The opening posuk of this week’s parsha has a number of peculiarities:
For one thing, the entire verse seems to be somewhat redundant, almost mirrored. There is a particular oddity that stands out amongst the others, however, namely, the clarification of which mishkan the posuk is talking about. The posuk goes out of its way to point out that it is referring to the מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת — lest one think it is referring to just any old mishkan. The obvious question is why this specification is necessary — especially given how obvious this point is considering it has been almost the sole topic of the numerous preceding parshios. Nevertheless, the Torah seems to stress and draw attention to this detail.
Rashi, of course, picks up on this problem and suggests that, indeed, the mishkan was a form of עֵדֻת, testimony, that God had forgiven the Jewish people for the cheit ha’eigel. This would then explain, at least on some level, the Torah’s stressing of this point.
For All Time
The Gemara (TB Sanhedrin 102a; TY Ta’anis 4:5) states that, in an act of Divine mercy, God chose to diffuse the punishment for the cheit ha’eigel over all subsequent generations. As retribution would be too much for the single generation of the midbar to bear, the punishment was broken up over all Jews, for all time, in all future generations. This is to say, then, that when evil befalls the Jewish people even to this day, it is, at some level, a rectification for the most ancient sin of the cheit ha’eigel.
Leaving aside the intruiging implications of such a Gemara, we must point out that this Gemara stands in stark contradiction to Rashi’s understanding of our posuk. If indeed we, the Jewish people, were forgiven for the cheit ha’eigel — and if the mishkan is testimony to this — why are we still being punished for it?
A Relationship With God Is High Maintenance
To begin to address this question one must point out that, fundamentally, there is not an intrinsic, absolute connection between punishment (or lack thereof) and forgiveness. One can be forgiven and still be punished. There is no contradiction there. Making amends does not ipso facto preclude consequences from being borne out.
Further, and crucially, there are levels of forgiveness. The original source for this idea was unclear to R’ Moshe Benovitz from whom I heard it, but the key takeaway is that just because forgiveness is given/received does not mean that everything is back to normal, back to the way it was before the transgression. To give an extreme example, a married couple could, in theory, work through an extramarital affair, but the restoration of trust between spouses to it its original status may take quite a long time, if possible at all. Even where there is forgiveness, regaining trust is difficult.
This, then, is how we are to treat our relationship with God — as a genuine, emotional relationship between two parties. A relationship with God is a “high-maintenance” one, and we must treat it that way. If we recognize avodah zarah as an act of betrayal, it is more than understandable that forgiveness can be given, but punishment still meted out. There are, once again, levels of forgiveness.
We should feel emotions in our relationship with God. Metaphoric though it may be, in our minds God should be happy or proud as we succeed; betrayed or disappointed as we fail.
A relationship with God is meant to be real and significant effort is required for that to be the case.