Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return. W.H. Auden- Poet
The instruction to keep Shabbat appears in the Torah in Parshat Ki Tisa, immediately before the story of the Golden Calf and immediately after as well in the opening verses of Parshat Vayakhel. On the face of it, Shabbat is a celebration of G-d, and the worship of the Golden Calf was nothing less than an act of apostasy. They are total opposites, so why are they next to each other?
The Sages say in Shabbat -118b, “Anyone who keeps Shabbat according to its laws, will be forgiven even of idol worship like that of the time of Enosh.” Is this just a general statement, or is keeping Shabbat directly related to abandoning idol worship? To answer that question, we must understand “keeping” Shabbat means, beyond the mere technical aspects of Halacha.
It says in Shemot 31:16, “…and on the seventh day He relaxed, and He rested”(vayinafash) . Noteworthy, is that the Torah uses the word “vayinafash” to describe G-d’s rest. Rashi comments, that the word nofesh “resting” is related to the word nefesh, “spirit” for rest restores one’s spirit and breath through relaxation from the burden of labor.
“Nefesh” as we know refers to a particular spirit; in fact the fifth of the five levels of soul, Yechidah, Chiya, Neshama, Ruach, and Nefesh- within a Jew. Thus Shabbat is about giving the Nefesh specifically a rest once a week, and in doing so it becomes a sign of the special and holy relationship between G-d and the Jewish people – the opposite of which results in golden calves. Why the Nefesh? Because of all the five levels of soul, Nefesh is the only one that interacts with the body; it participates in an action. That’s why when the Torah mentions ‘karet’, the cutting off of the soul it refers to the person being punished as “the Nefesh”. And what is the Nefesh trying to accomplish? It wants to control the environment in which it lives, to make it as comfortable as possible-to manipulate the world around it, and create a sense of security.
That is what we do six days a week. But when we hold back on Shabbat- the seventh day, it becomes clear that we are His servants bound to him by a covenant that is represented by the sign of Shabbat. So when the Nefesh is resting, it means that the body desists from trying to control the world around it, which repairs the sin of the Jews wanting to control the situation.
In Shemot 32-1 the Jews were impatient with Moshe’s perceived delay in returning from the mountain, they wanted to replace him, thinking he was a subordinate power just like the pillars of smoke and fire that G-d created to lead the nation. (Ramban)
Shabbat repairs the sin of the Golden Calf, because when you keep Shabbat properly you relinquish the control of the six days of creation- the doing. The first time G-d mentions Shabbat he’s laying the groundwork, the “cure before the illness” like we see many times in the Torah, for example by the story of Purim, Haman comes on the scene only after Esther is already introduced, and safely ensconced within the palace of the king.
The second time Shabbat is mentioned is in the verse “You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day” Shemot 35-3. Could it be that the Torah is trying to infer something deeper when it uses the word “fire”? In Shmot 32-4 we find Aaron throwing the collective mass of gold into the fire, which was fashioned into a molten calf. Perhaps the Torah prohibiting the use of fire on Shabbat is hinting not to create anything. Just stop the doing- the controlling, on this seventh day.
The Zohar tells us that when the People saw the molten calf they proclaimed: “these Israel are your lords/gods” Shmot 34-2, they wanted to understand and experience G-d on their own terms. They sought a concrete answer for the unanswerable question of who G-d really was. They believed they had the “right to know” that which was beyond them. Let’s analyze the situation: Moshe is about to descend from the mountain, all they need is to do is be patient one more day and the Torah would be theirs. Instead, they disgracefully served the golden calf and then the Tablets were shattered at the foot of the mountain.
There is a parallel to this story involving man’s quest for knowledge. At the dawn of history man was told of two special trees in the Garden of Eden: The Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge. Adam was permitted to eat of all of the trees except the Tree of Knowledge. Again the story ends disgracefully—Adam ate from the wrong tree, and death was brought into the world. Our sages say that really there was no prohibition in partaking from the Tree of Life, and that the original plan was for Adam to have eaten first from the Tree of life, and then from the tree of knowledge. So Adam’s sin was eating from the wrong tree first.
We know that Torah is called the Tree of Life, as it says in Proverbs 3-18 “She (the Torah) is a tree of life for those who embrace her.” But what is the Tree of Knowledge associated with? The Torah gives us a clue. After the expulsion of man from the Garden of Eden it says: “Adam knew his wife”, where knowledge implies “experience.” Again, the original plan was that Adam should first eat from the ‘Tree of Life” and then from the Tree of Knowledge. In that way, Torah wisdom would precede experience and serve as a basis for understanding the experience. This did not happen. The Tragedy of Eden was re-experienced at Mount Sinai, where they exercised their wanting to know before they received the Torah. This too ended in tragedy. Torah must precede “experience” and “wanting to know.”
Rashi comments on the Red Heifer in Bamidbar 19-2, that it is a “chok” a decree; a law whose reason we don’t understand. Later Rashi repeats in the name of Rav Moshe Hadarshan that it was a rectification for the sin of the Golden Calf. These two explanations of Rashi are not contradictory. The Red Heifer brings about forgiveness precisely because it’s a commandment we can’t understand. If the sin of the Golden Calf was indeed thinking that one can understand G-d, then forgiveness lies in performing a commandment despite not understanding its reason, and it’s performed simply because it’s Torah. So both Shabbat and the Red Heifer are repairs for the sin of the Golden Calf. When we keep Shabbat our body rests despite our desire to take control, and we do the Red Heifer mitzvah despite our inability to understand it just because G-d said so. He is in charge.