A Stubborn Nation

V’yadata ki lo b’tzidkascha Hashem Elokecha nosein lecha es ha’aretz hatovah hazos l’rishtah ki am kshei oref atah (Devarim 9:6)

A mere 40 days after accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people committed the worst sin in the history of their nation: the making and worship of the golden calf. Hashem’s preliminary reaction was to create a new nation which would be descended from Moshe (Shemos 32:8–10), a plan which was fortunately rejected as a result of Moshe’s fervent prayers on their behalf.

Curiously, Harav Shalom Schwadron points out that a careful reading of these verses reveals that even this terrible sin didn’t arouse sufficient Divine wrath to warrant the annihilation of the Jewish people. Only after Hashem added that they were a stiff-necked people did He conclude that they were deserving of eradication. Although stubbornness is an undesirable trait, how can its severity be compared to the grievous sin of the golden calf, and how can we understand that this was the primary cause of Hashem’s initial decree?

Harav Shalom answers that no matter how grave a sin a person may commit, it is always possible to correct his ways. However, this is dependent upon his willingness to critically examine his ways. Hashem noted that, besides having committed a terrible sin, the Jewish people were also stubborn and inflexible, so now there was no chance that they would be willing to admit the error of their ways. Only at this point was their fate sealed.

Some people really do not accept rebuke. At one time, certain bus routes in Yerushalayim were separated by gender for reasons of modesty. Late one stormy Friday afternoon, an expectant woman missed the last bus for women before Shabbos. When the final men’s bus approached, she attempted to board. A fanatical man on the bus began vocally protesting her “immodesty.” One of the other passengers attempted to defend her, asking the extremist, “What about the law prohibiting the public embarrassment of another Jew?” The zealot turned to the other passenger and responded, “You’re right, so why are you embarrassing me?”

This lesson can also be applied to marriage. When considering a person as a prospective spouse, the Chazon Ish advised that it is impossible to completely examine every attribute, viewpoint, and philosophy of the person in question. Therefore, in addition to making a good-faith effort to clarify the most important issues, it is also critical to find out whether the person is intransigent in his thinking.

No matter how similar and well-matched two people may seem, there will inevitably arise differences of opinion and style in confronting life’s challenges. As long as each person is open-minded and flexible, willing to listen to and understand the viewpoint of the other and then reconsider his own, this needn’t be a cause for concern. However, if one spouse is stubborn and set in his ways, refusing to even consider alternate viewpoints, this presents a tremendous danger to the future peace and harmony in his home, and the Chazon Ish advised that one stay far away from such a match.

Although many of us go through life convinced that we are always correct (and wondering when those around us will finally realize it), the lesson of the golden calf is that more important than the propriety of our deeds is our willingness to question them, maturely admit when we are wrong, and attempt to improve and learn from our mistakes.

Q: Moshe recounted that he descended from Mount Sinai with the second set of Tablets after spending an additional 40 days on the mountain (10:5). Rashi writes (Shemos 34:29) that this took place on Yom Kippur. How was he permitted to carry the Tablets from the mountain, which is a private domain, to the Jewish camp, a public domain, on Yom Kippur?

A: In discussing a different question, the Ramban writes that Moshe descended from the mountain with the second set of Tablets on the day after Yom Kippur. The Rivash maintains that the Jews weren’t obligated to observe the Yamim Tovim until after the Mishkan was erected, in which case the restrictions of Yom Kippur were not yet in effect at this time. The Panim Yafos answers that Hashem gave the Tablets to Moshe after he began walking, in which case Moshe was Biblically permitted to carry them to the Jewish camp since he did not uproot them.

The Chasam Sofer argues that just as one may desecrate Shabbos to save another person’s life and enable him to observe Shabbos in the future, so too Moshe was permitted to carry the Tablets on Yom Kippur since the acceptance of the entire Torah and future observance of Yom Kippur was dependent upon it.

The Rogatchover Gaon notes that Moshe mentioned that he descended the mountain but did not say that he carried the Tablets with him, and he suggests that Moshe left them on the mountain because of the prohibition of carrying them on Yom Kippur.

Harav Yitzchok Sorotzkin challenges this explanation based on Shemos 34:29, which states explicitly that Moshe did carry the Tablets with him when he descended. Instead, he answers that the Medrash (Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 45) teaches that the Tablets miraculously carried not only themselves, but also Moshe. In other words, Moshe was allowed to “carry” the Tablets because he wasn’t really carrying them at all. The Chavatzeles HaSharon suggests that the holiness of Yom Kippur only began at the time that Hashem told Moshe that He forgave the Jews for the golden calf. Since this occurred in the middle of Yom Kippur, Moshe was exempt from observing it until the following year.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.