This week’s portion from Exodus and its companion in Ezekiel share one very powerful feature. In both, the people stray badly in their waywardness and are punished severely; yet, in time, they are brought back into the realm of God’s care and protection.
Indeed it appears in certain ways that all is better in the end than it was in the beginning. In Exodus, God says, “Behold! I will form a covenant; in the presence of all your people, I will make distinctions such as have not been created upon all the earth…” In Ezekiel, God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.”
How does God’s justifiable wrath and anger turn into greater closeness and commitment? How does punishment turn into greater blessing?
I suggest that we may get our answer by watching Moses closely as he deals with the existential challenge of the people’s apostasy with the golden calf.
My hypothesis is that Moses’ reactions and actions, reflecting the greatest sort of virtue, are precisely what turns God back to the people and restores their relationship. And, just as important for us, it is Moses’ model behavior that gives us an ideal way back to God when we stray, as well as hope for restoration with others in our lives.
Moses responds first to learning of the idolatry by pleading for Divine mercy. His advocacy is eloquent and powerful. Should the commitment to the patriarchs be tossed away by God’s annihilating the people? Would such a punishment permit the Egyptians to be able to claim victory over God?
Whether with God or others, isn’t an immediate and urgent appeal to the deepest interests of the wronged party the absolute first, right step to take? Reason then has a chance to prevail over emotions. And the emotions can begin to be swayed by admiration for the advocate and be open to the possibility of the mercy he is promoting.
Yet, Moses’ very next step must be to hold the community accountable for its wrongdoing. They must feel the leader’s wrath for what’s been done; and God must see it. The calf is destroyed, and the people have to take sides, as to right and wrong. Moses teaches that righteousness and justice are the twins of mercy and loving-kindness.
Next, Moses immediately seeks atonement with God on behalf of himself and the community. Moses understands that, even after consequences are paid, the relationship between parties to a special covenant must be restored. Here God re-establishes the relationship but only agrees that an angel, rather than the Divine self, will accompany the people forward.
Moses seeks more, however, believing that he and the people will be at a serious disadvantage if only an incomplete restoration is achieved. If a relationship is truly special and crucial to us, surely, we must seek, after a breach, nothing less than a full reconciliation. So, hoping for God’s favor in the mission that God had established for him, Moses asks to know the Divine ways and seems to be saying, “Let’s get even closer.” God, Who desires relationship, agrees to do more, to send the Divine presence with the people. This is how we weave relationships back together again.
I find Moses’ chutzpah at this stage of the process especially appealing and powerful, as certainly must have God. “I’m not done,” he seems to be saying to God, “Show me, now, Your glory!” God responds essentially by helping Moses re-craft the two stone tablets and by showing him the Divine Attributes of grace, compassion, and justice.
How is it possible that a people who were on the verge of being destroyed for apostasy can now be the beneficiary of God’s renewed and indeed heightened presence, teaching, and enlightenment?
I want to suggest that the virtuous behavior and leadership Moses displayed made a huge difference in bringing these stories to their felicitous endings. But here’s the main message for us: God is looking for the same from you and me.