Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ki Tissah 76 - Lessons from the Sin of the Golden Calf

The sin of the Golden Calf – חטא העגל    is said to be the source and root of all sins between God and Man. After the ' high' of receiving the Torah and God's revelation   on Mount Sinai, came the ' fall ' and the sin of the Golden Calf. Moses had ascended to heaven to learn the Torah with God and promised to return after 40 days. The people miscalculated the date of his return by including the first day, the day of his ascent in their count of the 40 days. Because the first day was not a full day, it was not included in Moses' calculation. Moses' delay created a state of anxiety amongst the people which was made worse by Satan displaying Moses' coffin hanging between heaven and earth.  Moses had left Aaron and Miriam's son Chur in the charge of the nation. The people, led by the Airav Rav - the multitude of converts who came out of Egypt with the Israelites-, demanded a new leader, not a man who was mortal and had now failed them, but an image on which the divine presence- she'chinah would dwell. Aaron knew that he could not confront them as they had already killed Chur who had criticized them and opposed their wishes. He decided to play for time, telling people to donate gold and that tomorrow would be a ' chag la'hashem ' a festival to God. The Egyptian sorcerers helped create a golden calf. The following day, a small part of the nation started dancing and reveling around the golden calf. They also began to worship the calf, committing the grave sin of idolatry. 

The golden calf was problematic, but only became an object of idolatry after people began to worship it. Initially it would be like the cherubs- כרובים, the child like statuettes in the Tabernacle which would show God's love or anger with his people by turning and facing each other or turning away from each other or like the bronze snake – נחש הנחושת that people would look up to, as a means of focusing on God in heaven. People needed to first connect and attach to a physical embodiment of God's values and spirituality and then go on to focus on God. It would also replace Moses who was considered not only an intermediary between God and his people, but the medium and channel for God's goodness and miracles to his people. The people understood that all the miracles, goodness and divine favor that was showered on the people was because of Moses and now the golden calf would be that channel, medium and intermediary between God and his people. Although only 3,000 people actually worshipped the golden calf and engaged in idolatry, the nation transgressed by firstly (1) contributing on mass and eagerly to the construction of the golden calf, (2) they did not protest when people began worshipping the Golden calf and (3) in fact in their hearts hoped that the Golden calf would be a source of goodness for them – thus engaging in idolatry with their hearts.

 Aaron seems to have come out of the episode 'unscathed' as he and his sons were given the priesthood instead of the firstborn who lost the privilege to offer sacrifices because of their part in the sin of the Golden calf. However, when recalling the sin of the Golden calf before his death, Moses says that God was angry with Aaron's role in the sin of the Golden calf and he had to intercede to save his life.  So what was Aaron's wrong doing in the whole episode?  And what lessons can be learned from the episode of the Golden calf?

The first thing we learn is that after a ' high' and here it is the high of God's revelation at Mount Sinai, there is for sure going to be a feeling of emptiness and a fall. We need to capitalize on the highs and have a plan or a program which commits us on a daily basis to more learning, good deeds and a commitment to others. The festivals provide us opportunities to have 'jumps' in faith and commitment and escape from the monotony of routine. But what is as  just important,  is what follows a Yom Kippur or a Succoth.

The golden calf initially served as a means for  achieving spirituality and identifying with God. But too often the means becomes the end, the focus and center of our attention and object of our worship. Instead of focusing on the ideals, values and symbolism underlying a religious edifice or monument, the focus is on the monument itself which begins to acquire powers of its own.  And that is especially true when we are the creators of the monument, that we then focus on what we created and don't use it as a means to connect or associate with higher spiritual things. That is how idolatry began, initially people saw the heavenly bodies as doing God's will and then saw them as Gods because of their power and infallibility. Today's idols are money, military and political power and we tend to flatter the people who have power and influence etc so we tend to have many Gods.  Seeing great people or religious edifices as intermediaries or a medium by which God channels His goodness and does miracles distorts the God – Man relationship. Great people have the power to contribute because their source of power is a commitment to the community and nation. It is the actions of people, their good deeds and caring communities which are able to attract God's goodness and channel them into the world. We don't connect to God through great people, but great people expose us to spirituality and greatness which helps us connect directly and intimately with God.  When it comes to ideas, education, religious and moral development we confuse the means and the end. We focus on the ' lo lishmah ', getting people and kids to do things, even   for the wrong reasons in the hope that they will come to do things for the right reasons. We confuse short-term goals of compliance and doing mitzvoth with long term goals  of becoming more spiritual people , doing what is right and straight in the eyes of  God , serving God and being of service of people , having a love for learning, doing chesed - kindness and building relationships.( R' SRH)

The reason why Aaron was criticized was that he failed to see the consequences of his actions and decisions. There was a justification for the way he acted, but he failed to see that there would be some, who would see the golden calf as having Godly powers, worship the golden calf and transgress the prohibition of idolatry. Not only do we do things and don't take into account the implications and consequences of our actions, especially how people view what we say and do. We  often think that we have taught people or kids a lesson , but  the reality is that they take home a completely different message. (R' Y.I  Sher )

The mistake in calculating Moses' return date teaches us that we can never be a 100% sure of anything and need to explore alternative and various explanations or perceptions of any situation. It is often misguided beliefs and conclusions that lead to sin and failure.

The most important lesson is that sin maybe very much part of life, the falling provides the opportunity for  dealing with situations and reaching new heights - ירידה לצורך עליה The fall – the sin of the golden calf after the high of the revelation and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai created the opportunity for repentance and doing Teshuva.   It was God's commandment that the mishkan and tabernacle became the places and edifices for worship rather than man creating his own monuments to help him attach to spirituality. In this way Aaron and the people would atone for the sin of the golden calf and   be totally committed to keep God's command and not changing anything. The second tablets of the 10 commandments which Moses made were in a sense greater than the first tablets because they were also a result of man's effort to improve, change and repent. Also God gave the nation of Israel more than the 10 commandments, the 5 books of Moses and the book of Joshua which were given with the first tablets – He gave the laws, aggadah and Midrashim. Moses face became radiant and shone with rays of light. The result of the sin of the golden calf provided new opportunities for teshuva - repentance ,  growth and the renewal and strengthening of the covenant between man and God. (Lubavitcher Rebbe)

The message especially to students and children is that everyone can have an intimate and direct relationship with God and that the purpose of life is to do good deeds and Teshuva – repent so each person can realize his God given potential

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