Admit When You’re Wrong!

Ra’isi es ha’am hazeh v’hinei am kshei oref hu (Shemos 32:9)

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 that would be descended from Moshe, 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 our 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?

Rav 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 behavior. After Hashem noted that besides having committed a terrible sin the Jewish people were also stubborn and inflexible, there was no longer a chance that they would be willing to admit the error of their ways. Only at this point was their fate sealed.

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 or her 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 or her own, this needn’t be a cause for concern. However, if one spouse is stubborn and set in his or her ways, refusing to even consider alternate viewpoints, this presents a tremendous danger to the future peace and harmony in the 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: The Gemara in Yoma (85b) derives from passuk 31:16 that we are required to desecrate Shabbos to save a fellow Jew’s life. If a Jewish court has convicted somebody of a capital crime and sentenced him to death, may one still desecrate Shabbos in order to save his life?

Q: After Moshe learned the entire Torah during his first 40 days on Mount Sinai, why did he need to spend a second set of 40 days (34:28) after the sin of the golden calf relearning the Torah that had already been taught to him?

A: The Pri Megadim rules that just as the court may not actually execute someone on Shabbos, so too it is forbidden to passively allow someone who has been sentenced to death to die on Shabbos, as this is also considered a forbidden form of execution and we must desecrate Shabbos in order to extend his life if only temporarily.

After quoting this opinion, the Chofetz Chaim disagrees, explaining that the Torah only commanded us to value each moment of life for somebody who himself values each second of his life. However, a person who has committed a capital sin for which he has been sentenced to death has demonstrated that he doesn’t properly value his life and is considered already dead, in which case it is forbidden to desecrate Shabbos to save him.

A: Harav Moshe Feinstein answers that Torah which is learned when a person is sullied by sin, such as after the sin of the golden calf, requires more exertion and effort than the study of Torah when one is pure and free from iniquity. As a result, Moshe was required to relearn the entire Torah. Harav Mordechai Gifter explains that the Torah that Hashem gives to a person corresponds to the spiritual level of the receiver. Prior to the sin of the golden calf, the Jewish people were on a tremendously high level of holiness, which was reflected in the Torah that Hashem taught to Moshe to give to them. On their new post-sin level, they were unworthy to receive this Torah, and Moshe had to spend an additional 40 days relearning the Torah in a manner which would be appropriate for their new spiritual reality.


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