Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Ki Tisa
To dedicate this lesson

The Sin of the Golden Calf and the World Wars

Originally adapted from Rav Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook's classes, in honor of the 40th anniversary of Rav Tzvi Yehuda's death this week)

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Rabbi Eliyahu Maman

Adar I 17 5782
Translated and adapted by Hillel Fendel

The Sin of the Golden Calf is certainly the most blatant and central story in this week's Torah portion of Ki Tisa. And when exactly did this terrible act take place? Right in the middle of the process of the Giving of the Torah! What joy there was when the Torah was given, not only for Israel, but for the entire world! Yet it was catastrophically marred by a terrible confusion, misunderstanding of reality, and entrapment by the Evil Inclination.

Rabbi Yehuda Halevy, in his famous work The Kuzari (1,97), taught that this terrible sin was not actually real idol-worship. Other great early scholars also took this approach, including the Rashbam, Ramban, HaChinukh, Or HaChaim, and others. Much later, the Shem MiShmuel, who died a century ago, wrote: "On the innermost levels, Israel did not sin… only externally." That is, it looks like idol-worship, but there is a very slight difference.

In any event, from our standpoint, Israel displayed a terrible weakness with this sin, and it certainly was a great obstacle on the nation's way to Redemption. We remained stuck in the middle: we did not forget G-d (see Tehillim 9,18), but on the other hand, "Moshe the man who brought us up out of Egypt – we don't know what has happened to him" (Sh'mot 32,1). They needed something actual, something physical, a god that "will walk before us" (ibid.). They wanted something to hold on to.

This "small-minded" thinking, for a nation about which G-d said, "This nation I created for Myself" (Yeshayahu 43,21), is a "great iniquity" (Sh'mot 32,22-30), and a bombshell for that time and for generations after. This terrible failure led to weakness for generations, and "on the day I take account, I will remember and punish their sin" (verse 34); the Gemara (Sanhedrin 102a) explains that a slight fraction of every punishment that is visited upon Israel is a payback for the Sin of the Golden Calf. Something of this sin has to be cleansed in every generation. From this terrible mess, the order of our history was disturbed, and our grasp on Eretz Yisrael was impeded. As Rav Avraham Kook zt"l wrote in Orot during World War I while he was in Europe (having been prevented by the war conditions from returning to Eretz Yisrael) and witness to the intense suffering there:

"If not for the Sin of the Calf, the nations dwelling in Eretz Yisrael at the time would have made peace with Israel and acknowledged that the Land belonged to the Jewish Nation, because G-d's name proclaimed upon Israel would have awakened within them an awe of the Divine majesty. There would then have been no type of war, and this positive influence would have been manifest only in ways of peace, as in the days of the Messiah. It was only because of this sin that this was delayed by thousands of years. But all the circumstances work together to bring the light of G-d to the world, and the Sin of the Calf will be erased totally, and all who see Israel will then recognize them as the blessed of G-d, and the world will be rectified in a manner of peace and love, and the pleasantness of G-d will be felt in every heart…"

From where did Rav Kook draw this idea that the Sin of the Calf is the cause of continued warfare in the world? What else are we carrying upon and within ourselves from the Sin of the Calf and from its time-elapsing punishment that prevents us even today from having the gentiles in Eretz Yisrael make true peace with Israel and the G-d of Israel?

The answer is that the Sages of the Midrash (Sh'mot Rabba 32,1) said it straight out: "If Israel had only waited [a few more hours] for Moshe to descend from Sinai, and not done that act [of the Sin of the Calf], there would not have been any Exiles, and neither the idol-worshipers and their ilk nor the Angel of Death would have control over them."

If not for this sin, the peoples living here at the time would have willingly given the Land to its true, G-d-assigned owners, Israel. They would have recognized Israel's innate spiritual virtues, and realized that the Land is therefore theirs. But this can only happen when Israel is truly on an appropriate spiritual level. When the Sin of the Calf occurred, the gentiles had no reason to concede the Land to Israel, seeing as Israel did not seem to be spiritually superior – and then began the wars. The Maharsha, in his commentary to Sanhedrin 91b, explains that the only reason the Canaanites of Africa or the Ishmaelites have any claim to the Land is because Israel did not keep its part of the covenant with G-d and did not observe the commandments – and this is the reason for the past and present wars.

But when the goyim will see our integrity and honesty and good traits, they will never seek to claim the Land, and the wars will be obviated. And all this is rooted in the original Sin of the Golden Calf, which lowered Israel from its true level; without G-d's name borne upon Israel, arousing awe of G-d's majesty, wars come instead.

Thus, Israel's Redemption was made to wait thousands of years until after the Sin of the Calf was totally cleansed and atoned for. Until then, it brought about wars – but on the other hand, the wars are what cause the erasure and atonement of the sin. And thus, from amid all the World Wars, Israel's purifying salvation will arise, and then its pure roots will be exalted for all the nations to see and derive inspiration, and Israel will be recognized as spiritually superior.

Israel's Redemption will bring on its wings the tiding of redemption not only for Israel, but for the entire world. When all recognize the greatness of God's majesty, this will bring about the complete and final rectification, and the world will function with uprightness, integrity, and peace, and feelings of love for one another will sprout up amid the hearts of all. The Divine Presence will then shower pleasantness upon all, with spirit replete with the enjoyment of G-d, and all souls will become increasingly refined and gentle, filled with life directly from the G-d of all worlds.

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