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Lessons from the Chet Haegel

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Feb 17, 2011
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"The people saw that Moshe had delayed in descending the mountain, and the people gathered around Aharon and said to him: 'rise up, make for us elohim that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt - we do not know what became of him'" (Shmot 32:1). Rashi relates in the name of Chazal:"They thought that Moshe was late, because when Moshewent up to the mountain, he said to them: 'at the end offorty days I will come within the first six hours of theday', they thought that the day he ascended was part of thecount but he had told them forty full days, forty days along with the nights.  But the day that he ascended did not haveits night with it, for he ascended on the seventh of Sivan,thus the fortieth day was on the seventeenth of Tammuz.On the sixteenth, Satan came and confused the world and displayed an image of darkness, gloom, and confusion,to imply: 'Moshe must certainly have died, that is why confusion has come to the world'.  He said to them: 'Moshe has died,for six hours have passed and he has not come.'" (Rashi Shemos 32:1)


The Gemara adds that Satan showed them the image of Moshe's coffin being carried in heaven in an attempt to convince them that he was no longer alive. What could they possibly mean by "make for us elohim who will go before us?"  Did they for a moment believe that a human being could make a god?  G-d makes human beings, not the other way around!  Furthermore, Satan had only convinced them that Moshe was no longer alive, he never said anything about Hashem no longer existing, G-d forbid.   They needed a new Moshe Rabenu not a new god!  What makes this more difficult to comprehend is that we are not speaking of fools - this was the dor deah, the generation of wisdom.   They were certainly not foolish enough to believe that they could create a god for themselves!  The text cannot possibly be interpreted based on its simple understanding.


What did the people have in mind when they asked Aharon "make for us elohim?"  Clearly they did not ask for a god in its literal sense, for Satan had convinced them that Moshe Rabenu had died, he did not convince them that Hashem was no longer, chas veshalom


There is another aspect to this incident which is equally puzzling - after the Golden Calf was produced, the people declared: "This is your god, O Israel, which brought you out of the land of Egypt." (Shemos 32:4) Even if they truly believed that this calf was their new god, how could they believe that a calf which was just created had taken them out from Egypt three months ago?  Only an insane person could believe such a thing, certainly not the generation that merited receiving the Torah!  If they really were insane, Hashem would not have been angry with them - what could He expect from lunatics!  What was going through their minds when they sinned?


The people were interested in a replacement for Moshe Rabenu.  The fact that they asked Aharon to make for them elohim does not contradict this understanding, for we find Hashem referring to Moshe by this name as well: "re-eh netaticha elohim lePharaoh" (Shmot 7:1) which is not literally a god.  Until this point Moshe had been their leader, it was he who performed all the miracles in Egypt, it was he who split the sea, waged war with Amalek, and brought down the manna to sustain them in the desert.  What did they mean "that will go before us"?  I believe they were alluding to the great respect they had for Moshe Rabenu.  After all, why did they need someone to lead the way, did they not follow the pillar of fire at night and the pillar of cloud during the daylight hours?  


We find times in which these pillars did not lead them.  The Gemara teaches us that they went in all directions except backwards.  When Hashem commanded them to return to Pi HaHiroth after having left Egypt, one of the great praises for the Jewish nation was their having followed the command of Moshe Rabenu even though his directions were not supported by the pillar of cloud.  They knew that Moshe always lead them in any direction.  They were looking for a guide to take the place of Moshe Rabenu whom they thought was no longer.


The people became desperate and they felt the need to create a physical housing for the Divine Presence.  Up until that point Moshe Rabenu had filled that role for them: "Who caused His splendorous arm to go at Moshe's right side?" (Yeshayahu 63:12) Moshe's passing meant the loss of their ability to see and feel the Shchina, they needed some sort of replacement. (See Kuzari 1:97)  They were not looking for a G-d, they felt the lack of Moshe Rabenu: "For this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt -we do not know what became of him." (Shemos 32:1) Moshe was able to produce miracles such as raising his hand and splitting the sea, not because he was a god but because he was the housing for the Divine Presence.  With Moshe gone, the people now needed a new housing for the Shchina so they built the Golden Calf.  This may not be classified as actual Avoda Zara, but it was a terrible sin nonetheless, as is evidenced by Hashem's wrath at their behavior and His desire to destroy His nation.


