Why was the Sin of the Golden Calf pardoned and the Sin of the Spies not?
The "Three Weeks" ("Bein HaMeitzarim") hinge upon two axes, the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av. On the Seventeenth of Tammuz the Children of Israel committed the Sin of the Golden Calf; on the Ninth of Av they committed the Sin of the Spies.
Which of these two sins was graver? Taken at face value, the Sin of the Golden Calf appears to have been more severe than the Sin of the Spies, for the Sin of the Golden Calf involved idolatry. Indeed, the sages teach that the Children of Israel were under divine displeasure in the wilderness (Yevamot 72a), and Rashi explains that this was on account of the Sin of the Golden Calf.
However, Tosefot rejects Rashi’s comment, explaining that the Sin of the Golden Calf was pardoned, for Scripture explicitly states, "I have pardoned according to your word" (Numbers 14:20). The reason for God’s divine displeasure, explains Tosefot, was the Sin of the Spies.
Yet the words of Tosefot are perplexing, for "I have pardoned according to your word" refers to the Sin of the Spies, not the Sin of the Golden Calf! What makes matters even more perplexing is the fact that there are numerous Midrashic sources that also explain God’s words, "I have pardoned according to your word," as refering to the Sin of the Golden Calf.
Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiyah ben Manoach) addresses our problem and explains that although God says to Moses "I have pardoned according to your word" at the time of the Sin of the Spies, He is in fact referring to the Sin of the Golden Calf. God says that He forgives Israel for the Sin of the Golden Calf, but now, for the Sin of the Spies, "As truly as I live" I do not forgive (ibid 28).
Why, we must ask, was Israel pardoned the Sin of the Golden Calf but not the Sin of the Spies? After all, as said, logic tells us that the Sin of the Golden Calf, an act of idolatry, was the graver of the two.
The Tzelach (authored by the "Nodah B'Yehudah") answers this question. The Talmud tells us about a pair of sages who journeyed to Assya in order to intercalate the year - R’ Chiyya ben Zarnuki and R’ Shimon ben Yehotzadak. They were joined by Reish Lakish.
It was the Sabbatical Year (Shmittah), and on their way they encountered a man who was plowing. Reish Lakish became enraged. How can a person plow during the rest-year? The other two sages, however, defended the plower’s behavior: Perhaps he is working as a tenant farmer for a non-Jew? Some time later they came across a person pruning his vineyard. Once again Reish Lakish became angered, and once again the other sages came to his defense: Perhaps he has no intention of improving the vines but only wishes to make a bale for the wine-press.
Reish Lakish continued to accompany the two, and when they reached their destination the two sages said to each other, "This person is nothing but trouble." Then they ascended to the upper chamber and removed the ladder. Reish Lakish went to R’ Yochanan and asked him, "Are people suspected of trespassing Sabbatical laws qualified to intercalate the year?"
The Tzelach asks: Why did Reish Lakish continue accompanying the two sages after they defended the plower and the pruner? Why did he only take up God's cause after they offended him?
In order to solve this problem, the Tzelach invokes the verse "He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them are abomination to the Lord" (Proverbs 17:15). It is possible to understand a person who defends the wicked, for numerous sources teach us that it is virtuous to give the benefit of the doubt to the wicked. And, on the other hand, if somebody accuses a righteous person of being wicked, he apparently is burning with zeal for God. However, if you find somebody who both defends the wicked and incriminates the righteous - this is an abomination to God.
The Jerusalem Talmud says: "It is impossible to grasp the nature of this people: When they are called upon to donate to the Sanctuary, they donate; when they are called upon to donate to the Golden Calf, they donate." Israel reflects the words of the verse, "A simple person believes anything" (Proverbs 14:15). By contrast, there are also those with the opposite trait, people who are suspicious of everything.
However, if on the one hand Israel believes in the Golden Calf, and on the other hand at the Sin of the Spies they are guilty of lacking faith, this is an abomination. In its own right, the Sin of the Golden Calf is pardonable; after the Sin of the Spies, however, it is clear that there is no room for pardon.
The Zohar asks how this is possible in light of the fact that the letters "yod" and "heh" are more lofty than the letters "vav" and "heh," and, as Ramban points out, the positive commandments are dearer to God than the negative commandments. (This is evidenced by the fact that when the two collide, preference must be given to the positive commandment, for the positive commandments give expression to our love for God while the negative commandments give expression to our fear of God.) We would have expected, then, for the bond between the commandments and the letters of God's name to have been the opposite! Our solution to this puzzle is based upon the answer given by Mahari Vital.
