Lessons from the Golden Calf

When Moshe Rabbeinu returned to earth and discovered the Golden Calf, one of the first steps he took — after dropping and shattering the Luchos he had brought down with him — was to burn up the Golden Calf and grind it into a powder. He then strewed its ashes in water and gave the mixture to Bnei Yisrael to drink.

Like all metals, gold does not burn — it melts when exposed to heat. So how did Moshe Rabbeinu “burn” it? Furthermore, why didn’t the calf ’s supporters come storming to its defense? After all, their deity was being destroyed before their very eyes.

One explanation is that when Moshe Rabbeinu saw what had occurred, he addressed the gold directly. “How did you, elevated by Hakadosh Baruch Hu to be the most precious of metals, allow yourself to become an avodah zarah?”

At that moment, the glitter of the Golden Calf disappeared, and it turned into a dry piece of wood. The dramatic change in its appearance dissuaded its followers from mounting a defense. And with its new combustible texture it was easily burned, and its ashes ground into a fine powder.

The ashes, dissolved in water, were given to Bnei Yisrael to drink as a test. According to many explanations, it was solely the Erev Rav, the foreign element that had been allowed to join Bnei Yisrael as they left Mitzrayim, who had in fact worshipped the egel. The descendants of Yaakov Avinu passed this test and survived.

Shortly thereafter, they merited building the Mishkan, nearly all of whose larger keilim were at least partially made of gold. Though Bnei Yisrael gave generously for the building of the Mishkan, the donations of gold — its full weight is recorded in the Torah — could not have sufficed for all the vessels. Chazal teach us that the amount of gold increased miraculously. Now that it was being used for a good purpose, not only did it remain a gleaming precious metal, but it even multiplied (adapted from Sifsei Kohen).

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Perhaps the only facet of the story of the egel that we can grasp is the fact that it is beyond our comprehension — but what we do know is that a devastating calamity occurred, whose reverberations we feel to this very day.

However, there are lessons we can draw from its aftermath.

Following the catastrophe Moshe Rabbeinu declared: “Whoever is for Hashem, to me,” and the members of the virtuous Shevet Levi gathered around him.

“So said Hashem, Elokei Yisrael,” Moshe Rabbeinu told them, “let them place, every man, his sword on his thigh and pass back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and let them kill every man his brother, every man his fellow and every man his relative.”

The Slonimer Rebbe, the Divrei Shmuel, zy”a, as well as the Beis Yisrael of Gur, zy”a, note that the Ribbono Shel Olam refers to Himself in this passuk as Elokei Yisrael, the G-d of Yisrael.

This teaches us a powerful lesson: Even at such a tragic moment in our history, a time when a devastating sin had been committed, Hashem still remained Elokei Yisrael. Hakadosh Baruch Hu, the Creator and ruler of every entity and being, continued to affiliate Himself — so to speak — solely with His beloved children, Bnei Yisrael.

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This concept is also apparent in another part of this parashah. Among the mandatory ingredients of the ketores was the chelbenah, which had a very unpleasant odor. The Gemara states that this component of the ketores represented the sinners of Klal Yisrael, and that “a public fast without Jewish sinners is not considered a fast.”

Not only are the gates of repentance open at all times to every single Jew, no matter how far he has strayed from the path, but his teshuvah — as part of the unified Am Yisrael — is a crucial element of achieving a yeshuah.

What a great source of chizuk! Regardless of how low on the ladder of spirituality one finds oneself, a Yid must realize the major role he or she plays within Klal Yisrael.

Klal Yisrael is a single entity comprised of many components, and each part is crucial to the existence of the whole.

Even after the calamity of the egel, Hashem still remained Elokei Yisrael, and even when a Yid has wandered far from his roots he remains a beloved — albeit wayward — child.

Unlike the gold that lost its glitter once it became an egel, there remains a part of a Jewish soul that will continue to shine even when he has slipped into the spiritual abyss. There is always the spark, that tiny flame of holiness that can never be extinguished. With this spark comes the call to return.

Avodas Hashem is not reserved for those who are commonly considered tzaddikim. All of us are obligated to draw close to Hashem, all of us have the opportunity to do so, and all of us can enjoy the blessings of this closeness.