Ki Tisa(Exodus 30:11-34:35)
The Punishment Due To the Golden Calf
The sin of the Golden Calf is one of the most difficult episodes in the Torah. There is much discussion about how the great generation who lived in the desert could commit such a terrible sin so soon after the Giving of the Torah. One less commonly discussed aspect of this terrible incident is the way in which God punished the Jewish people for the sin. Immediately after it, God says to Moses,"Behold, My Angel shall go before you..." (1) Rashi explains that this is a punishment; up to this time, God Himself would guide the Jewish people in the desert, but from now on, only an angel would guide them.
The Rabbis teach us that God punishes measure for measure, which means that the nature of the punishment can help us understand the nature of the sin. What was the measure for measure in this punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf?
In order to understand this we must first briefly discuss how the Jewish people could commit a sin that seems to constitute idol worship. The commentaries explain that they did not intend to worship an idol, rather they wanted the calf to be an intermediary between themselves and God. When they thought that Moses had died they panicked; they believed that they could not have a direct relationship with God, rather they needed an intermediary to communicate with Him on their behalf. This was not a denial of God, rather it was an erroneous belief that some kind of being was needed to represent them before Him and convey His teachings and beneficence to them.(2)
With this explanation we can now understand the root cause of the Golden Calf. The Jewish people came to this belief that they needed an intermediary because on a subtle level they did not desire a direct relationship with God. This was not the first time in which this failing was apparent; at the Giving of the Torah, after God spoke directly to the people for the first two mitzvot, they asked that God no longer communicate directly with them. Rather, He should communicate to Moses and Moses should pass on what God said to them. In Parshas Va'eschanan, Moses rebuked them for this seemingly innocuous request. Rashi tells us that Moses said to them, "I was pained and disappointed by you. He exclaimed; would it not have been better for you to learn directly from God's mouth than to learn from me?!" (3)
It was this underlying fear of a direct relationship with God that was responsible for the terrible course of events that culminated in the Golden Calf. The measure for measure punishment for this was that there would now be an intermediary Angel guiding them instead of their being under direct guidance from God Himself.
Later in the parsha we see a stark contrast to this in the attitude of Moses himself. Having successfully pleaded for God to spare the Jewish people, Moshe saw that it was a time when his words were being received. At this moment, he had the opportunity to make any request of God. What did he choose to ask for? "Please show me Your Glory." (4) He asked for the ability to perceive God on a greater level than even he had ever experienced: Moses primary goal was to gain more awareness of, and closeness to, God.
The incidents in the Torah are not merely there to offer interesting reading - both the positive and negative actions of the people in the Torah provide us with lessons about our own life. On a subtle level, the generation of the desert were lacking in their desire for a direct relationship with God and as a consequence they became overly reliant upon intermediaries. How does this flaw affect us? Sometimes we can be so involved with our routine service of God that we can forget about God Himself. Just like the generation of the desert overly focused on intermediaries we can sometimes 'miss the forest for the trees' and be so focused on the means with which we should get close to God but we forget that they are just means and not an end in itself.
Leading rabbis of previous generations spoke at length on this matter and the need to set aside time to focus on developing fear of God. They stressed the necessity of spending a short amount of time before learning to contemplate God so that the learning would be infused with the correct attitude. He even wrote that a person can stop in the middle of his learning and reflect on God, "before the awareness of God in his heart will be extinguished." (5)
It is also possible to place performance of mitzvot as the ultimate goal in place of closeness to God. Of course, one must strive to observe the mitzvot as well as possible and there is no way of truly becoming close to God without keeping them. Judaism does not believe the meditation and contemplation alone is enough - Judaism is a value system that stresses actions as well as belief. Yet, one must be careful that he avoid performing the commandments with little or no thought of God and think that he has fulfilled the mitzvah to a satisfactory level. With regard to this it is pertinent to remember the words of the Ramban (Nachmanides) in parshas Bo: "The purpose of all the mitzvot is that we believe in our God and that we acknowledge that He is our God, and that is the purpose of creation, because there is no other reason for creation, and the only thing that God wants from us is that we know and acknowledge that He created us." (6)
There are a number of simple ways through which we can avoid the pitfall of forgetting that the purpose of all our spiritual service is to develop our relationship with God. The most obvious is to study books that discuss such topics as Emuna (belief), bitachon (trust) or prayer. On a more practical level, Rav Dov Brezak Shlita writes that he asked one of the leading Rabbis how one could work on becoming more aware of God. His simple answer was that we should pray for anything that we want - even for mundane matters, things that may be of no spiritual significance. For example, if we are waiting for a bus and want it to come sooner we should ask God to make it happen. This exercise can help us develop a constant awareness that God is with us. If we possess such an awareness then we are far more likely to remember God during spiritual pursuits such as learning Torah.(7)
There are numerous lessons to be learnt from the incident of the Golden Calf. One of the most important is to remember that we do have the ability to have a direct relationship with God and that everything else is secondary to this goal.
1. Ki Sisa, 32:34.
2. See Artscroll Chumash, p.493.
3. Rashi, Va'eschanan, 5:24.
4. Ki Sisa, 33:18.
5. Nefesh HaChaim, Shaar 4, Perek 7.
6. Ramban, Bo, 13:16.
7. Chinuch in Turbulent Times, p.167.