Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Ki Tisa
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Parshat Ki Tissa

,Shabbat The Sin of the Golden Calf


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

1. Shabbat
2. The Sin of the Golden Calf

God commanded Moshe Rabeinu to warn the Children of Israel to observe the Shabbat, saying: "Observe my Sabbaths, since the Sabbath is a sign between Myself and yourselves for the rest of your generations, the goal of which is to know that I am your God who sanctifies you." In his command, God stresses that Shabbat is a private, intimate sign, that connects the people of Israel with Him, their God.

The unique symbol of Shabbat links the People of Israel with the Holy One, Blessed Be He; it is a symbol that asserts the sanctity of the Jewish people, and contains within it the "Neshama Yeteira" - the extra soul, gifted to each Jewish person with the onset of Shabbat, a soul that is taken from each Jew once again after the conclusion of the Holy day. The soul is not a concrete, substantive entity. Nevertheless, people who live more spiritual lives can quite strongly sense the "extra soul" that arrives with the Shabbat.

The extra soul is a hidden sign, a silent link between Israel and God, a sign that testifies not only to the holiness of the Sabbath - but also to the holiness of the people. Not only is Shabbat referred to as "holy", - but the people of Israel are, as well...

Shabbat conveys not simply a particular, Jewish message. It contains an additional dimension that links God to the world as a whole - a universal symbol, worn by the Jewish people, but certainly relevant to all of the nations of the world. "It is an eternal sign, that in six days, God created the Heavens and the Earth and on the seventh day, He rested".

The classic Torah commentary, Ohr Hachayim, cites the passage in the Torah that says: "But My Sabbaths keep," and notes the rabbinical teaching that the word, "but" is to be understood as an exclusionary term. Applied in this regard, we may deduce that there are situations in which we are not commanded to observe the Sabbath. For instance, when a Jew is in danger, we are permitted to desecrate the Sabbath to save his life. The foundation of this halacha lies in the Divine assertion that the holiness of even one Jewish soul is greater than the sanctity of the Shabbat. This is so since the Jewish people are the prime performers of God's will in the world. Put another way, the Jewish people are the medium through which the honor of God is brought into the world. The holiness of man is greater than the holiness of the Sabbath, since without Israel, there is no meaning to mitzvot. It is preferable to desecrate one Sabbath on behalf of a Jew, so that he can observe many Shabbatot...

The Sin of the Golden Calf
Our sages teach that King David only stumbled into the sin with Bat-Sheva in order to teach the Jewish people the proper path to individual Teshuva, to repentance. So, too, they teach, the Children of Israel only committed the sin of the Golden Calf in order to teach an entire community how to repent.

At first blush, it seems that the sin of the Golden Calf is the most severe nation-wide sin imaginable. It is a an act of rebellion against God, a sin committed at the holiest moment of Jewish national life to that point in time. After our people left Egypt amidst Divinely-directed signs and wonders - to the point in which "a maidservant perceived at the splitting of the sea what the prophet Yechezkel did not even see during his vision of the Divine chariot" - after the lofty experience of standing at Sinai, Israel committed this treacherous rebellion against its God. Our sages compared the sin to the infedility of a bride under her wedding canopy.

Many commentators have attempted to minimize the severity of the sin. One example that comes to mind is that of Rabbi Yehuda Halevy in his classic work, the Kuzari. Despite these efforts at defending the nation, there remains no doubt that the making of the Golden calf was a horrific sin, the sin of an entire community that permitted a minority in its midst to prompt it to rebel against God.

And yet the sin must have served some purpose in Jewish history. Because of the difficulty in the notion that a nation that reached such lofty heights could carelessly permit a minority element to lead it to such an awful sin - we are forced to conclude that the sin must have been part of a clear Divine plan - ie: to teach the nation how to repent.

Our sages say that repentance preceded the world. In other words, repentance, teshuva, is a not a natural process. A penitent must overcome his own natural tendencies and return to his Creator wholeheartedly. We can therefore only learn proper teshuva from specific, unique people - those connected to the Divine source more than others. Only the teshuva of these quite unique people can serve as a model for those that live after them. The generation that left Egypt was a generation of great wisdom, a people that witnessed the Divine Providence that produced the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, the experience at Sinai. This was the first generation of the nation of Israel; it therefore was awarded the honor of teaching its descendants the art of Teshuva. King David was the first king of the long, permanent chain of kings that fulfilled Ya'akov's blessing that the "staff should not depart from the tribe of Yehuda." As such, he was destined to be the first to teach the Jew the art of personal teshuva.

In this light, we can classify the sin of the Golden Calf as not a true "fall"; it was not substantive, but just a result of confusion, a foolishness that overtook a nation impatiently awaiting its leader, Moshe. In one rabbinic passage, in fact, our sages compare the sin of the calf to an unfaithful wife's intimacy with - a eunich! In other words, the sin was not substantive... In our generation, as well, when we observe all of the spiritual lows that many are reaching, we are confident of the path of repentance; we believe that all of the spiritual "nosedives" afflicting individuals and entire communities today people are merely fleeting, and that the path towards teshuva is just a step away...
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