This idea in and of itself does not appear so preposterous and deserving of Divine wrath, on the contrary, should they not rather be praised for desiring a place for the Divine Presence to reside?  Did Hashem not command Moshe to construct a place specifically for that purpose?  Although it was not to take the place of Moshe, for Moshe was still alive, yet Hashem did command the construction of an edifice to house the Divine Presence.  The Jewish people themselves proclaimed together with Moshe when they left Egypt: "You will bring them and implant them on the mount of Your heritage, the foundation of Your dwelling-place that You, Hashem, have made - the Sanctuary, my L-rd that Your hands established" (Shemos 15:17). There was clearly destined to be a Mikdash constructed for this purpose.  Is it therefore such a grave sin for Am Yisrael to wish to construct a place for the Shchina to reside?   Was it so wrong of them to decide that now was as good a time as any to construct this Mikdash?  While it may true that they had not yet arrived at the final location of the Mikdash - but did Hashem Himself not command the construction of a temporary Mishkan during their sojourn in the desert?  They decided to build what they considered a tangible Presence of Hashem in the shape of a calf, rather than in the shape of Cherubim as Hashem desired.  Why did Hashem bring upon them a punishment so severe that it was to effect all future generations, as the Torah writes: "On the day that I make My account, I shall bring their sin to account against them" (Shemos 32:34) Their motivations appear to be sincere - should they not rather have been praised for desiring closeness with the Shchina?


There is one fundamental difference between the Cherubim and the Golden  Calf - the Cherubim were commanded by Hashem to Moshe Rabenu, while the Golden Calf was their own idea.  (Some authorities state that they chose the calf to represent Hashem's chariots which are represented by an ox).  Their motivation for building an edifice to house the Shchina is in itself commendable.  However, who told them however that it should be in the guise of a Golden Calf?  Did they have a right to dictate to Hashem where His Shchina should reside?  They believed that they could construct a Golden Calf and force the Divine Presence to reside there.   We have no right to dictate anything to Hashem!  We declare three times daily in Shmone Esrei that Hashem is: Kel Elyon.  He is "the highest of all high and the reason for all reasons." (Zohar)  Man lives his life based on reason, he thinks in a causal manner - there is cause and effect.  The Gemara asks a question and then provides an answer.  Tosafos pose a difficulty and then arrive at a conclusion. We lead our daily lives in such a manner as well: we are hungry so we go and buy food.   We need money to buy food so we go out to work.  Every action of ours has a "must" - even acts in life that are not necessary have their "must".  If a person wishes to play football then he must either purchase a ball or borrow one from someone else.  There is no "must" when it comes to Hashem for He is the reason for all reasons.  Nobody can tell Hashem that He must place His Shchina in something which they constructed. What right did they have to decide for themselves what Hashem must do?


Had this been the nation's only violation in the chet haegel, perhaps Hashem would not have become so angry.  They meant well, perhaps their sin was unintentional.  There is, however, another aspect to this sin that better explains Hashem's anger. Prior to Moshe's ascending Har Sinai, Moshe left explicit instructions regarding what to do in his absence:"Behold! Aharon and Chur are with you; whoeverhas a grievance should approach them" (Shemos 24:14). If there is anything you do not understand, you must turn to Aharon and Chur - they are the gedolei hador who will take my place during my prolonged absence.  If the Jewish people truly believed that Moshe was no longer alive, they should have spoken to Aharon and Chur and said: "Esteemed Rabbanim, Moshe is gone, where must we turn now?"  Aharon and Chur either would have responded using their great Torah wisdom - perhaps Aharon, Chur, Nachshon ben Aminadav, Yehoshua, or someone else would have been appointed as the new leader.  In addition to being a Gadol HaDor, Aharon was a prophet who could have inquired of Hashem as to the proper course of action.  Hashem then would have either informed them that Moshe was in fact alive or appointed an interim replacement.


What did the people do?  Rather than asking Aharon, they dictated to him what they thought must be done: "rise up and make for us gods" (Shemos 32:1).  The pasuk describes the people's gathering around Aharon as: vayikahel haam al Aharon rather than el Aharon.  The words el Aharon would have implied that they approached him and gathered around him to hear his words of wisdom.  On the other hand, al Aharon implies a certain imposing of their will on him, as if they were above him. Chur in fact opposed this suggestion and paid for it with his life (Rashi Shemos 31:5).  With this in mind we can no longer suggest that their sin was unintentional.  They were instructed to seek the guidance of the Torah sages and their neglecting to do so, even going so far as to dictate to the sages what they must do and killing anyone who stood in their way, deems this sin intentional.


This takes place only too often in public as well as private lives.  The public decides that the Rabbanim must rule in a particular way.  Rather than seeking guidance from the Rabbanim the public demands that they must rule in a particular way, usually leniently.  This is all part of the sin of the Golden Calf.  Throughout the history of the State of Israel there has been friction between the government and the Chief Rabbinate.  The Jerusalem Post once conducted a survey among government officials regarding how to view the role of the Chief Rabbinate.  My father z"l, who was State Comptroller at the time, was one of those interviewed.  He stated that it was not up to us to determine the tasks of the Rabbinate, rather the Rabbinate should be instructing us on how to run the government!  This was where Am Yisrael went wrong - rather than allowing Aharon and Chur to teach them what must be done, they decided for themselves what course of action to follow.  The tikkun for this is to accept what our Rabbis tell us.  This is such an common and unfortunate scenario today.  People who are not at all versed in halacha are complaining that the Rabbanim are too machmir.


