- Based on the Divrei Torah of Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg zt”l -

A major issue that appears in Ki Sisah is the infamous sin of the eigel ha’zahav, the golden calf. This horrific transgression is one of the worst mistakes that Klal Yisrael has ever made.

The immediate reaction from the Almighty is, “leave Me…and I will destroy them...(32:10).” Indeed, this idolatrous sin was of such a severity that one would naturally expect such a decree from Heaven. Nonetheless, Chazal reveal to us that the phrase “leave Me” was really intended as a hint to Moshe that only if he does not daven on their behalf will Hashem destroy the Jewish People; Hashem was hinting to Moshe that his prayers can save the People1.

Recognizing what was expected of him, Moshe prays fervently on behalf of his People and the decree is averted. However, the sin does not pass entirely unpunished: “…and on the day of My bringing them to task, and I will bring them to task for their sin (32:34).” Rashi explains this to mean that throughout the generations, anytime the Jewish People suffer punishment for having committed a transgression, they will also suffer a little bit of the punishment of what is the deserving repercussion of the sin of the eigel ha’zahav. In every punishment, a little of it is because of this terrible sin.

So, what happened here?

Could it be that after the 10 Plagues, Splitting of the Sea, and, of course, Revelation at Mt Sinai that the Jewish People could all of a sudden believe that a golden statue of a cow is a god? Furthermore, if their transgression was a blatant, crass act of avodah zarah, idol worship, why would it be a result of them thinking that Moshe was late in returning from Har Sinai? The Torah clearly records that the people thought that Moshe was not going to return, and they therefore demanded of Aharon to make them a god who would lead them.

“And the nation saw that Moshe was tarrying from returning from the mountain; and the nation gathered upon Aharon, and they said to him, arise and make for us a god that will go before us, because this man Moshe who brought us up from Mitzrayim, we don’t know what happened to him (32:1).”

Were the Jewish People suddenly under the impression that really Moshe was god such that they would now need to replace him with a new god? Obviously not.

So how do we understand what transpired?

Some interesting passages in the Nevi’im arouse further questions regarding this issue.

In the Book of Kings2, the schism of Kingdom of Israel is recorded. Rechavam succeeded his father, Shlomo, as the sole king of Klal Yisrael. However, because of his imposing heavy taxes on the nation (against the advice of his senior advisers), a rebellion ensued and a man by the name Yaravam (ben Nevat) became king of the ten Shvatim3, and Rechavam remained king over the tribes of Yehudah and Binyamin.

The prophet continues and relates that Yaravam wanted to keep his people away from Yerushalayim and the Beis Ha’Mikdash4. To this end, Yaravam erected a golden calf in the city of Beis El and another in the Dan region. Yaravam then said to the people, “Enough for you from going up to Yerushalayim; behold, here is your lord oh Israel that brought you up from the Land of Egypt5.” This statement is exactly what the mixed multitude who started the eigel ha’zahav in the desert said to the Jews then - “and they said, this is your lord oh Israel that brought you up from the Land of Egypt (32:4).”

One cannot help but be utterly bewildered. If there were any sin that you would think that the Jews would never ever repeat, it would be that of the eigel ha’zahav. A sin that almost brought total destruction upon them and for which they have to suffer throughout the generations, and here they are doing it again?! Yet we find that not only did the People not immediately reject Yaravam’s proposition, but his golden calves continued basically throughout the reign of all the kings of Kingdom of Israel until their exile generations later.

Perhaps even more confounding is the following account. In the second Book of Kings, chapters 8-10, we read that a man by the name Yeihu was commanded through the prophet Elishah6 to wipe out the house of the evil King Achav. Achav and his wife Izevel engaged in an idolatry called ba’al, and used the full force of their reign to spread this idolatry throughout the Jewish People7. As commanded, Yeihu wiped out the house of the evil Achav and thereby merited four generations of kingship. The navi says as follows, “And Hashem said to Yeihu, since you have done well to do the upright…four generations will sit for you on the throne of Yisrael. And Yeihu was not careful to go by the Torah of Hashem the Lord of Yisrael with all his heart [for] he did not turn away from the sins of Yaravam who made Yisrael sin (10:30,31).”

Astonishing!

