June 14, 2024
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Lessons From the Sin of the Golden Calf

Part 1

In my youth I dreaded Parshat Ki Tisa in that it detailed the most serious sin committed by the new nation. This left me with a strong aversion to anything that spoke to the blame/shame/guilt triad assigned to the mistakes we make. This led me to staying away from this parsha. In more recent years of deeper study I discovered two sides to the “mistake” coin. Learning that it is through our mistakes that we grow, I realized that Parshat Ki Tisa shares a huge stake among the parshiot that offer the most contributions to our spiritual and characterological growth, with great potential for transforming our lives.

Over the years we learned that the introductory words of a Torah portion express an important event in our history. This is because it reflects a pivotal value in our Jewish ideology. Yet, in analyzing the words “Ki Tisa,” interpreted as the “counting of the people,” our rabbis note the anomaly in introducing the parsha with the seemingly ordinary act of counting the people via the contribution of the Machatzit Hashekel. Of course, the precaution of fortifying the people with an adequate army in defending the safety of the nation is critical. Yet, logic would dictate that the import of this event pales when compared to the Cheit HaEgel, the Sin of the Golden Calf, the most egregious act signaling the betrayal of our nation as they fell from the highest point of spirituality and closeness to God to the lowest point in our history. Indeed, given the fact that Matan Torah is symbolic of the betrothal and marriage that took place between God and Am Yisrael, it could also be seen as a “breach” of these marital vows that takes place immediately after the wedding day. The oddity associated with the above-stated questions begs for further clarification.

In the attempt of discovering the meaning behind this anomaly, our rabbis and commentators turn to alternative explanations for the words “Ki Tisa,” which can also be interpreted as the “raising” of the people. On a very literal level, this could intimate that being “counted” leads one to understand that they “count” via the unique contribution we each offer to the congregation of people. Yet, the majority posit that Ki Tisa is meant to intimate the “elevation” of the spiritual status of the nation as a whole. This, however, can only make sense if we figure out the dilemma of how this egregious sin could possibly lead to a state of elevation rather than a stark diminishment in the holiness of the people. It is in this analysis that we begin to see the logic behind the introductory wording of the parsha. In pursuing this path, it did not surprise me that it was on Chabad.org, tapping into the wisdom of the Rebbe, that I found an explanation that resonated strongly for me. This did not surprise me because we are always asked to be cautious when reading about the mistakes of our Matriarchs, Patriarchs and Torah heroes and heroines. Moreover, in doing so, we can always find a positive spin on the negative aspects of life.

One explanation, repeated over and over in our Torah, beginning in Sefer Bereishit, is that it is important to understand that the mistakes we make are a natural product of our humanity. Moreover, the Torah deliberately presents our Patriarchs and Torah heroes as human and fallible so that we can relate to them and learn from their blunders. Viewed through this lens, we also come to understand that since we all make them, there is no reason to feel ashamed or to beat ourselves up for simply being fallible humans. Most importantly, there is no greater opportunity for growth in every arena than learning from the mistakes we make. Yet, it is not simply the passive act of acceptance that Hashem expects of us to make mistakes. It is also actively seeking out the path of working toward the growth challenges inherent in the situations we find ourselves in.

It is for this reason that the Torah begins with the counting of the people prior to introducing the sin of the Golden Calf. In fact, based on the above insights, we can also glean the beauty, wisdom and consolation our Torah offers us. Indeed, before informing us of the challenges we face, we are fortified via the gift of the solution to all of our problems. Most importantly, the beauty of our Torah is that the salve for our pain is always dished out in a simple, practical and palatable manner. Imagine, with just two simple words, “Ki Tisa,” via the counting of the people, we are to learn a solution to life’s challenges and are fortified with the knowledge that there is always an option of “Ki Tisa,” not only to be counted and count in the eyes of God and our fellow man, but also to make our own unique contributions to the congregation of our people.

The insights gleaned from this parsha over the years has been transformative. On a very literal level it put a positive spin on an event in our history that could seem shameful. Yet, given the insights we gleaned, we come to learn to caution ourselves against falling into the trap of blame or shame that does nothing more than put a damper on our spirituality and vitality. Instead, we are ready to pursue the active course of discovering how we can become better versions of the individuals Hashem expects us to be. This is exactly the response our Torah reinforces each time we learn of the indiscretions that appear over and over, beginning is Sefer Bereishit. It is for this reason that when we encounter yet another example of “how quickly we forget,” we should never respond with the words: “Oh no, not again!” Rather, knowing that Hashem doesn’t give up on us, how can we give up on ourselves? Instead, we can turn this around with the words: “What is Hashem asking of me today?” And, “How can I go out of myself and do for another?” With this attitude we will always find ourselves in a win-win situation. As we prepare for the coming Yom Tov of Pesach with joy and anticipation, let us pray for the refuah shleimah for our cholim and the joyful release from this pandemic.


Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst with special training in imago relational therapy. She can be reached at [email protected].

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