Ki Tisa(Exodus 30:11-34:35)
Going Beyond the Boundaries
Shemos, 32:6: They arose early the next day and offered up elevation offerings and brought peace offerings. The people sat to eat and drink, and they got up to revel (letzachek).
Rashi, 32:6: sv. To revel (le'tzachek): This word [letzachek] implies immorality, and [it implies] murder ... so too here Chur was killed.
In addition to the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf, Rashi tells us that other serious sins accompanied the main transgression: (1) immorality and murder. Rashi, quoting the Midrash Tanchuma, explains that the word, 'letzachek' implies these two cardinal sins.(2) The root word of 'letzachek' is tzchok - which most commonly means laughter - what is the connection between the generally positive concept of 'laughter' and the terrible sins of immorality and murder?!
The Maharal explains that tzchok takes place when something unexpected occurs which happens when the boundaries of normalcy are broken(3) - this is what brings about laughter. Accordingly, tzchok can refer to any situation where normal boundaries are broken. This explains the diverse use of this word: Immorality breaks the accepted boundaries of relationships, and murder breaks the boundaries of acceptable interaction between man and his fellow. Similarly, idol worship is also described as tzchok as it breaks the boundaries of acceptable worship. One may ask that all sins represent breaking of boundaries of acceptable behavior, therefore why are these sins in particular called tzchok?
The answer, based on the words of the Maharal,(4) is that these three sins represent the antipathy of the three pillars on which the world stands: Torah, Avoda (Divine Service), and Gemilut Chasadim (acts of kindness). These three pillars represent the three basic ways in which a person relates to HaShem; Bein Adam LeMakom (between man and God), Bein Adam Lechaveiro (between man and man), and Bein Adam Leatzmo (between man and himself). All sins involve damage to one or more of these pillars to some extent, but these three involve the most drastic defiling of these pillars, therefore they are viewed as constituting the most extreme form of totally breaking of boundaries.(5)
We can now understand why tzchok is used to refer to the most serious sins. Yet it should be noted that the breaking of boundaries expressed by the root word 'tzchok' also has positive connotations. The root of the second of the Avos, Yitzchak Avinu, is tzchok. What is the connection between Yitzchak and tzchok? The simple understanding of this is that Sarah expressed her joy at finally giving birth. But on a deeper level, it represents the fact that Yitzchak's birth broke all the boundaries of nature; Sarah was infertile - it was only by God taking Avraham and Sarah above the limits of nature that Yitzchak was born.(6)
We have seen how breaking boundaries in the wrong way can have disastrous consequences - it is our job to observe the correct boundaries in our spiritual growth. Yet at the same time we when we view God's actions with His nation, there are no boundaries at all in what He can do for us.
1. See the commentaries who point out that only a small number of people actually worshipped the Calf, but others viewed it as an intermediary between them and HaShem - this did not constitute idol worship but was still a grievous sin.
2. Rashi in Bereishis, 21:9 adds that the root, 'tzchok' also implies the other cardinal sin; that of idol worship.
3. Maharal, Vayeira, 21:9, os 4.
4. Derech Chaim, Avos, 1:2. See commentary of Rav Yehoshua Hartman shlit"a, Vayeira, 21:9, os 39.
5. This may also help explain why these three sins are the only ones for which someone has to give up his life for rather than commit; they break unacceptable boundaries in one's behavior.
6. Interestingly, the root tzchok is mentioned numerous times with different meanings, in Parshas Vayeira.