The census at the beginning of this Parasha provides its name, but in this eventful time we could focus on the story of the golden calf. Despite being a generation that had experienced liberation from slavery in Egypt, the crossing of the Yam Suf, the revelation at Har Sinai, the children of Israel could not cope with the waiting for Moshe to come down from the mountain, without an idol to worship. A people that had just witnessed remarkable events, whose G-d had revealed Himself to them in so many ways (and they had committed to following His commandments at Sinai) still needed Aaron to preside over the making and the worship of an idol. Apart from demonstrating how ingrained idolatory was in the minds of the people, it shows that despite repeated revelations of G-d’s power and presence, it did not give the people sufficient faith to sustain them at a time of doubt and uncertainty.
In our generation, we seem to have less to sustain our faith. However we have examples of generations before us who maintained families and communities in difficult, isolated and threatening circumstances. We can also learn from the words of our texts as they shed light on difficult concepts such as the nature of G-d.
Moshe went back up the mountain to bring back a second set of stone tablets, having smashed the first. A remarkable conversation is recorded between G-d and Moshe, in which Moshe asks to learn more about G-d and His ways. He asks G-d to “show him His glory”. G-d answers that “I shall make all My goodness pass before you, and I shall call out with the Name of G-d before you, I shall show favour when I choose to show favour, and I shall show mercy when I choose to show mercy”. And he said “You will not be able to see My face, for no human can see My face and live”. G-d allowed Moshe to safely see His back. G-d proclaimed the thirteen attributes of His Divine goodness. Rambam confirms that it was G-d who proclaimed these qualities about Himself. These words spoken by G-d give us a clear idea of how He wants us to see Him. It worked for the people of Israel when Moshe asked for forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf, and it is those attributes that Jews appeal to on fast days, especially Yom Kippur and have appealed to on days of repentance for generations.
We do not have visual imagery to sustain our faith in difficult times, but we have words, and interpretations of those words. We can gain deepening insight into their meaning through repetition and through questioning their meaning and finding answers to those questions.