Parshat Vayakhel Pekudei תשפ
Although we read about the sin of the Golden Calf in last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisah, because it is the subject of so much misunderstanding, we should look at the events through the eyes of our Sages to properly understand what happened. Yes, based on the extremely high spiritual level the Jewish people were on at that time, they did commit a grave sin, but, contrary to what may appear on a first reading, it was not the sin of blatant idol worship.
After many miracles, the Jewish people left Egypt on the fifteenth day of Nisan and reached the Reed Sea seven days later. When HaShem told the sea to split, it claimed, “Why should I split for the Jewish people? They worshipped idols just like the Egyptians!” Despite that claim, by the time that the people reached the foot of Mount Sinai thirty-five days later, they had become so holy that they were like one person with one heart. They had transformed themselves from a people who had worshipped idols into a cohesive group unified in their mission to serve HaShem. When HaShemasked them if they wanted to accept His Torah, they answered, “Everything that HaShem said we will do and we will listen to.”
After they heard the first two commandments directly from HaShem and the remaining eight from Moshe, Moshe descended the mountain. HaShem then told Moshe (Exodus 24:12):
“וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל משֶׁה עֲלֵה אֵלַי הָהָרָה וֶהְיֵה שָׁם וְאֶתְּנָה לְךָ אֶת לֻחֹת הָאֶבֶן וְהַתּוֹרָה וְהַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר כָּתַבְתִּי לְהוֹרֹתָם”
“And HaShem told Moshe, “Ascend to me up the mountain (again) and remain there, and I shall give you the stone tablets and the teaching and the commandment that I have written to teach them.”
Moshe would need to be in heaven for forty full days to learn the Oral Torah that accompanied the Written Torah. At the conclusion of the forty days, HaShem would give Moshe the Tablets with the 613 Torah commandments written on them, to bring to the Jewish nation.
When Moshe came down the mountain forty days later with the Tablets, he found the Jewish people with a Golden Calf and threw the Tablets to the ground, smashing them into pieces. Indeed, our Sages teach us that we never recovered from the ramifications of the sin of the Golden Calf. Although HaShem gave the Jewish people a second set of Tablets, they did not have the same level of holiness as the first.
It is very difficult to fathom how the Jewish people committed the sin of the Golden Calf. How could a people who had just forty days earlier heard HaShem’s voice tell them, “Do not have other gods,” create an idol and worship it? And how could Aharon, the holy leader of the people, mislead them into making an idol to worship? How are we to understand what happened here?
The commentaries on the Torah unanimously teach us that the Jewish people did not create the Golden Calf as a god to worship. This was truly impossible. HaShem at the Reed Sea and at Sinai showed the Jewish people His Heavenly Chariot and His heavenly system of angels! They clearly saw how HaShem runs the world through His spiritual channels. For them to believe that a newly made calf of gold had any spiritual power was ludicrous.
So, if it wasn’t idol worship, what was the problem, and why was it such a terrible sin? The Sages provide the following explanation.
Before ascending the mountain for the second time, Moshe told the Jewish people that he would be away for forty full days. A full day means from sundown to sundown; therefore, the day that Moshe ascended the mountain didn’t count towards the forty because he went up in the middle of the day. Day One began with sundown that night.
This detail, unfortunately, caused confusion to the people, because they began counting the forty days starting the daythat Moshe went up. On Day Forty to their counting, which was really only Day 39, Moshe was nowhere to be seen. The Satan, the force of evil in the world, taking advantage of the situation, paraded an image of a dead Moshe on a bed. This added to the confusion, and created doubt in the people’s mind. They began thinking that he would never return from heaven, suspecting that perhaps he was so holy, he had just ascended to heaven to remain there. Yet in reality, it was only Day 39, and Moshe would return the next morning.
When Moshe failed to appear when expected, the people went to Aharon and said to him (32:1),
“וַיַּרְא הָעָם כִּי בשֵׁשׁ משֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן הָהָר וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ כִּי זֶה משֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה הָיָה לוֹ”:
“And the nation saw that Moshe had delayed in descending the mountain, and the people gathered upon Aharon and said to him, “Rise up, make for us a leader that will go before us, for the man Moses who brought us out from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has become of him.”
Who was it that approached Aharon? The Torah says “הָעָם”—“the people”, which always means the lowest element of the people. Also, the term “And they gathered upon” always connotes a disorderly gathering, without respect to Sages or elders. A disorderly gathering is always the sign of trouble because it symbolizes a chaotic gathering—people acting out of confusion, rather than via a rational approach.