The sages of the Talmud are divided over the question of whether or not commandments need to be performed with specific intention (kavana). Baal HaMeor (R' Zerachiah HaLevy) rules that they do not need proper intention. The law in actual practice, however, is that they do. In his Nefesh HaChaim, R' Chaim of Volozhin explains at length that the essence of positive commandments is the action carried out. Intention is but a condition, and the sages debated over the necessity of this condition.
Therefore, even if a pious kabbalist entertains exceedingly sublime intentions, if the commandment is not fulfilled in keeping with Jewish law his actions are without value. On the other hand, if a person carries out a commandment in keeping with Jewish law yet with no particular intention whatsoever, some authorities say that the lack of intention invalidates the commandment and others say that it does not. At any rate, intention does not constitute the essence of the commandment.
The Mishnah says that "whoever sits and does not transgress is rewarded as if he had fulfilled a commandment." For example, if a person refrains from eating a carcass ("nevela") he is credited with fulfilling the negative commandment "You shall not eat of any carcass" (Deuteronomy 14:21). And so the question arises, if a person refrains from carcass meat for reasons other than the prohibition, has he fulfilled the commandment?
Rashi says no, the commandment is fulfilled only when a person refrains due to the Torah's admonition. Therefore, the Talmud says, "Due not say, 'It is impossible to eat pork'; rather say, 'It is entirely possible, but what can I do, the Torah has placed it off limits to me.' " Though the Talmud says that such a person is rewarded, and even a lazy person who does not do any work on Passover eve is rewarded, no positive commandment has been fulfilled here.
We find, then, that positive commandments are essentially fulfilled with one's limbs, and negative commandments are fulfilled primarily in the hidden, private realm of the heart. This is precisely the difference between the letters in God's name. According to the Zohar, the letters "yod" and "heh" represent the hidden, inner realm; the letters "vav" and "heh" represent the revealed, outer realm. And now we can understand why the 365 negative commandments are represented by the "yod" and "heh" of God's name and the 248 positive commandments are represented by the "vav" and "heh" in God's name.
Widening the Perimeters of Sanctity
The Talmud states (Shabbat 118a): "He who delights in the Sabbath is given an unbounded heritage, for it is written, 'Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord, and I will make thee to ride upon the high places of the earth; and I will feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father.' Not like Abraham, of whom it is written, 'Arise, walk through the land in the length of it'; nor like Isaac of whom it is written, 'Unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these lands'; but like Jacob, of whom it is written, 'Thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south.' "
In the Balak Torah portion (Numbers 22:2-25:9) we are told that Bilaam's donkey came to a halt three time, and the third time was in a narrow space. Rashi writes, in the name of the Midrash, that the donkey "showed him signs of the three Patriarchs." What this means is that the donkey showed Bilaam that from the perspective of Abraham and Isaac, he has power over Israel and the capacity to curse them, but not from the perspective of Jacob. This idea is also brought in the Vilna Gaon's work Aderet Eliyahu.
In the Torah, it is written that Bilaam sacrificed a bull and a ram, but it is not written that he offered up a lamb. Rashi writes elsewhere that the bull represents Abraham, the ram represents Isaac, and the lamb represents Jacob. Bilaam, them, did not sacrifice a lamb because he has no control over Israel from the perspective of Jacob.
Jacob merited an inheritance without bounds, but - "God hath made even the one as well as the other" (Ecclesiastes 7:14) - impurity strives to widen its bounds. Not unlike neighboring countries, purity and impurity experience border conflicts, and each aspires to extend its borders at the expense of his neighbor. If we merit so much, sanctity presses its opponent into a narrow space, and if we do not merit so much, sanctity itself is pressed into a narrow space.
This is the meaning of the Three Weeks, "Yemei Bein HaMeitzarim" (literally, "the days between the straits"). During this period, sanctity has been confined to a narrow space and this state of affairs must be rectified by widening sanctity's perimeters. How is this done? To add positive commandments is nearly impossible - would that we could fulfill those we have already been commanded. The principal option that remains for widening sanctity's boarders is that of the duties of the hidden, private realm of the heart. But how?
The Shulchan Arukh writes that all of a person's actions should be performed with the intention of serving God, i.e., a person should strive to sanctify his physical actions with pure intentions. "He who delights in the Sabbath" - This refers to one who takes things that please the body, food and drink, and infuses them with sanctity. In this manner he widens the bounds of sanctity and therefore merits a "boundless inheritance."
