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Written by Tamar Fox. Check out last week’s post in this series, Double Mitzvah – Tetzaveh.
This week’s parsha is basically about cheating in long-distance relationships. The Israelites are in a relationship with God, and Moses is the medium of communication between them. Moses goes up onto Sinai to get the tablets of the Pact from God, and while he’s gone the Israelites are cut off from their relationship. Scared and lonely and wanting something on which to focus their energy (both sexual and otherwise), they have Aaron create for them a Golden Calf, and subsequently begin a new relationship with this idol.
Moses arrives back after 40 days, catching the Israelites in the equivalent of flagrante delicto, right as they are dancing to this new god, and both he and God are outraged. Moses smashes the tablets, and then encourages the Levites to go on a killing spree to get rid of all of the cheaters. The next day, Moses goes back to God and asks God for forgiveness on behalf of the Israelites. Though God is at first set on destroying the people and starting over with a new nation, Moses convinces God to calm down. Instead of being completely obliterated, the people suffer a plague, and from then on their relationship with God is unalterably damaged.
When looking at this story through the lens of modern relationships, I find myself thinking about the way I might counsel a friend who either a) was the cheater, and was feeling bad about it, or b) had been cheated on. Today, most of us are generally inclined toward the “once a cheater, always a cheater” idea. And certainly, if one looks at the Israelites later actions, this was not their only indiscretion.
I think of cheating as a symptom of a relationship that isn’t very solid in some other ways (even though research suggests that’s not necessarily true). But I also think that a couple who can come back together after someone has cheated are amazingly strong and wonderful. And I guess that’s how I feel about the Israelites being reunited with God at the end of this week’s parsha. It’s good news for the Jews, good news for me as a Jew who won’t come along for another couple thousand years. But it also reminds me how sometimes really important things—faith, religion, lifelong relationships—are necessarily built on shaky foundations. It’s true, certainly, that the Israelites failed to live up to their side of the commitment they made to God. (And one could easily argue that God failed to live up to God’s end of the bargain, too.) But as a Jew, I also know that there is so much love for God floating around in the Jewish world. It’s real, this love. And while it doesn’t take away from all of the indiscretions of previous and current generations, it does make me so glad that God and the Israelites decided to stay together, as best they could.