Parshat Ki Tisa: Compassion and Mercy

Rabbi Joanne Yocheved Heiligman
Rabbi Joanne Yocheved Heiligman (Courtesy of Heiligman)

By Rabbi Joanne Yocheved Heiligman

Imagine this: A woman goes through nine months of pregnancy and many long hours of labor before giving birth to a healthy baby. The father and the doctor then congratulate each other on what a great job they did and completely ignore the mother. Certainly the mother would have every right to ask, “So what am I, chopped liver?”

In Ki Tisa, we read about the insulting, ungrateful, low point of our people.

Just weeks after the plagues, parting of the sea and the manna — after all of this and more — the people lose faith when they think Moses is taking too long on Mount Sinai. They demand of Aaron, “Make us a god who shall go before us; as for this Moses, … we know not what is become of him.”

Aaron takes their jewelry and fashions it into the golden calf.

What astonishing chutzpah!

How could Aaron do this? The midrash attempts to explain. He was using delaying tactics. Or based on the fact that Hur and Aaron were left in charge, and Hur is never heard from again, the mob killed Hur. So Aaron was legitimately fearful for his own life.

When Moses sees the wild, idolatrous debauchery, he smashes the tablets and asks Aaron how the people got him to make the calf. Aaron offers the absurd explanation, “They gave me [the gold] and I cast it into the fire, and out came this calf.” Moses doesn’t even dignify this with a response.

This abuse of gold is the reason we don’t use gold in the synagogue. Rather, we use silver in order not to remind God of our people’s ancient sin.

God in his fury wants to wipe out the people completely and start all over again with Moses, but Moses refuses. He intercedes and prevails upon God to forgive the people. Successful, Moses recognizes moment of great grace and asks:

“Show me your glory,” and “Let me know your ways.”

And God said, “I will make all goodness to pass before you, and proclaim my name, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”

God’s glory is bestowing compassion and mercy, and God’s ways are all of these that God reveals next to Moses as a formula to gain forgiveness:

“Adonai, Adonai, Compassionate and Gracious God, Slow to Anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth, forgiving…” Familiar words from Yom Kippur and other services.

Our task is to do our best to emulate God.

Rabbi Joanne Yocheved Heiligman is the rabbi at Bet Chaverim Congregation.

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