“To err is human, to forgive is divine.”

Posted on March 9, 2023

By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.


While this saying may have originated with Alexander Pope in the 18th century, it is a tale as old as time, and its biblical origins may be found within this week’s parasha, Ki Tissa.

This week, our Mishkan-building story is interrupted by the famous communal faux pas where the Israelites, lacking their leader (as Moshe had been up on Har Sinai receiving the Torah from God for over a month), built Egel haZahav, the Golden Calf, to replace him, and/or to attract a new leader.

This incident seems out of place for the timeline of events surrounding our receiving of the Torah at Har Sinai back in parshat Yitro. But as we know, Ein Mukdam o-M’uchar baTorah, there is no early and late in the Torah. This is the very reasoning biblical commentators use to explain why something seems out of chronological order.

Using that logic, the Torah had not yet been revealed to them. That 2nd commandment, You shall have no other gods but Me, had not yet been given to them. Is it possible that the Israelites did not know that they were doing something wrong? Were they fully to blame? 

The timing was such that perhaps they simply did not know that what they were doing was fully wrong or could be interpreted as sinful.

Sometimes we, too, make mistakes without realizing the errors of our ways. Whether accidentally or purposefully, transgressions happen, iniquities occur, and we still need to deal with the repercussions regardless.

Upon his descent from Har Sinai with the two tablets, Moshe smashes them in anger upon seeing the Golden Calf, then proceeds back up the mountain, where God was even angrier. It took Moshe’s convincing God not to punish B’nai Israel. God’s mercy is revealed to Moshe here, and shortly after this incident, we read the famous list of God’s 13 Middot (attributes), through which B’nai Israel are ultimately forgiven by God.

All people commit sins and make mistakes. God forgives them, and people are acting in a godlike or divine way when they forgive. This is my understanding of the famous quote: “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” In the heat of the moment, it can  sometimes be difficult to see the bigger picture. But by trying to emulate as many of the divine attributes as possible, we can make good choices in response to incidents that happen to us and to the people in our community.

We should take into consideration the 13 middot, those merciful and forgiving aspects of God, and always try our best to be our best. While we are fallible human beings, we always have the opportunity for self-improvement, for working on our relationship within ourselves, with one another, and ultimately with God.