When telling Moshe about the sin, HaShem told Moshe, “your nation” has sinned. Who is Moshe’s nation? This is a reference to the mixed multitude of people who came out of Egypt with the Jewish people (Exodus 12:38):
“וְגַם עֵרֶב רַב עָלָה אִתָּם”
“And a mixed multitude went up [from Egypt] with them.”
According to some opinions, the mixed multitude actually outnumbered the Jewish people. They had seen the miracles in Egypt, had become convinced that HaShem was real, and they wanted to join the Jewish people. When they were insistent, Moshe agreed to bring them along, thinking that it would be a good thing to bring them close to HaShem. Moshe made the decision to accept them without consulting with HaShem. These were not the grandchildren Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov; they were instead gentiles from all different nations who had attached themselves to the Jewish people. As the Jewish nation encountered challenges while travelling from Egypt to Mount Sinai, many of the mixed multitude got cold feet and left the Jewish nation.
Knowing that their connection to the Jewish nation was solely Moshe’s decision, the mixed multitude became especially concerned when Moshe went missing. Without him, what would be their fate? Perhaps HaShem agreed for them to join only out of respect for Moshe, but now that Moshe was gone, they may be unceremoniously dumped and left to fend for themselves in the inhospitable wilderness. This is why they were the first ones to approach Aharon for a new leader.
The Sages point out that a careful reading of the text reveals that they were not requesting an idol to worship, rather a replacement for Moshe. Moshe was their advocate, and now that he had vanished, they needed a replacement.
The natural choice should have been Aharon. After all, he was the leader before Moshe came from Midian where he had been hiding from Pharaoh. Why didn’t they just ask Aharon to be their new leader?
Even though Aharon was sympathetic to them and would probably intervene for them if HaShem should want to dump them, what if the next leader would not be? They would always have to live with this fear. This was very disturbing to them, and therefore they opted for something that would be everlasting.
Whence did Aharon get the idea to make a calf? It came from the image of the “Holy Animals” that “pull” HaShem’sChariot in Heaven, which they saw when HaShem opened the heavens for them. The Book of Yechezkel describes what they looked like in its very first chapter (1:10):
“וּדְמוּת פְּנֵיהֶם פְּנֵי אָדָם וּפְנֵי אַרְיֵה אֶל הַיָּמִין לְאַרְבַּעְתָּם וּפְנֵי שׁוֹר מֵהַשְּׂמֹאול לְאַרְבַּעְתָּן וּפְנֵי נֶשֶׁר לְאַרְבַּעְתָּן”
“As for the likeness of their faces, there was a human face, and a lion’s face to the right of the four of them, and an ox’s face to the left for the four of them, and an eagle’s face for the four of them.”
HaShem’s Chariot is a metaphor for how HaShem controls and manages His world, or how His influence is bestowed upon the world. The eagle is king of the birds, the lion king of the wild animals, and the ox is king of the domesticated animals. Man was created after all the above and is able to use all the other creations for his purposes. Man is the king of all the creatures and the purpose of the world.
In Torah thought, the world’s four directions are fixed and represent the path which a person should follow. “מזרח”—East—is always forward—”קדימה”—the direction in which we wish to go to get closer to HaShem. West—”מערב”—is always behind us, and represents those things we need to leave behind and seek to distance ourselves from. “דרום” —South—which is always to our right represents “חסד”—kindness, and “צפון” —North—which is always to our left, represents דין—judgement.
Supporting this idea is the verse (Jeremiah 1:14): that says:
“וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֵלָי מִצָּפוֹן תִּפָּתַח הָרָעָה עַל כָּל יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ”
“HaShem said to me, “From the north the evil will start upon the inhabitants of the earth.”
Nachmanides explains that Aharon created the Golden Calf to replicate the Ox of HaShem’s Chariot, which is to the north, where all judgments and decrees come from. Aharon’s thinking was that if the Jewish people would pray to HaShem with that direction in mind, it would stave off all the evil decrees that were prone to start from that direction.
“והכוונה לאהרן היתה, מפני שישראל היו במדבר חורב שממה, והחרבן ושממות עולם יבואו מן הצפון …
והנה במעשה המרכבה אמר פני שור מהשמאל לארבעתם ולכן חשב אהרן כי המחריב יורה דרך מקום החרבן כי שם כחו הגדול, ובהיותם עובדים שם לאל יערה רוח ממרום, כאשר נאצל על משה וזהו שאמר חג לה’ מחר, שיהיו העבודות והזבחים לשם המיוחד להפיק רצון ממנו אל בעל הצורה, כי בהיותה לפניהם יכונו אל ענינה”
“Aharon’s thinking was that because the Jewish people were in a barren, desolate desert, and all destruction comes from the north, and because in the image of HaShem’s Chariot the face of the ox was on the left, Aharon thought [that by making the image of an ox] the destructive force [attribute of Judgment] will guide them through the difficulties of the desert, since this is where its power is the strongest. And when they direct their service to HaShem there, HaShem will pour out upon them a merciful influence from heaven just as He did for Moshe.
