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 which 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, zt”l, 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?
Reb 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. 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.
The importance of accepting rebuke is illustrated by the following humorous story. At one time, certain bus routes in Jerusalem 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 man on the bus began to vocally protest her action. 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 her supporter 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 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 one is open-minded and flexible, willing to listen to and understand the viewpoint of the other and then reconsider one’s 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. 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.
Parashah Q & A
Q: The Gemara in Nedarim (38a) relates that during the initial 40 days that Moshe was on Mount Sinai, he learned the entire Torah from Hashem each day, only to forget it, until finally Hashem gave him the knowledge as a gift (31:18). What was Hashem’s purpose in teaching him the Torah for 40 consecutive days when He knew that Moshe would forget?
Q: The Midrash teaches (Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 45) that prior to Moshe throwing down the Tablets and breaking them, the writing that was on the Tablets miraculously flew away. As the letters weren’t written on the Tablets but were carved through them, how was it possible for them to fly away?
A: The Alshich Hakadosh gives two explanations. First, Moshe needed to completely purify his soul to the highest degree possible in order to merit receiving the entire Torah and teaching it to the Jewish people, and each additional day that he learned the Torah served to further purify him. Second, Torah knowledge is only given as a gift to somebody who first expends all of his effort and energy to attain it. Harav Avraham Yaakov Pam, zt”l, derives from here that when a person studies Torah and forgets it, he shouldn’t become despondent and feel that his efforts were wasted. The Torah that he learned still serves to purify his soul so that he will be better able to understand the Torah, and it also helps him to merit a gift of Torah knowledge even beyond what he would naturally be able to attain and comprehend.
A: The Maharsha answers that there was in fact a double miracle. The first miracle was that the writing from the Tablets flew away, and the second miracle was that even though the letters were nothing more than air, they could still be seen flying away. Alternatively, the Korban HaEidah maintains that even though the letters were carved into the Tablets, they were also written in black ink on top of the carved-out areas, and it was this ink which flew away due to the sin of the golden calf.
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.