“An Opportunity for Those Who Seek to Repent”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, we learn of the grave sin committed by the People of Israel who worshiped the Golden Calf.

In his invaluable volume, Sefer HaToda’ah, known in English as The Book of Our Heritage, Eliyahu Kitov offers a number of unique insights into the behavior of the people of Israel who worshiped the Golden Calf, actions that are often viewed in Jewish history with great shame and ignominy.

How is it possible, the rabbis ask, for the generation that saw the miracles of the ten plagues and the Revelation at Sinai to commit this grievous transgression? After all, the generation of the wilderness, known as “Dohr Day’ah,” was a generation filled with more knowledge of G-d than any other! The Divine Presence actually dwelt in their midst! They ate manna from heaven, and drank the waters from a miraculous well. Their camp, with their respective tribal flags, was surrounded by the Clouds of Glory, and Moses and Aaron were their leaders. When the Al-mighty appeared to them at Sinai, they stood united at the bottom of the mountain, as “One man with one heart” (Rashi on Exodus 19:2). G-d had purified all their hearts, and they accepted the burden of the Torah willingly. And yet they went astray!

The commentators explain that when the people originally came to Aaron and demanded (Exodus 32:1), “Make for us a god,” almost all of them meant it for the sake of Heaven. They hoped that some mighty power would emerge to take the place of their vanished leader Moses, who had always gone out and come in before them.

But unfortunately, due to the sorcery of a few among them who were deeply entrenched in idolatry, the people who were as “one man and one heart,” split into differing groups and viewpoints.

One of the disparate groups consisted of those who had been previously immersed in idolatry, and who instantly relapsed into their idolatrous practices. It was a small group, but their zeal caused others to sin, especially a larger group who had a previous disposition toward idolatry, but had suppressed their inclination after beholding the wondrous events at Sinai. But now their resistance weakened when they saw others engaged in idolatrous worship.

Another group of Israelites became totally confused. They began to ridicule those who worshiped the Calf, as well as those who remained loyal to G-d. An additional faction, who had remained steadfast in their faith in G-d, lost all hope that the sinners might ever repent, and even if they would repent, that their repentance would be accepted by G-d. In effect, they disowned their brothers, saying that never would they be permitted to reenter the congregation of G-d.

When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets in his hands, he saw the wild dancing before the Golden Calf. Even though only a small number of the people were truly hard-core idolaters, he regarded even those who had given up faith in their brothers as sinful as well. How could they have concluded that their sinful brothers would never repent, unless they themselves believed that the idolatrous powers were greater than the powers of Teshuva (repentance)?

Only a relatively small number of people, 3,000, suffered the penalty of death for sinning with the Golden Calf. The great majority of the people were unharmed, and remained steadfast in their faith in G-d. The Levites, in particular, were singled out for reward because they maintained absolute obedience to G-d.

The Midrash states that, when G-d gave the tablets to Moses, they were not heavy, because the Holy letters actually supported the weight of the tablets. But when Moses descended from the mountain and saw the Golden Calf, the letters flew off the tablets. Without the letters, the tablets suddenly weighed heavily on Moses’ hands. It was at that moment, in anger, that Moses cast the tablets down. Moses felt he was doing the Jewish people a favor by destroying the tablets that included the prohibition of “Thou shalt have no other gods.” This way, he hoped he would save the people from a premeditated, volitional sin.

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi is cited in the Talmud, Avodah Zarah 4b, as saying: Israel made the Calf only in order to provide an opening for those who would seek repentance. Rashi comments on Rabbi Joshua’s statement, boldly asserting that the people of the wilderness were strong and stouthearted in their fear of G-d. They would not have succumbed to their evil inclinations to worship the Golden Calf but for the fact that it was a “decree of the King,” in order to provide an opening for those seeking repentance. If a sinner would say, “I will not repent, for He will not accept me,” we can now say to him, “Go and learn from those who made the Calf, by which they denied G-d, and yet were accepted in repentance.”

The people knew that it might be thousands of years before the end of days and the Messiah arrives, and that it would be an extremely challenging road that would include great poverty and wealth, bondage and freedom and much sinfulness. They feared that future generations might conclude that they are so totally immersed in sin, that the path to repentance was sealed for them. Through the sin of the Golden Calf and the forgiveness granted the people, G-d taught the people of Israel and all future generations, that the way of repentance is never closed. After all, if the “generation of knowledge,” which was filled with more knowledge of G-d than any other, could transgress and be forgiven, so can future sinful generations.

In essence, the rabbis state that the Golden Calf teaches that, despite everything, there is always hope for us!

May you be blessed.

The Fast of Esther is observed on the day before Purim, from sunrise to nightfall (this year, Monday, March 9, 2009). It commemorates the three days of fasting by Esther, Mordechai and the entire Persian Jewish community before Esther approached Achashverosh to request that he spare the Jews.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian Empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. It is celebrated this year on Monday night and Tuesday March 9 and 10, 2009. For more information Click Here.

This Shabbat, known as “Shabbat Parashat Parah,” is the third of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the red heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22. It was through the waters of the red heifer that the people of Israel were purified in anticipation of the upcoming festival of Passover.