This week’s Torah reading gives us a poignant study in contrasts. As Moses stands before the God of Israel on top of the mountain, about to receive the Torah in the most spiritual, stratospheric experience of his life, at the foot of the same mountain, the children of Israel fall into rank rebellion and deplorable behavior: they erect a golden calf, an idol.
If it happened today, news media would capture on a split screen for all to see: the severe disparity between what is happening above and what is happening below. Perhaps in such a presentation, the message would arrest our attention to a life changing degree.
What we are looking it is a demonstration of the worst infidelity imaginable. Consider the general reaction when we hear that a husband takes up a mistress while his wife is pregnant with their first child; or a wife is carrying on with a lover while her husband is negotiating a mortgage for the home of her dreams. What we watch in this week’s Torah portion is the heartbreaking contrast between commitment and infidelity, utter selflessness versus rank selfishness, eternal perspective versus immediate gratification.
How could such a thing happen? What about all the miracles they had so recently experienced?
Consider a key principle that is too often forgotten: Sin happens when we forget about eternity; when we lose our consciousness that life is about much more than what we see, hear and touch in this physical world. Sin is enabled when we allow this earthly life to cloud the reality of heaven, of the world to come, of the blessings God has already poured into our life, of the sobering reality of accountability for everyone of our words and actions. When our life has ‘descended’ to the valley of physicality in which we no longer ‘look to the mountain’, we succumb to the identical sin of the children of Israel. We build our own golden calfs – they take the form of the love of money or jealousies or abiding hatred towards someone else, or immorality. The list could go on.
When Moses disappeared into the cloud on top of Mount Sinai, the proverbial ‘when the cat’s away, the mouse will play’ took over. Their leader was not there to rebuke them and they did what their untamed nature dictated.
However, even as they sin, an incredible scene unfolds on the mountaintop. Hearing from God that the people have rebelled, Moses assumes the role of defense attorney for an impossibly guilt client. His defense of the children of Israel stuns us. We would except him to be disgusted and revolted. Yet with brave conviction, he pleads their case before God. Moses is convinced that within these rebels, there is potential for greatness. Moses argues with God that there will yet be a day when they have a powerful and intimate relationship with Him.
God hears his prayer.
Thus we learn: At the very moment that the children of Israel had turned away from God and sinned, what was simultaneously happening on the mountaintop would save them from destruction. Moses interceded; God heard; the sinners are forgiven and then turned back to their God. The people have forgotten and rejected the God of Israel but the God of Israel has not forgotten or rejected the former slaves He is now shaping into a nation for His purposes. Their memory may be short, but His is not; their faith in Him may be sorely limited but His faith in their potential is unlimited.
If we, for one moment, reflected on this split-screen scene when tempted to sin, perhaps the absurdity of living this life without the consciousness of eternity would keep us from failing. There is no such thing as being ‘so heavenly minded you’re not earthly good’ as some have claimed. To be truly heavenly minded is to live each day keenly aware that this life is, as it says in Pirchei Avot, “a lobby for the world to come.” Therefore, it behooves us to keep our destination in mind while making the journey.