Then they said, ‘This is your god, Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt’ (Shemot 32:4).
In this week’s parashah, the Torah relates one of the darkest events in our history: the sin of the golden calf. We see how the evil inclination scored one of his greatest victories by bringing the generation who stood at Sinai and accepted the Torah to worship an idol and declare, “This is your god, Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Our Torah commentators ask: “How is it possible to go from the heights of spiritual greatness to the depths of sin in such a short time?” Each offers his explanation.
Rashi points out that the passuk says, “This is your god” rather than stating “This is our god.” He explains: “From here we see that it was the erev rav — the great conglomeration — who gathered around Aharon and prevailed upon him to participate in making the calf, and they were the ones who made it. And subsequently they led Israel astray after it.” (Rashi, Shemot 32:4)
People say, “Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are.” It is not necessary for one to do something to reveal one’s value system. One’s circle of friends discloses one’s preferences. The simple fact that a person is drawn to another indicates that one admires the other’s behavior. If one clings to those who adhere to Torah values and mitzvot, one divulges one’s attraction to exemplary behavior.
If, on the other hand, a person socializes with people who throw off the yoke of Torah observance, one exposes one’s spiritual weakness. Our parashah goes even further and teaches that it is not necessary to be “attached” to a wrongdoer to reveal one’s weakness; rather, just assembling with them shows one’s spiritual frailty.
It is safe to add that it was not the People of Israel who initiated the bad mix into its masses. When we left Egypt, we were a nation of pure emunah, and that faith was strengthened days later at the crossing of the sea and reached a peak at Sinai, when we heard the voice of Hashem declaring, “I am G-d Your Lord who freed you from Egypt!”
We did not invite the conglomeration of wicked people to join us. They were inspired to cling to us! Hashem warned Moshe not to accept these refugees, but Moshe felt we could elevate them and bring honor to Hashem’s name through their service unto Him. The error in judgment is emphasized when Hashem told Moshe “your” people have sinned — meaning the ones that you brought along with my sons. The Torah teaches that it is not important whether the bad influence is sought out by its victim or whether the negative influence imposes itself on the innocent. The result is the same: the mixture infects the purity of the good.
It is important to recognize evil in all its disguises. When one senses something is negative to Torah values, one must run to safety. It may be a person or it may be printed matter or visuals on the street. It may come in an electronic form or through invisible waves in the atmosphere. What’s important is to recognize the danger and flee from “bad friends and associates.” If we do our best, then Hashem will “assist” us in this difficult but vital effort.