This week’s Parasha contains the difficult to understand sin of the golden calf. It contains the destruction of the First Tablets on which God inscribed the 10 Commandments. Most important, however, and perhaps less explicable is that God replaced the Tablets (so to speak as the second set was man-made) and forgave the people.
It is not clear that the people were deserving of forgiveness. That is pretty good news. God seems willing to forgive us, even when we are not truly and fully deserving.
God gives us the formula for obtaining forgiveness. It is a liturgy that is familiar to any who attend Yom Kippur services as we say it frequently. It has become known as the “13 Attributes of God” or the “Covenant of the 13.” It is “Brit Shelosh Esrei.” Exodus 34:6-7. Remember “Adoshem, Adoshem, Kayl Rachum v’Chanun, Erech Apyim, v’Rav Chesed v’Emet…”? We also repeat it 3 times on the Shalosh Regalim (except on Shabbat).
God comes down in a cloud … and says: “The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin….”
The Rabbis debate the formula, not in terms of its quality, but how it is to be used. It is to be recited as a Mantra? Some say yes. Is it to be considered an order for one’s prayer and the liturgy we follow? Some say yes. Clearly, however, they are not magic words that automatically result in healing once they are uttered. So how is this a formula for forgiveness?
Others of our Sages say that it is a formula for how we are to emulate God and when we are merciful, gracious, patient with others, good and true, God will be forgiving.
I read from Rabbi Yissocher Frand who quotes the Sefer Mikdash Mordechai from Rav Mordechai Rogov, that God “coming down in a cloud” showed that God was wrapped in a Tallit as if as a Shaliach Tzibbur—a prayer leader on behalf of the entire congregation. The message is that when we pray and when we act, we must not be focused merely on ourselves and our own needs, but on the needs of others and the community.
Rav Rogov found the symbol of the cloud to be a great metaphor for the state many of us find ourselves in daily. We walk around “in a cloud.” We may be so focused on ourselves that we cannot see beyond our own needs. When God utters these attributes, God is in a cloud. Yet, God is forgiving of those in need.
The Rabbis thus tell us, that for welfare and forgiveness we must not only invoke the attributes of God and try to emulate them in our daily lives, but we must also be unselfish.
We must be thinking about and praying for the needs of others. After the huge sin of the golden calf, the people were saved and forgiven not on their own merit, but because Moshe pleaded with God for that. Moshe prayed for others.
We learn that in how we pray for and bless others will be how we ourselves are blessed.
This Shabbat we learn with Rabbi Herbert Yoskowitz who, in this Parasha of the golden calf, will be teaching us on the nature of idolatry and how it resonates even today. 9:45 a.m. in the Shiffman Chapel. Come as you are. Stay as long as you like.