The Sin Of the Golden Calf


Amy J. Kramer

One cannot discuss Yom Kippur and forgiveness without mentioning the sin of the golden calf. Without this landmark event in the history of the Jewish people, there might not be a Yom Kippur.

We all know this story. Moses is up on Mt. Sinai receiving the Aseret H’adibrot (the 10 Commandments), the children of Israel grow restless. They beseech Aaron, Moses’ older brother, to fashion a god for them to worship. Moses returns, sees the golden calf and the people dancing in religious frenzy, and breaks the tablets in anger.

God is also angry and tells Moses he is ready to destroy them. But unlike Jonah, Moses pleads on their behalf. He is the people’s strongest advocate. He doesn’t run away or agree with God about their unworthiness. Instead, he pleads for the children of Israel to be granted one more chance.

That was the first Yom Kippur. And what Yom Kippur teaches us, is that at any time, not just the tenth of Tishri, we can observe our own Day of Atonement. Everyone is worthy of forgiveness. It is not up to Jonah, or your neighbor to decide. To be a proper servant of God, you must have compassion for others.

Contrast this to the Book of Jonah, which is read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Jonah had no compassion. He did not believe the Ninevites repentance was real. He believed in strict, unmitigated justice. We must not be like Jonah. On Yom Kippur, there is a tradition of asking one’s friend or neighbor for mechilah, meaning forgiveness, for any wrong you may have committed. Our sages tell us, if you don’t forgive your friend, you can’t expect forgiveness from God.

This story reprinted courtesy of

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