When seeing Aharon’s and the people’s intentions from this perspective, we wonder even more what was so terrible about what the Jewish people did. They were not denying HaShem or thinking that the calf was any kind of god!
A later chapter in the same Book of Yechezkel says (10:14):
“וְאַרְבָּעָה פָנִים לְאֶחָד פְּנֵי הָאֶחָד פְּנֵי הַכְּרוּב וּפְנֵי הַשֵּׁנִי פְּנֵי אָדָם וְהַשְּׁלִישִׁי פְּנֵי אַרְיֵה וְהָרְבִיעִי פְּנֵי נָשֶׁר”
“Each one had four faces, one face was a cherub, the second was a man, the third was a lion, and the fourth was an eagle.”
This contradicts how HaShem’s Chariot was described in chapter one where the four faces were a Man, a Lion, an Eagle and an Ox. Here, a Cherub replaced the ox!
This difference in the makeup of the “Holy Animals” has another ramification. They all had wings and legs. When the ox was part of the Chariot, the holy “Animals” would lead the Chariot by walking. When the Cherub was part of the group, the Chariot flew via the angels’ the wings. What could be the meaning of this contradiction?
The Malbim (1807-1879) explains.
HaShem has two different systems whereby He controls and manages the world.
One is called “טבע”—“nature,” and the other is “נס”—beyond nature, or miraculous.
In running the world through the system of “טבע”—nature, HaShem gives the impression that He is not involved in the workings of the world; rather, they have a self-sustaining mechanism that operates independent of any outside control. HaShem has hidden Himself behind a wall of nature that conceals Him from being seen in the picture. So perfect is HaShem’s disguise that there are many who argue there is no disguise at all! It is nature, not HaShem! They claim, “You think that’s a man disguised as a bear, it isn’t—run for your life, it is a bear!!!”
Our lifelong mission in this world is to expose HaShem and reveal His presence from behind the façade of nature that He has so effectively used as His disguise. Our goal is to reach the point where we see only HaShem behind every action and outcome. This is accomplished slowly but surely through learning HaShem’s Torah and performing His Mitzvot. As we grow in our commitment to HaShem, we become closer to him. As we discover more and more of Him and the direction and decisions in our lives take the reality of HaShem into consideration, He responds to us and brings us closer to Him.
Our Sages give us a metaphor to help us understand this mission.
A person peeking into a room through a keyhole sees a pen moving across a piece of paper on a desk, writing. From that perspective, it looks like the pen is totally independent and is doing the writing all by itself. It is writing the deepest, most beautiful poetry, and somehow, the pen knows how to do this all on its own. This is the common view of nature. There is so much beauty and wisdom in nature, so much complexity and symbiosis, but somehow it knows how to manage it all on its own.
Yet when he would open the door, he would see a person holding the pen in his fingers, controlling its movement as it writes the beautiful words on the paper. Of course, a pen cannot write by itself, or think of beautiful, meaningful prose! But if we wish to acknowledge only what we see, that is what we must accept as the only reality. HaShem keeps the door closed as He assumes his convincing disguise, nature. Our job in life is to open the door and see the “person” holding the pen creating all the beauty. Yes, we can open it slowly, and see more and more of HaShem as we go along, but we must not be content to look through the keyhole all our lives and miss the true reality.
There is yet a higher level of understanding nature, and that is to come to the point that you realize that HaShemdoesn’t use a pen to write with at all. Although it looks like He is writing with the pen, that is not the reality. The words are appearing on the paper by themselves through the will of HaShem, and there is no cause and effect operating at all. The entire image of a man writing with a pen is a disguise. Our goal in life is to reach this level of understanding; it is, however, only by working diligently and consistently with the lower level that we can reach the ultimate realization that HaShem controls the world without the use of props.
There is a very practical difference in these two concepts. When a person is on the lower level of understanding nature, since he does not realize that HaShem doesn’t need the pen, so to speak, to provide him with his needs, he must create natural pathways for HaShem to use. He must have a job, or some manner, through which HaShem can channel the bounty. Indeed, the amount of effort he must put forth to acquire that bounty is commensurate with his understanding of HaShem’s involvement in his bounty. The more HaShem, the less effort he needs to put forth, and the less HaShem, the more effort he must put in.
