3 Lessons After the Golden Calf

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Parashat Ki Tisa 5772

After the sin of the Golden Calf, God told Moshe that he was going to destroy the Jewish people.

After Moshe destroyed the Golden Calf he then went back up to Har Sinai to plead for the people (Shemot 32:30-32).

Moshe pleaded with HaShem that the Divine Presence would remain with them. Here is part of that exchange (translation from Judaica Press):

Shemot Chapter 33

17 And the Lord said to Moses: “Even this thing that you have spoken, I will do, for you have found favor in My eyes, and I have known you by name.”

18 And he said: “Show me, now, Your glory!”

19 He said: “I will let all My goodness pass before you; I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you, and I will favor when I wish to favor, and I will have compassion when I wish to have compassion.”

20 And He said, “You will not be able to see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.”

21 And the Lord said: “Behold, there is a place with Me, and you shall stand on the rock.

22 And it shall be that when My glory passes by, I will place you into the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by.

23 Then I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen.”

Later God commanded Moshe to prepare two new tablets. God told him that He would write the commandments on these new tables. Here is what happened next:

Shemot Chapter 34

4 So he [Moses] hewed two stone tablets like the first ones, and Moses arose early in the morning and ascended Mount Sinai as the Lord had commanded him, and he took two stone tablets in his hand.

5 And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and He called out in the name of the Lord.

6 And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed: Hashem, Hashem, God, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth,

7 preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin; yet He does not completely clear [of sin] He visits the iniquity of parents on children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generations.”

Three Lessons

God told Moshe (Shemot 33:17) that his prayer was accepted. Moshe realized that this was an opportunity that he should grasp. Moshe wanted a deeper understanding of God and of His ways so he asked to see God’s glory.

God answers Moshe’s request in verses 33:19-23. What is his answer?

I understand, based on Rashi, that God tells Moshe three things.

1. You can’t see My glory. That is too much for any man to comprehend.

2. It is time to teach you and the Jewish people how to pray whenever they sin.

3. You can only understand events after some time has elapsed.


Moshe wanted to see God’s glory. God told Moshe that no man could survive such an experience. As verse 33:20 says, “for man shall not see Me and live.”

God tells him that (verse 33:19), “I will let all My goodness pass before you.”

Moshe asked for “glory” and he is being offered “goodness.”

Rashi interprets this as meaning God will show Moshe some of His glory. In other words, when God shows Moshe all His goodness, He is revealing to him as much of His glory as Moshe is capable of comprehending.


As a result of the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe prayed for the people and his prayer was accepted.

God now tells Moshe that there was an even better way to pray.

A main component of Moshe’s prayer was Shemot 32:13:

Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your very Self, and to whom You said: “I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens, and all this land which I said that I would give to your seed, they shall keep it as their possession forever.”

God tells Moshe, your prayer was based on the merits of the forefathers (zechut avot).

Such a prayer is fine when there is still a reservoir of merit. What about after that merit is exhausted? You might despair of being able to pray and think that all hope is lost.

That is not true. You can always invoke the 13 Divine Attributes (middot).

That is what God showed Moshe in chapter 34:6-7.

God promised Moshe that any prayer based on the 13 Divine Attributes would always be answered favorably.

Understanding Events

God told Moshe that he could not see His face, but he could see His back.

God has no physical form. Whenever the Torah attributes physical features to God we must understand the message the verse is teaching.

The Gemara in Tractate Berachot (6a) says that God wear tefillin. Just as Jewish men wear tefillin, so does God.

The tefillin are small boxes made out of leather that contain verses from the Torah. The verses praise God for taking the Jewish people out of Egypt.

The Gemara asks what verses are in God’s tefillin? The Gemara lists the verses and we see that all of the verses are praises of the Jewish people.

I think we can (partially) understand it this way. Saying that God wears tefillin just as people do is a demonstration of the mutual relationship between God and the Jewish people.

Rashi explains, based on the Gemara, that when God shows Moshe his back, what Moshe saw was the knot of God’s tefillin.

The tefillin that is worn on the head has a knot in the back and two straps hanging down. What would this mean in relation to God’s tefillin? I think it symbolizes the Divine force or influence that extends from God into this world.

Moshe could not see God’s face, but he saw His back. Seeing the back means he saw the knot of God’s tefillin and the straps (the Divine influence) coming into this world.

We cannot understand events as they are happening. Everything seems random and without any order.

It is only after some time has elapsed that we have any hope of understanding the Divine hand that guided events and brought them to a proper conclusion.

After God had passed by Moshe, He removed the hand that was covering Moshe and Moshe saw the tefillin knot. Only with hindsight could he understand the events that he lived through.

The Lesson from Purim

The events that are described in Megilat Esther illustrate this point.

Here are some of them:

  • King Achashveros hosts a banquet.
  • He commands Queen Vashti to appear before him. She refuses.
  • Queen Vashti is executed for her rebellion.
  • A nationwide beauty contest is help to select a new queen.
  • Many women are eager to participate.
  • Esther does not want to participate, but she is forced to.
  • Esther is chosen to be queen.
  • Two men plot to kill King Achashveros.
  • Mordechai hears their plot and reports it.
  • Mordechai saved the King’s life, but he is not rewarded.
  • Haman is appointed second in command of the kingdom.
  • Mordechai does not bow before Haman.
  • Because Mordechai does not bow Haman plots to kill all the Jews.
  • The King (without knowing all the details) grants Haman’s request to eliminate a “problem” in the kingdom.
  • Haman decides that he wants to kill Mordechai.
  • One night the King can’t sleep.
  • That night he reads about Mordechai saving his life and that he was not rewarded.
  • Just then Haman appears before the King.
  • The King orders Haman to reward Mordechai.
  • Esther reveals to the King that she is Jewish and that Haman is trying to kill her and all her people.
  • Haman is hanged.

Remember all of these events happened over a period of about nine years.

Imagine how they would have looked to the people alive at that time. Imagine how each event could have been reported by the local newspapers.

The events don’t appear to be related at all. It is only after the fact that we can see the threads that bring them all together.

That’s the lesson of the knot of God’s tefillin.

Your Turn

Please share your ideas and suggested answers in the comments.

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Picture of Mitzpe Ramon, Israel by Shlomo Skinner.

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