Mordechai Silverstein

Don’t Take God’s Good Graces For Granted

The story of the sin of the Egel Hazahav, the Golden Calf, follows immediately after the completion of God’s revelation on Mount Sinai:

And He (God) gave Moshe, when He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two Tablets of the Covenant, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God. (Exodus 31:18)

And the people saw that Moshe lagged in coming down the mountain, and the people assembled against Aharon and said to him: ‘Rise up, make us gods that will go before us, for this man Moshe, who brought us out of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him (Exodus 32:1)

The gravity of this sin was exacerbated by its juxtaposition with God’s revelation, making it all the more pernicious and lending to the impression that its taint might be indelible.

Many years later, in an event recorded in the book of Nehemiah, the people gathered together in a holy convocation after their return from Babylonian exile and offered a confession (vidui) and a prayer (tefillah) before God which contained a retrospective account of the events of Israel’s early history. Its retelling of the story of God’s revelation and the sin of the Golden Calf differs somewhat from the Torah’s account:

You came down on Sinai and spoke to them from heaven. You gave them right rules and true teaching, good laws and commandments… you gave the bread from heaven when they were hungry, and produced water from a rock when they were thirsty… but they, our fathers acted presumptuously; they were stiff-necked and did not obey your commandments… but You being a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, long suffering and abounding in faithfulness, did not abandon them. Even though they made for themselves a molten calf and said, ‘This is your god who brought you up out of Egypt, thus committing great impieties’… You (God) in Your abundant compassion did not abandon them in the wilderness… You did not withhold your manna from their mouth; you gave them water when they were thirsty… (Nehemiah 9:16-21)

God’s loyalty to His people is implicit in this account. He does not abandon them for their disloyalty and transgressions, rather, He leads them and feeds them despite their sins and does not cut them off for their wrongdoing. This idea is captured by the following rabbinic midrash:

The men of the Great Assembly later discussed the verse: “Even though they made for themselves a molten calf and said, ‘This is your god who brought you up out of Egypt’ thus committing great impieties” (Nehemiah 9:18). Is there anything lacking in Scripture that it needed to add: ‘thus committing great impieties?’ [Namely, this phrase seems redundant.] They (the children of Israel) were reproaching and blaspheming as they filled themselves with the manna and [even] brought some of it as an offering to the calf. They blasphemed with all their might in [their] revelry [and on account of their sins, the manna should have ceased], nevertheless: ‘You did not withhold Your manna from their mouth’ (Nehemiah 9:20) (Tanhuma Ki Tisa 14)

God’s compassion is on full display in this segment of the midrash, long- suffering in overlooking their breaches, but for the author of this midrash, this message is incomplete. So, he subtly puts responsibility back in human hands by shaming those who sin by contrasting their behavior with that of God’s:

Rabbi Levi said: While Israel remained on the ground fashioning a calf, as it is said: ‘And he took them from their hands, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool’ (Exodus 32:4), the Holy One, blessed be He, was above them engraving tablets with life-giving words, as it is said: ‘And He (God) gave Moshe, when He finished speaking.’ (Exodus 31:18)   (Tanhuma – continuation)

While the author of the book of Nehemiah wanted to remind us that even when we do wrong, God’s goodwill will never abandon us, the Tanhuma wants to remind us that God’s beneficence should never be seen as a substitute for leading the good and responsible life that God has sets forward for us.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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