I Kings 18:1-39
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” “There are Jews who
believe, and Jews who disbelieve. But the majority are Jews who make believe.”
Jews and non-Jews alike struggle to talk about God. Because it is so easy to doubt and be skeptical of God’s existence, we refrain from trying to create or nurture a relationship with the Divine.
What’s ironic about Judaism is that while God is supposed to play a central role in the way we understand our tradition — in the way we pray, in the way we think about our purpose in the world — God is often the furthest thing from the center of conversation. Why? Because God feels distant, seems remote, and perhaps is just outright irrelevant. Even if we want to take it on faith that God is out there somewhere, God is complex. God is confusing. God is beyond comprehension. God is beyond tangibility. It makes not believing more compelling. Perhaps that’s why the Israelites built a Golden Calf in an effort to feel closer to an imageless God.
In Ki Tisa, while Moses receives the final commandments and instructions to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle), back at the base of Mount Sinai the Jewish people have given up on God after 40 days of radio silence. Having just witnessed God sending the plagues, splitting the sea, triumphing over the Egyptians and delivering the revelation at Sinai, they have already lost their faith. The Golden Calf is a deep yearning to once again experience God as imminent and transcendent.
When Moses and God find out what’s going on, God says to Moses, “I see that this is a stiff-necked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them” (Exodus 32:9-10). Seeing how easy it is for our ancestors to stop believing altogether and how quick God can take retribution, it’s no wonder that we struggle with it today.
What’s profound about this story is that Moses’ intercession on behalf of the people causes God and, subsequently, the Israelites, to change. Moses says, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom you delivered from the Land of Egypt … Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac and Israel, how you swore to them by Your Self” (Exodus 32:11-14). God heeded Moses and renounced the punishment. Moses then broke the tablets, destroyed the calf and scolded the people for their actions.
When Moses returned to the mountain to receive the new set of tablets, “The Lord came down in a cloud and stood there with [Moses] and proclaimed: The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin” (Exodus 34: 6-7).
These words recited on the High Holy Days and other festivals, known as Brit Shelosh Esrei (the 13 Divine Attributes), help us re-create our relationship with God. Ultimately, what the Israelites needed, what we all need, is not a God of miracles and power, but a God of presence, of understanding and of forgiveness.
Moses teaches God and in doing so teaches the people that to feel close to and experience God we don’t need miracles, prophetic intercession or Divine retribution. What we need is a God who is omnibenevolent, taking us back when we stray, forgiving us when we sin and guiding us to be Godly in the way we conduct ourselves in the world and with others.
The story of the Golden Calf is about reconnecting us to God by reimagining what our relationship could be in all moments of life. We no longer have to believe only in a God at the top of Sinai. Instead, a God that is personal, compassionate and kind emerges.
Rabbi Edward Feinstein once wrote, “Believing in God is not a matter of accepting an abstract idea. Believing in God means gathering in the moment when God feels close by and taking these moments seriously. It means remember these moments, cherishing them, and saving them. It means pursuing them. And it means learning from them.”
Perhaps if we radically change how we think about God, as Moses does in our story, we can once again experience God’s closeness, especially if we can succeed in emulating these same Divine attributes toward others and ourselves.
Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.