When a person is on the highest level of understanding of nature, since he realizes that HaShem gives him his needs out of thin air, he doesn’t need to provide any natural pathways. Of course, it will reach him in a natural way, and HaShem will not create the money out of thin air for this fellow, but he will see it as if it came out of thin air, since he did no prior work to bring it forth. It is very difficult to reach this exalted level, and there are very few people in the world who have achieved it.
These are the two levels of HaShem’s system of “טבע” – nature.
When HaShem runs the world in a miraculous way—”בדרך נס”—there is no option to say that “Mother-Nature” is the sole source of nature. In that mode, it is very clear that everything comes directly from HaShem.
With this the Malbim resolves the contradiction in the two verses in Yechezkel. The first verse describes HaShemrunning the world through nature. The “Holy Animals pull” the Chariot and it moves forward, a process which looks normal and natural.
The second verse describes HaShem’s miraculous system, where things happen with no physical cause and effect. The Chariot is carried by flying angels. HaShem makes things “fly around” the way He sees fit without any apparent source.
When HaShem took the Jewish people out of Egypt and when He took them from Egypt to the Land of Israel, He used exclusively the “miraculous” system. He wanted it to be clear beyond any doubt that He was in control. Their food fell directly from heaven ready to eat in the form of Mana, their water came from a stone that travelled with them, and their protection from the elements and their enemies came from clouds that enveloped them. There was no natural basis for any of these phenomena; they were miraculous.
HaShem’s visible presence was appropriate for the Jewish people who were on a very high spiritual level at that time. Their relationship with HaShem was one where they saw Him very clearly, and understood that everything emanated directly from Him without any intermediaries.
When Moshe did not return, the Jewish people also became very concerned. Moshe had gone up to heaven without any food or water. A human being cannot live for forty days without nutrition or hydration! They surmised that he probably became a spiritual being that didn’t need food or water anymore. With Moshe as their leader, they felt confident that they could maintain the open presence of HaShem among them. The entire time that Moshe led them in Egypt and as they subsequently travelled, HaShem’s holiness was evident in Moshe, and his holiness and closeness to HaShem would keep them at the high spiritual level at which they needed to be to live with HaShem in His openly visible mode. Without Moshe, they were unsure that they would be able to maintain that high spiritual level.
With the mixed multitude clamoring for a physical substitute for Moshe, the Jewish people began thinking that maybe in the absence of Moshe they should adopt a lower level of relationship with HaShem, one of “טבע” —nature instead of “נס”—miracles. They would still recognize HaShem as the Master controller of the world but it would be on the lower level of “טבע” —nature. On their level, this meant the highest of the two levels of nature, one where they realize that HaShem is giving it to them without the props, but they still wanted this more comfortable and “easier” lower level of relationship. This was the meaning of the request for the Ox, the lower level of HaShem’s “Holy Animals,” where they “pull” the Chariot while walking on their feet, instead of flying with it.
There was a second danger inherent in having a physical reminder of the Holy Animals, viz, that it created the possibility for one to look at it as an idol, as they had done before in Egypt. Indeed, the Torah tells us that 3,000 people did fall into that trap and were killed for idol worship. That is a very low percentage of the Jewish nation who numbered over 600,000 at that time.
This is how the Sages explain the sin of the Golden Calf. The Jewish people should not have been so eager to abandon the close and miraculous relationship that they had with HaShem. It was a rejection of His desire to be close to them and to have an open relationship with them.
When Moshe did return the next day, everyone immediately abandoned the Golden Calf. With Moshe back, all was well and they were very happy to continue with the relationship as it was. Without protest, Moshe ground the gold into dust and got rid of it. But the damage had been done.
We live in the world of “טבע”—nature, and we struggle to rise above the tidal-wave of voices claiming, “There is no G-d! It is all a figment of your imagination!”
The current Corona pandemic provides us with an opportunity to exercise our belief in HaShem as the Master Controller of the world. The Torah perspective is that HaShem controls all the events in the world, bar none. This is a very comforting thought, because we know that HaShem does things with wisdom and purpose. We should not abandon our trust in HaShem and His actions in the face of the rush of panicked voices who see the world as the captive victim of chance and randomness. When that would be the case, what hope have we?
But the reality is that HaShem is in complete control, and it is to Him that we must direct our prayers and requests to protect us from it, and to completely remove it as suddenly and thoroughly as He brought it upon us. We must learn the lesson from the Jewish people who were a bit too eager to adopt a lower level of service to Him. We must hold tenaciously onto our strong trust in HaShem, understanding that He is doing this for our best.
Ultimately, we will never be disappointed.