“They made for themselves a molten calf” (Shemot 32:8).
The incident of the Golden Calf raises many questions in the minds of all who study the events and the characters involved. One question, however, overrides all others. The Jewish people experienced a closeness to Hashem unparalleled in history. They were witness to Ten Plagues in Egypt, and then walked through the paved floor of a sea that split into 12 separate lanes, one for each tribe, with walls of standing water adorned with fresh fruit and sweet drinking water. Fifty days later they all stood at the foot of Har Sinai and actually heard Hashem speaking the first two Commandments.
How is it possible that a people who had witnessed the revelation of Hashem Himself so clearly could commit an act of idol worship? Additionally, the events of that dark day in our history took place a mere 40 days following the Revelation at Sinai and the Giving of the Torah.
A student once asked a great Rabbi this question and expected to hear an earth-shattering reply. Instead, the Rabbi answered: “Do you have a yetzer hara — an evil inclination?”
The student, slightly puzzled, replied, “Yes, I do.”
“So do I,” was the Rabbi’s response, “and so did the people in the desert 3300 years ago. As a matter of fact,” he added, “the greater a person is, the more powerful his evil inclination.”
Noticing the puzzled look on the young man’s face, the elderly Sage added, “I know this from a verse in Tehillim. David Hamelech describes Hashem’s relationship with our ancestors as one of constant conflict: ‘Forty years I battled the generation; then I said, “They are an errant-heart people, they know not my ways”’ [Tehillim 95: 8].They certainly had to have an evil inclination.”
The point the Rabbi was trying to convey is that many people forget that they have an evil inclination. In fact, were one to ask the man on the street, he might reply, “No, I don’t have one.” Those who spend a lot of time in shul or working for institutions that do good deeds for the benefit of the community are also prey for this trap. More so, those who sit in yeshivah studying Torah many hours per day may feel they have already won this battle with sin.
The Baal Shem Tov whispered a verse minutes before he died and a student bent over to listen. “Let not the foot of the arrogant come to me; and let not the hand of the wicked move me” [Tehillim 36:12]. The student inquired, “Rebbe, why are you reciting this now?”
Answered the Chassidic Master: “Even here the Satan wants to trip me by getting me to become haughty with my life’s accomplishments.”
One should never become complacent with spiritual growth. There is always a battle raging between one’s good common sense and desire to do the Will of Hashem and the wiles of one’s evil inclination attempting to bring about a fall from the highest peak to the lowest valley. One who does not sense the “terrorist threat” has already lost the battle. Stay alert and keep pushing higher. He never sleeps on the job and neither should you.