Parashat Ki tisa: Understanding the sin of the Golden Calf

The sin of the Golden Calf divides Parashat Ki Tisa into two parts – before the sin and after it.

At first glance, it seems that the sin ruined all of God’s plans. Everything was going so well: the Exodus from Egypt, the Splitting of the Red Sea, the pillar of fire and the cloud and water from the rock until the miracles reached a climax with the voices and the lightning at Mt. Sinai and Moses’ ascent to God. We just had to wait. A little more patience and our relationship with God would be consummated in the best possible way. But, then the Children of Israel spoiled everything and in the sages’ sharp imagery became like, “A wretched bride who betrayed her groom under the wedding canopy [instead of waiting for him].” It seems that the sin of the Golden Calf shattered the great revelation at Mt.Sinai to smithereens until nothing remained…

In fact, the sin of the Golden Calf appears to be another frustrating blunder in a series of historical blunders that began with Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden. Why is it that everything is ruined at the most critical moment?

Yet, from another perspective we can ask, is this really merely a distressing diversion from God’s original program? The sages reveal that in fact this is not so. God has a plan that is beyond what is apparent to us and even falling into sin has a purpose. The Talmud states that “The Jewish people were not worthy of that act.” For their part, they were fully capable of overcoming the evil inclination, but the Almighty decreed a heavenly decree that the inclination overcome them, “to give a voice to those wishing to repent.” Obviously, this did not negate our freedom of choice (which is why the sinners deserved punishment for their deeds), but here we catch a glimpse into God’s great program that rolled the plot out in such a way that we sinned (through our own freedom of choice).

The sages’ explanation of the Golden Calf and its implications “to give a voice to those wishing to repent,” so instructs us to not think of ourselves as forever lost, once we have fallen into sin. Before sinning, one might think that there are only two options: either you are righteous or wicked, now we can understand that there is a third option: you may have sinned, but now you can repent.

Having understood that, let us now turn to the Torah’s inner dimension to understand the events of Parashat Ki tisa from a new perspective. Why is the level attained through repentance so great that sometimes sin is imperative (from God’s perspective)?

Breaking unity

Let’s begin from the act that expresses the sin and its effects more than any other: when Moses saw the sin, “He threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them beneath the mountain.” The key is that the tablets were shattered. Indeed, the holy Arizal teaches us that at the deepest spiritual dimension, all of creation is one great process of shattering and rectification. Initially, when great Divine light attempts to descend and manifest in vessels, there is a great explosion – the vessels shatter, the lights disappear, sparks fall, entire worlds are destroyed and chaos ensues until the World of Rectification is created. The description of the shattering of vessels is covered in great depth in Kabbalah, down to the minutest details – but we will suffice with the general explanation mentioned in Chassidut, that shattering is necessary for “leaping from unity to diversity.”

What this means is that God is one – as we proclaim twice a day – therefore His initial revelation is completely unified. Like pure white light in which no individual color can be perceived, unity is one great light that cannot be contained within a multitude of vessels. But, our world is the complete opposite of unity: it has such great diversity and  details that here we are likely to forget that everything has one source. At some point in the middle, between the one Divine light and between our own world, an inconceivable transition occurs. It is a quantum leap between unity and diversity; a transition following which nothing will ever be the same again. In order to generate this quantum leap, shattering must occur (similar in a sense to atomic fission). This shattering is indeed a great catastrophe, a trauma that remains at the foundation of the world, and the initial diversity that results is one that denies unity altogether. But, the aim is to reach a paradoxical state of diversity in which true unity can be experienced.

Shattering can be illustrated with an allegory of a teacher-student relationship. Let’s imagine a great rabbi, an illustrious sage who wishes to impart his wisdom to his young student whose mental capacity is worlds apart from the teacher’s mind. Within the teacher, the wisdom is deep and wonderful and he experiences it as one great all-encompassing light. But, there is no way that the student will be able to integrate the rabbi’s wisdom and grasp it without the rabbi dividing (or shattering) his wisdom into tiny pieces. In this way the student can begin to study and gradually integrate the great light of his teacher’s wisdom to the extent of his capability. If the process is successful, the student merits reaching an understanding of his teacher’s perspective and senses the great all-inclusive intelligence that hovers above all the minute details.

From dissolution to repentance

Now let’s get back to Parashat Ki tisa. The Revelation at Sinai was the zenith of unity: the Jewish people arrived at Mt.Sinai “as one man with one heart.” When replying to the Almighty, the entire people replied in unison, “We will do and we will listen.” They stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” In fact, the entire world participated in this experience and the whole world stood in total silence when God spoke. This unity is definitely fitting for the righteous: “and Your nation are all righteous.” Like the ministering angels who sing in a gigantic choir, “together they are all holiness.”

But, after the great light of the Ten Commandments descended upon the people, their unity began to crack, as emphasized in the Torah’s description of the act of the Golden Calf, “they took apart their golden nose-rings… the entire nation came apart with their golden nose-rings.” Removing their nose-rings for the purpose of creating the Golden Calf was not only an act of taking off their jewelry but one of collapse and decadence. The apparent unity that they experienced while dancing around the Golden Calf was a display of false unity, the type that covers up a general atmosphere of debauchery, where each individual seeks to fulfill his own desires and lusts. With the festivities surrounding the Golden Calf, the nation had shattered into tiny fragments. When Moses descended from the mountain he heard dissonant sounds coming from the camp and when he saw the extent of the collapse, he broke the tablets, reflecting the catastrophic shattering of the nation’s unity.

To extricate ourselves from the effects of the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses revealed the ability to repent even after such a dire communal sin. But the world after the sin and repentance was no longer the same. At first, we were in a world of unity, the world of the righteous, and now we experienced the transition into a fragmented reality, the world of people seeking to repent, each carrying his or her own particular burden, each with his or her own shade of color.

But, concealed within this diversity is a spark of unity! Our sages teach us that in the Ark of the Covenant, together with the two new tablets of stone that Moses later brought down from Sinai, lay the shards of the first tablets. The shattering had been given new meaning. It was not just an unplanned fall but “a descent for the sake of ascent,” which resulted in an innovation that had never been before: the ability to contain unity within diversity.

Indeed, after the Golden Calf, Moses discovered the right moment to put in an exceptional request to God: “Inform me of Your ways.” God complied and revealed His Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. Now we can understand why the revelation of God’s thirteen attributes came at that moment in particular. Because, preceding the sin we only knew of God’s unity and not His detailed attributes, but now, after the transition from unity to diversity we can perceive God’s management of the world in a new light. Instead of saying only, “God is one,” we can now describe God through His thirteen attributes of Mercy through which His grand singular unity is manifest, thus revealing it in all of the details in this world. This idea is most beautifully illustrated by the gematria of the word “one” (אֶחָד), which is 13!

As with the teacher and his student, a new facet of wisdom appears after the shattering that was not at all apparent before. The teacher himself is surprised by the variety of details that he succeeds in gleaning from the initial, general light, and from the fact that the new details actually reveal a more elevated aspect of the wisdom’s unity. This too is the benefit gained from the breaking of the first tablets. After the sin of the Golden Calf, God’s ways and His attributes are revealed to us and the Torah that we receive anew divides into a wonderful richness of detail as the sages state, “God said to him [Moses], do not be upset over the first tablets, for they were no more than Ten Commandments but with the second tablets I give you the laws, the Midrash and the homilies.” As the verse in Job states, “He told you all the mysteries of wisdom, for there is [now] twice as much in it.” The new world revealed after the sin is a world that contains twice the amount of wisdom, now that unity has been revealed within diversity.

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