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Golden Calf and Responding to Mistakes

03/05/2021 01:03:02 PM


This week’s Torah portion is one of the most pivotal and iconic stories in Judaism.  It is the story of the Golden Calf.  The Israelites, becoming stressed and scared about Moses’ prolonged absence, decide to build themselves a god in the form of a calf made of their gold.  This act assuages their fear.  Moses comes down and sees the calf and loses his temper and smashes the two tablets he is carrying on the ground. 

One aspect of this story that is important to focus on is the role of response to mistakes or missteps in our lives. While the story of the golden calf is riveting and dramatic, what is more interesting to me is the response of Moses and the people in the aftermath of the turmoil.  Moses goes back up the mountain and gets a new set of tablets.  The people build the tabernacle.  In these actions the Torah illustrates for us that invariably we all make mistakes, which is what is to be human.  However, it is not our words, like “sorry” that create tikkun, repair, but our actions.  No one apologizes in this story, they simply go about fixing the mistake.

 When I was a middle school basketball coach and my players would miss a shot in practice, they would almost always say, “sorry”.  I am not really sure why, but my answer was always the same, “Don’t say sorry, let’s figure out how to fix it.”  The story of the golden calf is almost more about the response to the sin than it is about the transgression itself.

Maimonides teaches us as much in the Mishneh Torah.  Maimonides writes, “Sins between one person and another person, … is never absolved unless he or she makes restitution of what he or she owes and begs the forgiveness of his or her neighbor” (Mishneh Torah, Reptence 2:9).

For Maimonides as for us, the key to repentance is not the word sorry but the action of what you are going to do to fix it.  Without mistakes, growth is very difficult, if not impossible.  Therefore, we need to look at mistakes as an opening for growth and the action that follows as a symbolic act of that growth. 

This week’s Torah portion shows that our reaction to mistakes should not simply be contrition or beating ourselves up.  Rather, our response ought to be, “What do I need to do to fix this mistake?”  What action will bring about true repair, tikun?

So, let this Shabbat serve us as every Shabbat serves us:  a day to reflect on our mistakes as opportunities to grow and actions to make it so.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tue, June 22 2021 12 Tammuz 5781