This is a great Torah reading to determine whether a friend is an optimist or pessimist. Just ask someone, ‘What is parshat Ki Tisa about?’ If they stare back blankly, they are not candidates for this survey. But if they say, ‘It’s about the sin of the Golden Calf.’ Put them in the pessimist column. On the other hand, if they respond, ‘It’s about God’s forgiveness and love.’ Ding, ding, ding, we have an optimist! Well, I’m an optimist, at least this year.
The scene we must describe is, at least at the outset, very bleak indeed. The Jews have just committed the worst transgression since Adam and Eve. They’ve been granted entry into God’s presence, perhaps parallel to the grandeur of Eden. Then in a moment of rash despair over Moshe’s apparent disappearance, they throw it all away by worshipping the Golden Calf. Eden abandoned; Tablets smashed.
Rav Soloveitchik pointed out the parallels with Sinai and Eden, but famously noted the great disparity. Sinai’s sin was from despair; Eden’s error was from desire. The two great causes of sin are polar opposites on the human emotional scale: the high of lust and the depths of depression.
Then comes the dramatic dialogue between God and Moshe Rabbeinu over the fate of the Jewish people. God’s initial position is harsh indeed: I see that this is a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone, so that my anger can burn against them and I can destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation (Shmot 32:9-10).
Moshe, ever the faithful shepherd, responds and begs: Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people…Let not the Egyptians claim that it was with evil intent God delivered from the land of Egypt only to…annihilate them from the face of the earth. Turn from Your blazing anger…Remember your servants Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yisrael (11-13). God acquiesces, and I’m sure, with great pride in His protégé. Moshe has come a long way since the burning bush.
Now begins, probably, the most theological discussion in our entire Tanach. Moshe wants to know the true nature of God (33:13-14, 18), and God explains that this is impossible for mere flesh and blood (19-20). Which brings us to the most majestic declaration in our parsha, and, perhaps, in all literature. God allows Divine Glory to pass before Moshe, while the following pronouncement is heard: And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Eternal, the Eternal, the compassionate (RACHUM) and gracious (CHANUN) God, slow to anger (ERECH APAYIM), abounding in love (RAV CHESED) and faithfulness (EMET), maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet God does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation (34:6-7).
This is, of course, the 13 MIDOT (attributes) of Divine Compassion. Most of these two verses are recited as part of many penitential prayers, recited either commonly or rarely, depending upon the NUSACH (tradition or rite). Our custom is to skip most of verse 7, describing the inevitability of some punishment. Why kick a penitent while he’s down?
The Talmud informs us that this covenantal assurance is so important that God promises that when recited properly, it will never be ignored (Rosh Hashanah 17b). I still remember as a child, the reverence and enthusiasm with which this declaration was sung in my shul on Yom Kippur, at a stage in my religious development when I had no idea what was being chanted. Nevertheless, it was very moving.
A technical point is appropriate at this point. No one knows or agrees on the exact list of the 13 MIDOT. There are many attempts to figure the exact identity of the 13, but no consensus. The Ibn Ezra says it best: there is a tradition that they are 13. The number 13 represents TIKUN (repair). This comes after the reality that 12 represents the basic needs of humanity, as in 12 tribes, 12 months, 12 requests in daily prayer. However, when things go wrong, we employ a thirteenth concept, Divine damage control, to set things straight, and reset the glitch back to factory settings.
Now I would like to share two observations about this great promise. The first was inspired by a comment by Rav Ezra Bick of Yeshivat Har Etziyon. We declare this material with great pride. It may be recited at a time of great concern and trepidation, but we have this promise of a fair hearing from the Omnipotent. This self-confidence changes our embarrassment over our sin, into a sense of responsibility as the bearers of God’s truth in this realm. We are the vehicle (MERKAVA) for SHECHINA, God’s presence in the physical universe. It’s an awesome responsibility, and reminds us that we serve a cause much greater than our personal needs.
On the hand, Rav Sacks OB”M reminds us of the missing half verse. It’s important and humbling to remember that, in spite of forgiveness, there are penalties to pay. After the great kindness and grace comes the caveat: Yet He doesn’t leave the guilty unpunished (34:7). There is compassion but also justice. This lesson is also critical for our spiritual development, it must be integrated into our thinking and passed on to those children, children’s children, unto the third and fourth generation. Torah is about love, but we never neglect integrity.
So, God has given us the greatest deal of all time. We have a ‘Get Out of Sin’ card, called the 13 MIDOT. But we must never forget the severity of crimes against our God, and wield this ‘card’ wearily with responsibility and a sense of duty.