - Bo: The Flight of the Firstborn Nation
16. The Parsha Experiment - Beshalach: Are We An Ungrateful Nation?
17. The Parsha Experiment - Yitro: Does God Care About ME?
18. The Parsha Experiment - Mishpatim: Can Laws Be Meaningful?
19. The Parsha Experiment - Terumah: Is God Talking To Me Through The Laws of the Mishkan?
20. The Parsha Experiment - Tetzaveh: The Hidden Secrets In The Walls Of The Mishkan
21. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Tisa: Will God Always Forgive Me?
22. The Parsha Experiment - Vayakhel: How Can I Take A Step Towards God?
23. The Parsha Experiment - Pekudei: God Choosing Man, Man Choosing God
24. The Parsha Experiment - Vayikra: How To Read the Book of Vayikra
25. The Parsha Experiment - Shemini: Is There Meaning Behind The Laws of Kashrut?
26. The Parsha Experiment - Tzav: How Can I Confront Sacrifices?
27. The Parsha Experiment - Tazria: What do Tumah and Tahara Mean Today? Part I
28. The Parsha Experiment - Metzora: What Do Tumah And Tahara Mean Today? Part II
29. The Parsha Experiment - Kedoshim: How Can We Achieve Holiness?
30. The Parsha Experiment - Emor: Holiness In Space and Time
31. The Parsha Experiment - Behar: A Spiritual Economy
32. The Parsha Experiment - Bechukotai: The Epic Conclusion To Leviticus
33. The Parsha Experiment - Bamidbar: How Can We Transmit God's Values?
34. The Parsha Experiment - Naso: Adding Godliness To Our Lives
35. The Parsha Experiment - Beha'alotecha: Can I Be Vulnerable With God?
36. The Parsha Experiment - Shelach: How Can I Trust God When I Don't See Him?
37. The Parsha Experiment - Korach: Rejecting Israel's Leaders
38. The Parsha Experiment - Chukat: A Turning Point In Israel's Relationship With God
39. The Parsha Experiment - Balak: What Is Israel's National Mission?
40. The Parsha Experiment - Pinchas: Intimacy and Holiness
41. The Parsha Experiment - Matot-Masei: Israel's Psychological Journey
42. The Parsha Experiment - Devarim: Finding Inspiration From Our Past
43. The Parsha Experiment - Va'etchanan: Building An Intimate Relationship With God
44. The Parsha Experiment - Eikev: Appreciating Our Creators
45. The Parsha Experiment - Re'eh: Why Would Anyone Want to Worship Idols?
46. The Parsha Experiment - Shoftim: Is This Just A Boring Parsha?
47. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Teitzei: Is There Spiritual Guidance Within Our Legal System?
48. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Tavo: How To Make Sense Of The Terrible Curses
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