“Moses hastened to bow low to the ground in homage.” (Exodus 34:8)
Each day of Sukkot has a special Torah reading. The selection for Shabbat Chol Hamoed describes what happens after the episode of the golden calf and is a post-it note reminder of the essence of the season. God is fed up with the Israelites. Moses appeals on their behalf and convinces God to stick with them. Moses then asks to see God’s glory; God explains no one can witness the Divine directly and live (Ex. 33:18-20). So God hides Moses in a cleft in the rock and passes by, proclaiming the paradigmatic list of God’s merciful qualities (Ex. 34:6-7).
This list, known as the Thirteen Attributes, is repeated up to 21 times on Yom Kippur, making it the most important (and well-known) prayer of the day. But the machzor, or prayerbook, doesn’t quote the text completely; the last portion, “…but visits the iniquity of the parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” is omitted. Why?
A true and just God gives us exactly what we deserve, even down the generations. But that’s no incentive to do t’shuva, or return to the right path. So the rabbis cut and paste to highlight midat harachamim, God’s attribute of mercy: God looks for, and accepts, the slightest pretext to forgive.
When Maimonides (1137-1204; preeminent Spanish medieval Jewish philosopher) says, “As God is called merciful, you should be merciful…” (Mishnah Torah, Hilchot De’ot 1:6) he turns the golden calf story into a moral lesson: if God responds to the golden calf, the gravest of sins, with mercy and forgiveness, shouldn’t you do the same for much lesser transgressions?
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom
Gut Yontif/Chag Sameach