In Parashat Ki Tisa, after the sin of the golden calf, Hashem declared his intention to destroy our people. Moshe, on behalf of the people, pleaded to God, Shuv Mecharon Apecha Vehinacheim Al Hara’ah L’amecha, ‘turn from Your fierce wrath and forgive this nation’ – Hashem responded and the nation was forgiven.
The sin of the golden calf, of course, was one of two major sins. The other was sending spies into the Holy Land. There, Hashem declared that the punishment of the people would be that they would sojourn in the wilderness for 40 long years. And even though the nation begged for forgiveness, Hashem would not listen to their prayers.
So, the obvious question is, why is it that for the golden calf they were forgiven, but not for the sending of the 12 spies?
The Kotsker Rebbe explains as follows: When the people sent the spies, there was an absence of faith in Hashem. They wanted to place their faith in themselves, in their own capacity, to decide what their future might be and which country would be the best one for them. They did not have any faith in God. When, however, it came to the sin of the golden calf, the people were believers. But at a time of emotional vulnerability, when Moshe failed to return, they channelled their belief in the wrong direction and they started to worship the calf. Then, says the Kotsker Rebbe, there was hope for them because at least they recognised the power of a superior being.
You can tell the difference between an atheist, an agnostic and a believer by what they say. An atheist says, “I deny”. An agnostic says, “I dunno”. And a believer says, “Adonai”.
In our times, we are finding within our society that people are veering slowly away from religion. More and more people are saying “I deny” or “I dunno”. More people are classifying themselves as being an Atheist, a Secularist or a Humanist.
From our Parasha we learn how important it is for a society to be rooted in faith. The prophet Chavakuk declared: “Tzaddik B’emunatoh Yichye”, ‘good people live by their faith’. And indeed that is true of our society. With faith, we have the potential for a great society.