At any rate, we have learned that there are two components: the external duties of the limbs, with which there is practically no way of widening the boundaries of sanctity, and the inner duties of the heart. "From the straits I called upon the Lord ("Yah"); the Lord answered me and set me free" (Psalms 118:5) - the widening of sanctity's boundaries comes through "Yah" - the letters "yod" and "heh."
Attributes of Mercy
In Kavanot HaAri it is written that during the first blessing of the Amidah prayer a person should focus his thoughts on a certain Divine name that is spelled "tet," "dalet," "heh," "dalet." This is in fact God's name, except that each letter has been replaced by the letter that precedes it in the Hebrew alphabet. Bnei Yissachar explains this:
Moses mentions God's attributes of mercy on two different occasions - at the Sin of the Golden Calf he mentions thirteen attributes, and at the Sin of the Spies he mentions nine. The Three Weeks may be divided in a parallel manner. The Seventeenth to twenty-ninth of Tammuz parallels the Sin of the Golden Calf, and the second part, the first to the Ninth of Av, parallels the Sin of the Spies. From the first of Av, we begin to curtail joy, our grief intensifies and we enter nine days of mourning that parallel the nine attributes of mercy that Moses mentions at the Sin of the Spies.
Why doesn't Moses mention all thirteen divine attributes of mercy at the Sin of the Spies? The numerical value of "tet" and "dalet" is thirteen; "heh" and "dalet" are nine. Rabbi Judah HaLevi in The Kuzari explains that in the Sin of the Golden Calf the Israelites had proper intentions but their actions had not been commanded by God. The only difference between the Golden Calf and the Golden Cherubs on the Holy Ark is that the cherubs were created according to divine command. This is why they are in the Holy of Holies. The Golden Calf was not commanded and therefore it is idolatry. Therefore, the Midrash states, "The gold of the Ark cover comes to atone for the gold of the [Golden] Calf."
Aaron the Priest was punished for the Sin of the Golden Calf through the death of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, when they offered a "strange fire" that had not been commanded by God. Divine prosecution was awakened at this time because it was the same sin. Their intention was favorable but the action was a sin, for God had not commanded it.
In the case of the Sin of the Spies, on the other hand, it was the hidden, private realm of the heart that was corrupted: "And you murmured in your tents, and said, 'Because the Lord hated us, he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us' " (Deuteronomy 1:27), and Rashi writes regarding this, "He loved you, but you hated him" - you fabricated lies against Him based upon what was in your hearts.
To summarize, the Sin of the Spies was a sin that stemmed from within the heart; the Sin of the Golden Calf stemmed from bodily action. Therefore, the Sin of the Golden Calf was atoned for but the Sin of the Spies was not. The Sin of the Spies stemmed from the heart. This is why Moses cannot mention all thirteen attributes of mercy at the Sin of the Spies - on that occasion Israel blemish the "inner" letters.
Between Mourning Dead and Mourning Destruction
The nature of mourning over the Temple's destruction is opposite that of mourning the dead. Our grief over the destruction grows in intensity. Throughout the year we do and say things which recall the destruction of the Holy Temple. Our mourning grows on the Seventeenth of Tammuz and further intensifies from the first of Av. Next comes the week of the Ninth of Av, which is even more severe, and finally the Ninth of Av itself - the height of our mourning. By contrast, when mourning the dead the process is runs an opposite course: Prior to the burial of the dead mourning is most severe, then there are three days of weeping, the Shiva, the thirty day period, and the first year. Each of these stages wanes in intensity. Why is this?
The Talmud (Sukkah 25a) says that although a person who is in the process of fulfilling one religious obligation is exempt from others, a mourner is obligated in all of the Torah's commandments, for "his concern is an optional matter." Rashi explains that "although, as a show of respect for his deceased, such a person is obligated to adhere to the mourning practices that relate to wearing shoes, bathing, and applying ointments, he is not actually obligated to grieve." From Rashi's comment we discover that mourning the dead is essentially a performance.
Rambam writes that there is really no reason to mourn, for the dead continue to exist, and the reason for mourning is that it bestows honor on the deceased. For this reason, Jewish law teaches that if there are no consolers, there is no mourning. And when it happens that a person dies who has no mourners, people are hired to act as mourners, and others come to console them.
Mourning the Temple's destruction, on the other hand, must be internal. A person cannot simply jump into the Ninth of Av. One must enter it gradually in order that his mourning be earnest. This is why the intensity of our mourning over the Temple's destruction grows gradually.
Translated biblical verses and/or Talmudic sources in the above article may have been taken from, or based upon, Davka's Soncino Judaic Classics Library (CD-Rom).