In many ways, Exodus can be considered the central book of the Torah. Following the description of Israel's miraculous journey out of Egyptian enslavement, Moses ascends Mount Sinai and receives the laws that will guide the people forever.
The chapters that follow provide a detailed blueprint for creating a just society based on the laws that the people embrace. But in Ki Tissa, the Israelites become impatient when Moses does not return from his 40-day sojourn on the mountain with the Holy One. With what seems to be encouragement from Aaron, the Israelites "take off the gold rings that are on [their] ears" and he fashions a molten calf.
Responding to this apostacy, God threatens to destroy the Israelites. Moses urges the Holy One to reconsider, and God renounces the planned punishment. But when Moses sees the glittering calf — and the people dancing around it — he, too, explodes in rage, and smashes the tablets of the law "inscribed with the finger of God."
This is a portion about second chances. Both God and Moses wrestle with anger, and partner in finding a way to move beyond it. Moses calls for those who regret building the calf to stand with him, and, perhaps weeping, directs those who join him to kill every remaining "sibling, neighbor and kin."
After the carnage, Moses — accompanied by the warrior Joshua, son of Nun — returns to God, bowed in sorrow, and asks for forgiveness for the survivors and, perhaps, for himself. "If not," he pleads, "erase me from the record which You have written." God agrees to continue to empower Moses' leadership.
Years ago, I studied this portion with residents at Beit T'shuvah, a halfway house for recovering addicts. When we read about Joshua bin Nun, one man burst out, "That's my name!" I realized that Jeffrey's last name was, indeed, a derivation of son of Nun.
After months of rehabilitation, this young addict was preparing to return to his wife and young son. He hoped to hold down a job and reclaim his life. Jeffrey prayed that like Joshua bin Nun — and Moses — that he, too, would be granted a second chance.
Generosity and compassion enable second chances. As Moses completes the tablets, God speaks to him, saying: "Adonai [is] a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin."
Our sages call these words "the Thirteen Attributes." Moses hears these words as God's hope that God can indeed model forgiveness, and asks once again: "Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your own!" Setting a standard for the ages, God agrees to move beyond the pain of betrayal. God makes a new covenant with Moses and the people.
"The Thirteen Attributes" are repeated when Jews gather on Rosh Hashanah, on Yom Kippur and on other holy days. "Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v'chanun" sears into our consciousness the power of forgiveness, and that compassion is a source of healing even after the most egregious transgression.
No matter how we may stray from the path, no matter how far we fall, these words remind us that forgiveness is a gift. If God can forgive Moses, if Moses can forgive the people — and himself — can we learn to forgive those who have hurt us? Just as important, can we perhaps learn to forgive ourselves?
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as the worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. E-mail her at: [email protected]