We are in a leap year, so this is a year when the Sedra is not linked to Shabbat Parah. We concentrate on the famous, or infamous, episode of the Golden Calf. The imagery is striking and theatrical. Having witnessed the revelation at Sinai and the instructions passed on through Moses we are subjected to a census requiring a half shekel and given whole series of tasks.
Moses ascends the mountain and receives not just the two tablets of stone but also the instruction to keep Shabbat which we still recite
וְשָֽׁמְר֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֑ת
the children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath
This is a key part of our heritage; it even outweighs the construction of the Mishkan in which we were supposed to be engaged.
It is a human trait to have short memories and the need for instant gratification. We had forgotten the awesome sights when God spoke from the mountain. Without the presence of Moses the people demand a physical token, the Golden Calf. That was to lead Moses pleading with God to prevent complete annihilation. The tablets written by God were broken.
There is an apparent inconsistency in the text. In Chapter 33 verse 11 we read
וְדִבֶּ֨ר יְהֹוָ֤ה אֶל־משֶׁה֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים
The Lord would speak to Moses face to face
But by verse 20 we read
You will not be able to see My face, for man shall not see Me and live
Moses, tucked away in the cleft in the rock, will see the back of God, not his face. What he hears are the 13 attributes of God which we recite in the Yom Kippur Service.
יי ׀ יי אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן
Adonai, Adonai, el rachum v’hanun
God, God, compassionate and gracious
Over the centuries Judaism would be taunted as a people with an invisible God. The rationalists of the 18th century held that without physical proof of God he cannot exist. As Jews we may question and argue with God but his existence is part of who we are. We may not see God “face to face” but we are able to experience his presence in our relationships with our families, in our communities and in the natural world around us.