Parshat Ki Tisa: Exodus 30:11-34:35; Ezekiel 36:16-38. (Shabbat Parah)

In the Torah this week, we find one of our most iconic stories. Moses is schmoozing with God on Mount Sinai, and the people are waiting below.

They’re waiting … they’re waiting … and they’re waiting some more … and they start to freak out a little bit. The people then build a golden calf to worship in the desert, using the riches that they plundered from Egypt as they fled.

God is not thrilled about the whole thing. God tells Moses, “Now … leave Me alone, and my anger will be kindled against them so that I will annihilate them.”

“Wait,” Moses pleads before God. “Don’t forget about all the promises You made in the past … to Abraham, Isaac and Israel, your servants … if you wipe out these people, you’re not a very good promise keeper, are You?”

“Well, fine,” God says. “You deal with them.”

Moses does, securing forgiveness for the Israelites. And yet, when he returns to Mount Sinai, returns to God’s presence, God says to him: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” God does not leave the guilty unpunished.

There is a fascinating experiment that looks at the different ways of thinking about God. Some faiths emphasize Divine forgiveness, while others focus on punishment. Which works better?

Among believers, the difference is significant. Those who believe in a punishing God, cheat and steal less than those who believe in a forgiving God. People who believe in a punitive God, punish people less than those who believe in a forgiving God.

At the very moment God tells Moses that the people are forgiven, Moses is reminded that still the guilty will be punished. Because a world without justice would be one without human forgiveness. The Torah allows us to play good cop while God plays bad cop and makes us feel good about being compassionate, understanding and merciful to each other.

Seeing God as just helps us treat other human beings with kindness and love.

So, in these perilous times, let’s keep the faith; smile a little more; open our hearts and our minds, showing forgiveness to the people around us.

Let’s leave the judgement to the Judge.

Rabbi Jennifer Lader is a rabbi at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield.