With a joyful and inspiring Purim now behind us, we come closer to Nissan, the month of our redemption and to Pesach. This week is Parshas Ki Sissa whose central section describes the sin of the golden calf. How does Parshas Ki Sissa bring us closer to Nissan, the month of redemption and to Pesach? The episode of the golden calf is one of the most tragic in the Chumash. A mere forty days after witnessing the revelation on Mount Sinai, hearing the voice of Hashem, seeing Moshe ascend to the top of the mountain to receive the Torah, they were dancing round a golden calf saying “This is your god who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” It is unbelievable and incomprehensible! What can we learn from this episode? Are we supposed to just shake our heads in incredulity or is there, at least something, which we can take out from this national tragedy which can help us prepare for the month of redemption and Pesach?
The later section of the parsha contains the yud gimel middos, the 13 attributes of Hashem which is one of the most significant concepts in the Torah which comes to our attention particularly at the time of the Yomim Nora’im. “Hashem, Hashem, Keil Rachum Ve chanun.” “Hashem is merciful before we sin and after we sin. The strength of His mercy is even greater than indicated by the Name Hashem, He is compassionate and easies the punishment of the guilty, He is gracious even to the undeserving…” .Our belief in Hashem’s mercy gives us hope that despite our sins we can be successful in our judgement. Rosh Hashonoh 17b reveals the amazing power of saying these thirteen attributes of Hashem’s mercy. “If it were not said in the posuk, we could not have said it. Hashem put His talis on like a sheliach tzibbur and showed Moshe the order of tefila. Whenever the Jewish People sin, they should recite these attributes of mercy and I will forgive them.” If this seems too good to be true, it is. The previous section explains that not everybody merits such mercy. The Gemoro explains the words nosei ovon over al pesha – He forgives sin and overlooks transgression. “Whose sins will be forgiven? Not everyone’s. Only the one who overlooks transgression (in other people). Rashi says that Hashem’s characteristic of strict judgment, will overlook the one who forgives others who have done him harm.” He has shown mercy to his fellow-man; Hashem shows him mercy to him. Is it a coincidence that this vital concept is written in the section following the sin of the golden calf?
There are a number of points we can learn from the sin of the golden calf including a fascinating detail of the way we allocate the aliyos in Parshas Ki Sissa. Normally a parsha is divided into seven approximately equal sections for the seven aliyos. In Ki Sissa the first two aliyos cover over three-quarters of the parsha and the other five are squashed into the remaining quarter. Why do we do it in this way? The explanation is that only the Yisroelim were involved in the sin of the golden calf, not the tribe of Levi. If we called up a non-Levi for the section which describes the sin, he might be embarrassed that his great-great-grandfather would do such a serious sin. Therefore we extend the first two aliyos which are given to a Kohen and a Levi, whose ancestors were not involved in the sin, despite the disproportion in the size of the seven sections, to avoid embarrassing the person having the aliya. Wow! What a lesson in not embarrassing a fellow Jew! Another important detail about the sin was that despite the severity of the sin of the golden calf only a very small number were punished; only those who actually served the golden calf. According to one opinion, those who rejoiced were also punished. (Yuma 66b) But what about all the others who stood there and did nothing to protest? Those who saw the murder of Chur, who did protest, without trying to defend him? In the time of Ochon who took some of the booty from Yericho, all the people were blamed because they didn’t protest. (Yehoshua 7:11). Didn’t they deserve punishment for their serious sin? A golden calf is being set up and people were saying, “This is your god who took you out of the land of Egypt” and they look on silently? Why did they escape punishment?
The answer possibly lies in the words of the navi Yirmiya (2:2). “I remember the kindness of your youth…” Which kindness was the novi referring to? The commentators give different explanations. The Malbim says that it refers to the kindness of the Ovos. Another explanation is that with so many Jews dying in the plague of darkness, there were many innocent orphans. Who looked after these orphans if not the rest of the People. Such wonderful kindness by the People does not go unnoticed by Hashem. “You practise kindness and mercy. I will practise kindness and mercy with you.” According to My attribute of strict judgment you should all be severely punished for your rôle, albeit passive, in the sin of the golden calf but those who are over al pesha – who show mercy to others, I will be nosei ovon – show mercy to them.” This may explains the juxtaposition of the Torah’s description of the sin of the golden calf with the section dealing with Hashem’s attributes of mercy.
As we look forward to Nissan, the month which “In the future we will be redeemed.” (Rosh Hashono 10a), do we imagine that we will merit redemption according to Hashem’s attribute of strict judgment? Who among us can possible claim that we have not sinned and that our mitzvos are done perfectly and with the right intention? Who among us who are living comfortably in golus are even interested in being redeemed, our lip-service when the time of Tisha B’av comes round, notwithstanding? Our only hope is Hashem’s attributes of mercy and kindness. But we will only be treated with mercy and kindness if we treat others the same way. As we learn parshas Ki Sissa and especially the section about Hashem’s attribute of mercy, we remember that Hashem was merciful to the vast majority of the Jews despite their guilt. We remember also why they merited such kindness and mercy – because they practised kindness and mercy in their dealings with other people. And the way we arrange the seven aliyos reminds us how far we have to go to avoid embarrassing others. With such a preparation we can hope that Nissan will be indeed the month that we finally merit our long awaited redemption.