It happens.

We make mistakes.

We are careless, or inconsiderate, or we overreact.

Most of the time, we’re lucky.

We recover from the mistake. Little harm is done. People are understanding, the damage is easily repaired. We are forgiven, we forgive ourselves, we move on.

But sometimes, our mistake has devastating consequences. In just a moment of thoughtlessness, lives are shattered. The damage is irreversible. Relationships are severed, reputations sullied beyond repair.

This week’s parshah is about one of those mistakes.

Most of the time, we’re lucky

Torah commentators throughout the ages have puzzled over it. How did it happen? How could the Jews, only a few short weeks after leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah—how could they form a calf out of gold and then worship it? It boggles the mind.

Their sin was catastrophic. We are atoning for it to this day. Our sages say that the sin of the Golden Calf is the source of all other sins, and whenever we atone for any sin, that atonement includes some penance for the sin of the Golden Calf.1

Ironically, the name of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, suggests anything but an epic downfall. Ki Tisa literally means “when you will lift up.” It refers to a headcount taken of the Jewish people, when each Jew donated a half-shekel to serve as an “atonement of the soul.”2

How does the name of the parshah, which denotes elevation, reflect the content, one of the most sorrowful chapters in Jewish history?

The classic explanation according to Chassidic thought is that the sin of the Golden Calf was a “descent that ultimately brought about an ascent.” The greater the descent, the more inner strength we have to muster to overcome it. Before the sin, the Jewish people were on the level of perfect tzadikim, righteous individuals. After the sin, they acquired the status of baalei teshuvah, penitents, who are in certain respects even greater than tzadikim.

But there’s more.

As human beings, we’re very good at rationalizing. We’re quick to find justifications for how and why we erred. One way of avoiding sin is to transcend rationality altogether. We access a part of ourselves that is beyond understanding, a part that recognizes G‑d as our very essence—in other words, the power of faith. From this vantage point, sin is not only ridiculous, it is impossible; how could we cut ourselves off from our own identity? As the Tanya explains:

Even the most worthless of worthless and the transgressors of Israel, in the majority of cases sacrifice their lives for the sanctity of G‑d's Name and suffer harsh torture rather than deny the one G‑d, although they be boors and illiterate and ignorant of G‑d’s greatness . . . They do not give up their lives by reason of any knowledge and contemplation of G‑d. Rather, [they suffer martyrdom] without any knowledge and reflection, but as if it were absolutely impossible to renounce the one G‑d; and without any reason or hesitation whatever.3

But the elevation in this week’s parshah refers to more than just tapping into a point above reason. The opening verse is “Ki tisa et rosh”—“When you will lift up the head.” It’s not enough to transcend rationality. We also need to draw the supra-rational into the intellect itself—so that the mind also understands the gravity of sin, so that the mind and soul are in perfect agreement.

Today, the thought of worshipping actual idols may seem remote. But while we may not worship idols of wood and stone, there are other passions that can be considered equivalent to idol worship, such as anger.4Can we train our minds to negate sin? In a subtle way, even service of G‑d that is not appropriate for the person’s level is avodah zarah, “strange worship.”5 For example, a Torah scholar who acts according to the letter of the law, when it would be more befitting for his stature to act beyond the letter of the law, could be guilty of “desecrating G‑d’s name.”6

Can we train our minds to negate sin? The way to merge faith and intellect is through Torah study. The concept of the Golden Calf actually derives from a very high source—the image of the ox in the supernal chariot, as depicted in the vision of Ezekiel.7 To “lift up the head” in this context means to study the topic of avodah zarah, idol worship, as it is explained in Torah sources, which will naturally break its hold over us and lessen its attraction.

But what happens if we’ve already sinned? Our learning wasn’t enough to protect us. We need to repair the damage. And to do that, we need the power of faith and the power of mercy, which transcend the intellect. Once we’ve uncovered that reservoir of inner strength, we then proceed systematically to restore the lost trust, the destroyed relationships—guided by the wisdom and depth of Torah.

Getting out of a hole we’ve dug is difficult work. And we cannot do it alone. We need the help of caring people who believe in us, regardless of what we’ve done. Our forefathers in the desert were lucky to have that person in their leader, Moses. He never gave up on his people. Even after they broke his heart by worshipping the Golden Calf, Moses did not stop beseeching G‑d to forgive them. He went so far as to say, “And if not, erase me from this book.”8 And his pleading was effective. After 40 consecutive days of prayer, Moses again ascended on high and brought down a second set of Tablets, ones that had all the qualities of the first, plus a new, additional quality—the power of teshuvah, repentance.

Closer to modern times, we have the example of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, the well-known defender of the Jewish people, who always managed to put a positive spin on any Jewish fault. He famously reinterpreted the phrase in Isaiah, “a nation heavy with sin,”9 to mean “a nation that finds it difficult to sin.” He was able to use the power of his Torah knowledge, as well as his cleverness and warm heart, to find the true, spiritual root of every negative behavior.

If you or a loved one is struggling with the consequences of a life-altering mistake, take heart. The opening words of Parshat Ki Tisa precede the mention of sin. Even before the sin was committed, the power to correct it, to wipe it out completely and even grow from it, was already present. If the sin of the Golden Calf, the most serious sin of all, can lead to an elevation, then nothing is beyond our reach.

(Based on an address of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Sefer Hasichot 5751, vol. 1, pp. 363-373.)