The truth is that Aharon himself should not have listened to the people and should rather have avoided making the egel.  Chazal tell us that Aharon feared that should he not agree with their request to do make the calf, the people would kill him as they had killed his nephew Chur for refusing to comply with their demands.  Aharon's death would mean a fulfillment of the verse in Eicha "should Kohen and prophet be slain in the Sanctuary of the L-rd" (Eicha 2:20) for which there is no recovery.  In order to save the Jewish people from destruction from which they would be unable to recover, Aharon was willing to construct this calf even if it meant severe punishment, and had it not been for Moshe's prayer on his behalf Aharon would have been destroyed.  Although the Jewish people were in fact severely punished for this sin (see Rashi Shmot 32:34), had they killed Aharon as well, who knows how far the punishment would have extended - perhaps even Moshe's prayer would have been unable to save them from total annihilation.  Aharon had such a good heart and love for Klal Yisrael that he was willing to give up his share in the Next World in order to prevent the Jewish people from this terrible sin.  Moshe's prayer on behalf of Aharon resulted in only two of his sons dying (Nadav and Avihu) rather than all four.   


Hashem was very angry with the Jewish nation, Moshe broke the luchot, made them drink the water, burnt the calf, and sent the people of the tribe of Levi to kill those who deserved to die - 3,000 in all.  Hashem then sent a plague which killed all those liable with punishment by death.  Moshe Rabenu then prayed to Hashem to forgive the Jewish nation for this grave sin.  Forty days later Hashem asked Moshe to bring him two luchot on which He will engrave the Ten Commandments.  Hashem however said that He will not lead the Jewish nation but rather He will send an angel to lead them.  Moshe Rabenu prayed that Hashem not send an angel but rather lead the nation Himself.   Moshe achieved his goal with this prayer as well.  Moshe then asked that there be a clear distinction between Jew and non-Jew in that the other nations do not have the benefit of the guidance of prophets.  Hashem accepted this prayer as well.  Moshe then asked "show me now Your glory" (Shmot 33:18) to which Hashem responded: "I shall make all My goodness pass before you, and I shall call out with the Name of Hashem before you; I shall show favor when I choose to show favor and I shall show mercy when I choose to show mercy" (ibid. 19).  However: "You will not be able to see My face for no human can see My face and live" (ibid. 20).


What did Hashem show Moshe that he was not aware of before?  Among other things this refers to the Thirteen Attributes which we recite at every opportunity and begin with "Hashem Hashem Kel Rachum veChanun" (Shmot 34:6), which Hashem taught Moshe on Yom Kippur.  What is Hashem informing Moshe at this point?  Moshe wishes for Hashem to accept the nation's repentance - they did tshuva surely they should be able to return to the same level of closeness to Hashem they experienced prior to the sin.


Hashem's Attributes begin with the words Hashem, Hashem.  Why is the word Hashem repeated?   Chazal explain that these are two different Attributes - one before man sins and the other after a person sins and repents.  Tshuva certainly helps but they are not on the level they were on before.  The people received new luchot, but the first ones were described as charut (engraved), the word charut can also be read as cherut - free from the angel of death, free from the oppression of other nations.  The second Tablets, albeit a great gift, were not above everything.  They were not on the same level as the first luchot.


Perhaps this explains the difference in observance between the day the first luchot were given, Shavuot, and the second, Yom Kippur.  Shavuot is a Yom Tov which we observe with festive food.   What makes Shavuot unique is that, although there is a difference of opinion regarding whether a person may spend Yom Tov in spiritual pursuits, on Shavuot all are in agreement that a person must eat and drink (see Pesachim 68b).  With regard to the giving of the second luchot, Yom Kippur is a day in which we fast the entire day.  I believe the difference lies in the fact that the first luchot were above nature - it was possible to eat and drink and still remain on the spiritual level required to receive the Torah.  The second luchot were not on such a level, the people would not have been worthy of receiving them without abstaining from this world.


Returning to the level we were on prior to the sin is not an easy task.  Tshuva helps, Hashem promised us that it will and even provided for us the ten days of tshuva and the special day of Yom Kippur for this, but it does not eradicate the damage.  To accomplish this, tshuva must be very deep.  We can learn from here that a person should never think that he can sin, repent, and return to the level he was on.  He will make some strides back on the right path but will remain on a lower level.


During the days of Mordechai and Esther Hashem was angry with the Jews and threatened the Jewish people with annihilation via Haman.  Mordechai and Esther rallied the nation to tshuva which included fasting.  The result was that, thank G-d, Haman was unable to carry out his evil decree.  We celebrate this with the feast of Purim.  However, the Jewish nation did not return to the level they were on.  From where do we see this?  Because only ten years later very few Jewish people wished to follow Ezra into Eretz Yisrael.


This week we observe Purim Katan, followed in a month by Purim.  May we merit Hashem's continuing Providence and miracles, and rise to a higher level culminating with the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash speedily in our day. Amen.

Venue: Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh

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