This week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa, contains the story of the golden calf. Moshe is taking too long atop the mountain, so the people corral Aharon and say, "Come, make us a god who shall go before us;" we feel like we've been abandoned, and we're scared. So Aharon collects their gold earrings, and melts them, and the shape of a calf is formed. And the people rejoice, and make offerings, and they eat and drink and dance.
God is not pleased. Moshe convinces God not to strike the people down...but by the time Moshe reaches the camp, and sees the calf and the carrying-on, his own anger has been aroused, and he shatters the tablets of the covenant on the ground.
It can't have been easy, being Moshe. Ever since his encounter with the bush that burned but wasn't consumed, he's been asked by God to stretch himself in new and challenging ways. Despite his protestations, God chose him to go before Pharaoh, and to lead the children of Israel and the mixed multitude that accompanied them out of Egypt.
And now Moshe has spent forty days and forty nights atop the mountain, enfolded in fire and cloud. My teacher Reb Yakov Travis has taught me that when God instructs Moshe והיה–שם (v'heyeh sham), God means not only "wait there" (as the JPS rendering has it) but really be there: be fully present with every atom of your being. Moshe passes forty days -- that number which signifies a full cycle of inception, growth, and completion -- in that space. He descends, carrying the fruits of that labor.
But the people aren't ready. As his absence stretches from days into weeks, they panic. They want something tangible, so they make a calf and dance around it. Imagine spending forty transcendent days on a mountaintop, and coming home to that!
Have you ever gone on a retreat where everything feels special, and then come home to the mundane reality of bills to pay and dishes to wash? Have you ever been on a vacation with a loved one, feeling mutual connection, but then fought when you got home? Moshe's experience was maybe like that, only exponentially more so. His retreat experience was face-time with the Holy Blessed One! He came down the mountain bearing instructions for how to lead a life of holy connection, and ran right into the disappointing reality of a community that wasn't ready to hear what he had to say.
We who feel called to the work of spiritual leadership may resonate with Moshe. Sometimes we bring ideas and practices to our communities that they just aren't ready for. And it's hard on the ego when one works hard at something and the community rejects what one has brought.
Fortunately for Moshe, he gets a do-over. God instructs him to make a second set of tablets, and this time before God gives any instructions God proclaims God's-self as "Adonai, Adonai, compassionate and generous" -- the Thirteen Attributes we recite so often during the Days of Awe.
The Chernobyler rebbe wrote that God measures out middot (attributes or qualities) to each of us constantly, giving us in every moment precisely the qualities we need to respond to whatever is at-hand. Because we are made in the divine image, our middot match God's. What can we learn from this recitation of the 13 attributes?
Maybe that we should seek to mirror not the faithlessness of the scared Israelites in the desert, nor the anger and ego of Moshe's instinctive (and unconsidered) response to the episode of the calf, but rather God's own attributes: compassion and grace, slowness to anger, deep kindness, faithfulness, and forgiveness. When we act from that place, our old narratives -- the stories of how we've screwed up in the past, the baggage we carry -- can be changed, and something new and amazing can emerge.