When I was a kid, my family used to read the children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Needless to say, the premise of the book is that the protagonist, Alexander, well, has a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Seemingly everything goes wrong, and everyone in his life disappoints him in some way or another. At the end of the book (Spoiler alert, although you’ve had since 1972, so I can’t really help you), Alexander concludes that sometimes, bad days just happen, and that it is ok to have them every once in a while.
Well, this week’s Torah portion has a pretty extraordinarily bad day for all of the characters involved in our biblical story. Parashat Ki Tisa actually starts off fairly well. Chapters 30 and 31 of Exodus have God wrapping up the commandments that Moses is going to bring down the mountain to the people, instructing them of all the laws that will help them maintain their relationship with God. Moses even receives two special tablets upon which the Pact was written by God’s very own finger. It was finally time to show the people the great work that had been done over the past 40 days.
The problem was, the people didn’t know that it was going to take 40 days up on the mountain. For all they knew, Moses had gone up to speak to God and things had gone very, very wrong. They waited and waited, and when Moses didn’t return to them quickly enough, they grew restless. Exodus 32 opens:
“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make for us a god who shall go before us, for that Moses - the envoy who brought us from the land of Egypt - we do not know what has happened to him.’ Aaron said to them, ‘take off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’” (Ex. 32:1-4) This is not a good look for a group of people that consider their number one and two commandments to be “I am Adonai, your God, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. You shall have no other gods but Me.”(Ex. 20:2-3) At the very first sign of trouble, the people panic, and commit exactly the offense that God has described as the most fundamentally intolerable one. And, to make matters worse, Aaron, the priest ordained in service to God, is the one helping them to do it.
But in order to judge the people most accurately, we need to remember a few pieces of context. First, this is a group of nomadic former slaves who have been left all by themselves for 40 days after the disappearance of the leader who, in liberating them from bondage, also destroyed their way of life. It is certainly understandable to think that the people would have lost hope thinking that Moses was never coming back to them, and they would have to make their way through the wilderness with no sense of direction.
Meanwhile, let’s think back to our Torah reading from Parashat Terumah two weeks ago. In reading that portion, we noted the importance of the line, “Make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among you.” (Ex. 25:8) It was noted in our previous discussion that God was anticipating exactly this need in the Israelites: that in their attempt to understand their relationship with an unseeable, omnipotent God, there would need to be some kind of physical dimension to the partnership, some tangible place where that intimacy to be concretized. The Tabernacle was the solution to this issue. The only problem with this information is that the Israelites didn’t have it yet.
Moses, after all, hadn’t yet come down from the mountain to tell the people of the plans that he and God had made. Moses and God anticipated exactly the needs that the Israelites were declaring, they just hadn’t had the chance to articulate it before the people took their difficulties into their own hands. It is, then, noteworthy to observe that the Israelites do not claim that the Golden Calf is a different deity to which they are going to turn their attention. Rather, the Golden Calf, as they describe it, IS the God of Israel, is the incarnation that they can imagine in order to try to make sense of the paradigm shift that has been forced upon them. While the act of worshiping an idol of God is abhorrent in Jewish tradition, it is certainly worthy of acknowledgement that this was an issue of HOW the people chose to show their loyalty to God, not an issue of WHICH god they were choosing to worship in the first place.
I mentioned earlier that everyone contributed to Alexander’s atrocious day in the children’s story, not just one select group of individuals. Not to be outdone, God and Moses begin to get in on the action of making this a very bad day indeed. Up on the mountain, God takes note of what is going on down below.