Yeihu is rewarded handsomely for destroying one form of idolatry while he engaged in a different form of idolatry?!

Obviously, then, the “sins of Yaravam” could not have been simple, crude idolatry.

The resolution to these questions must be that they were not worshipping the golden calf itself. Rather, they were worshipping Hashem, just that they were using the image of the golden calf as a means of having a focus point by which to direct their concentration on Hashem.

Make no mistake, this is indeed a very severe transgression; it is included in the second of the Aseres Ha’Dibros – “You shall not have for yourselves other gods…you shall not make a carving for yourself and any image...(Shmos 20:3,4). Even to make an icon through which to serve Hashem is completely forbidden; it is an offshoot of the general prohibition against idolatry.

Relating to the Creator directly is quite a difficult task. The Almighty is completely transcendent. He is not sensed by our five senses, and he cannot be conceived by the grasp of our minds, even in the most abstract part thereof. He is the absolute of being, He is infinite, He is totally beyond comprehension. Yes, we are able to have awareness that Hashem is, but we cannot grasp what He is. G-d is true, complete, absolute, independent, infinite Being; completely beyond description, completely beyond grasp.

It seems that because of this difficulty in relating to the Almighty Creator, the Jewish People made a subtle, yet grave error and began to relate to Moshe not only as their intermediary for receiving the Torah from Hashem, but also as their intermediary for worshipping Hashem. This was a serious mistake because when it comes to worshipping Hashem, there are no intermediaries. One may not make any image even as a means of a having a point through which to focus on G-d. This is subsumed under the prohibition of idolatry.

Because of this incorrect way of relating to Moshe, when they thought that Moshe was gone, they needed something else to become their point of focus to worship Hashem; thus, the eigel ha’zahav. So, the eigel ha’zahav was not simple, crude idolatry; it was a more subtle form of idolatry – a transgression of using images and icons in the worship of the Infinite One. As such, Yaravam was able to convince his kingdom that only in the Midbar was it wrong for the Jewish People to have the golden calf. They still had Moshe and they should have waited longer. Also, they had a more direct contact, as it were, with the Shechina, the Divine Presence. But, now, claimed Yaravam, it would be permitted and even encouraged to have the golden calves. Likewise, although Yeihu exerted great effort to expunge idolatry, he was nevertheless able to stumble in “the sins of Yaravam” which was a much more subtle form of idolatry of using icons in the worship of Hashem.

The root of the error of using icons in the worship of Hashem is the difficulty in relating to a Being who is not perceived by the senses. Normally, our minds process information that we receive through our senses: by seeing an object’s borders or by smelling the scent of a food, etc. one is able to develop definitions in one’s mind that allow one to grasp the thing or matter at hand. With the Creator, this is impossible. Not even the most exalted angels can know what Hashem is.

When it comes to worship of Hashem it is a matter of, “And you shall know…and you shall return it to your heart that Hashem is the Almighty in the Heavens above and upon the Land below and there is no other (Devarim 4:39).”

We must simply know and be aware that He is; that He is the only true, actual Being, and that He guides the universe, gives laws, reward and punishment, etc. And, ultimately, the goal is to bring that awareness into our emotional state so that we may come to have awe and love for Hashem, pray with feeling, and in general serve Hashem with not only with the awareness of our minds, but also with the devotion of our hearts.

NOTES

1. Brachos 32a

2. Book 1, Chapter 12

3. Usually referred to as Malchus Yisrael, the Kingdom of Israel; but also sometimes referred to as Ephraim, the sheivet of Yaravam. The kingdom of Yehudah and Binyamin controlled by the kings from Beis Dovid was known as Malchus Yehudah, or just Yehudah.

4. Which was located in the area of Malchus Yehudah; furthermore, in the Beis Ha’Mikdash only the king of Malchus Beis Dovid can sit down in the עזרה.

5. Pasuk 28

6. The chief disciple and successor to Eliyahu Ha’Navi.

7. Upon careful reading of these perakim, it becomes clear that they only succeeded in getting a relative handful of a few hundred (or at most a few thousand) people to become worshippers of the ba’al. Relative to their incredibly influential position and the degree of force that they exerted to achieve their aim, this speaks extremely highly of the Jewish People as a whole.