On the intermediate Sabbath of the Pesach festival, we deviate from the weekly cycle of Torah readings to read a selection from Exodus 33 and 34. The passage in our Torah follows shortly after the creation of the Golden Calf and its subsequent destruction by an enraged Moses. As Moses ascended the mountain for forty days and forty nights to speak personally with God and receive the tablets containing the commandments, the Israelites became anxious, fearful, and felt abandoned. They created something tangible that they thought would provide them with hope that they were not alone. The Israelites took a drastic step of building an idol and worshipping it.
But why read this passage on the Sabbath during the Pesach festival? Thinking beyond the idea that Exodus 34 contains a mention of Pesach in its description of the festival calendar, the opening verses of Exodus 34 focus on a concept of second chances. God says to Moses, “Hew for yourself two tablets of stones like the first ones; I will write upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke” (Exodus 34:1).
Even though the Israelites’ actions led Moses to shatter the tablets out of anger and frustration, there is a sense of forgiveness that emanates from our text, a sense that the text is providing the people with a second chance, another opportunity. God could very easily have chosen to abandon the Israelites after their latest transgression, but the Torah reminds us that God is waiting for them to recognize their errors and turn back to God. This message, that God is waiting to welcome us back, holds true not only during Pesach, one of our people’s most magnificent celebrations, but also on a daily basis.
A similar idea is found in the Haftarah portion for this Shabbat. The prophet Ezekiel finds himself placed in the midst of a valley filled with dry bones. God invites Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones so that the bones come to life. God then explains that these “bones” represent the House of Israel, bones that say, “Our bones have become dried up, our hope is lost” (Ezekiel 37:11). Here, God reminds the “bones” that hope is never lost, that God will breathe life into them, and bring them back to their land. Much like the Torah portion, with its notion of second chances, here in the Haftarah, when hope appears to be lost, our tradition reminds us that God’s presence is with us, giving us strength, guiding us, nurturing us, inspiring us to keep going forward.
A loving, hopeful, gentle notion from a passage not read during the festival of Pesach affirms this point. In the book of Deuteronomy, we read, “Even if one of your exiles should be at the end of the heaven, God, your God, will gather you together from there and will take you from there” (30:4). It does not seem to matter how far we may fall, how distant we may be, how much we might be in need of a second chance, another opportunity, a moment which allows us to begin again. Our tradition emphasizes that God is present with us, waiting to take us back, waiting to embrace us, and continue guiding us, if only we would avail ourselves of such an opportunity.
Nineteenth century commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch reflects on the actions of the Israelites that lead to the creation of the second set of tablets. He writes, “Since the people has broken the Law, the people must now hand to God the blank tablets, with the humble request that the old Law be inscribed upon the new tablets by the finger of God” (Hirsch Chumash, p. 347). As we retell our ancestors’ journey from Egypt this season of Pesach, as we remember and celebrate their ultimate redemption, we partner with God in a process of rededication, not only to our tradition, but to one another, and to the world around us. God is always giving us chances to rededicate ourselves to the quest and sacred tasks in front of us. We may even want to say, perhaps God is the force that is always willing to throw us a bone, or more than that, be the helping hand that we so often need and crave in our lives.