“The Eternal One spoke to Moses, ‘Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of Egypt, have acted basely. They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them. They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.’ The Eternal further said 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, and make of you a great nation.” (Ex. 32:7-10)
God is so furious with the Israelites that God threatens to wipe them out altogether, starting over by building the covenant with Moses alone. In response to the petulance of the people, God responds not only by becoming outraged, but in fact putting all responsibility for the people on Moses! God literally says, “YOUR people, who YOU brought out of Egypt.” God is no longer even willing to claim ownership, making them entirely Moses’ problem, despite Moses’ fervent desire NOT to lead the people out. God wants to wipe the people away and instead turn attention elsewhere. But Moses does not allow this. Instead, Moses calls on God to demonstrate patience, compassion, and a willingness to teach from this moment. He says, “Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and i will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.” (Ex. 32:13) Moses uses his best forms of flattery to try to turn back God’s anger, and is successful in doing so.
But while Moses maintains his composure in front of God, it is a very different story when he gets down the mountain to see the people carrying on as they were. It is one thing to hear about their bad behavior, but to see it with his own eyes apparently struck a different chord with Moses. In his fury, he threw the tablets of the covenant, given to him by God, upon the ground, shattering them. And then comes one of the most entertaining punishments in all of the Torah: Moses grinds up the Golden Calf and forces the people to drink it.
So where does this leave us? We have a people who have defiled God’s most sacred rule, a priest who aided and abetted, a leader who has destroyed God’s own words, and God who is so furious that God threatened to destroy the whole nation. You might say this is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day indeed.
Just as our hero Alexander teaches us, though, there is something to be learned from a story that seems to go so very wrong on so many levels. Because our Torah does not end with the destruction of the Israelites and an end to the covenant. Those who were most to blame were held accountable for their actions and were put to death. But instead of learning a lesson about the devastation of partnership, instead we learn about what it means to find a healthy new place after repentance and renewal have occurred.
At the beginning of the next chapter, both literally and figuratively turning the page, God instructs Moses to create a new pair of tablets like the first, in order to share the terms of the covenant with the people. The miraculousness of this moment is not to be overlooked. God is willing to give a second iteration of the law, essentially giving divine permission to the notion of forgiveness. If God is able to forgive us for this, the text seems to implore, how are we, as human beings, not supposed to find ways to be tolerant and forgiving of the shortcomings in one another.
In the moment that Moses carves the tablets, God also gives a noteworthy declaration. In Exodus 34:6, we read, “The Eternal One passed before him [Moses] and proclaimed: ‘The Eternal! The Eternal! God of compassion and grace, slow to anger , abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin - yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations!’” (Ex. 34:6-7) This sequence is considered to be the foundation of the Jewish tradition of Mussar, best known as mindfulness and meditation through understanding of essential human attributes. We derive countless understandings of both God and ourselves by way of this expression of the multiple facets of God’s identity. It is, of course, normal for us to learn about ourselves based on the way we perceive God. That is, after all, foundational to our understanding of self, our belief in the notion that humanity is created Betzelem Elohim, in the image of God. But what is so beautifully profound about this part of the narrative is that it appears that God is learning about God’s self based on the interaction with humanity. After feeling the fury that comes with being tested, God declares that mercy and kindness are foundational to God’s identity, that revenge is something earned as an appropriate reaction, rather than something wreaked with little regard for the individuals it harms. Even on our worst day, it would seem, we teach God something about the way God wants to exist in the world.
The book of Genesis is the story of the creation of the world and the invention of the Jewish people as they will come to be known. The Exodus is a transformation, taking a nation of slaves and turning them into God’s hand-picked favorites. Psychologist Bruce Tuckman, in his 4 stages of group development, describes a process of forming, storming, norming, and performing. That is to say a group comes together, experiences the challenges of starting out, begins to work out the system, and gets good at what they do. In this story, not only do the people, but also God move in a transition from the storming phase to the norming phase, made even better because it was only through storming that any sense of relationship is possible for norming.
There are going to be days in our relationship with God that feel terrible, horrible, no good, and very bad. There are days when our faith is tested in ways that we think will never heal. But, this week’s Torah portion reminds us that even after what seems like the worst possible storm, there is always hope for repentance, repair, and healing, that will lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and, maybe if we’re lucky, God as well.