Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Ki Sisa - The Sin of the Golden Calf and its Lessons

The story of the sin of the golden calf is one of the most difficult passages in the Torah. On one hand, it was clearly a grave sin. On the other hand, we need to remember that this was the same holy nation that had just experienced the Exodus from Egypt and the Sinai Revelation. It is simply unreasonable to think that it was a simple sin of idolatry. The following brief summary of this tragic episode will incorporate various commentaries to help us understand what actually happened.

Moses had ascended Mt. Sinai on the seventh of Sivan. (The Sages tell us that Moses had announced that he would remain on the mountain for forty days. The Jewish people incorrectly assumed that the day Moses ascended counted as the first of the forty days, when, in fact, the count did not begin until the next day.) When forty days had passed from Moses' ascent, and he had still not descended from the mountain, the people began to fear that Moses had passed away.

Believing that they had lost their leader, the people approached Aaron with the demand that he manufacture gods to replace Moses. (Rashi states that this request was made by the Eirev Rav, a group of Egyptians that had joined the Jewish people when they left Egypt.) This was not idolatry in the usual sense, for the golden calf was not intended as a substitute for God, but for Moses. Nevertheless, it was a violation against the prohibition against making forms and the fact that they felt that such a replacement was necessary also indicated that they did yet not properly understand the nature of God's relationship with mankind.

In an attempt to delay the people until Moses' arrival, Aaron told them to gather the golden jewelry from their wives and children, thinking that this would slow the collection. However, the gold was collected very rapidly and was brought before Aaron. Aaron then melted the gold and a golden calf was formed. (For further discussion of Aaron's role in the incident of the gold calf, see "The Sin of Aaron".) They then declared, “This is your god, Israel, who took you up from the land of Egypt.” (Rashi states that the Eirev Rav said this, which is why they said “your god” instead of “our god”.)

At first glance, this declaration seems to be utterly senseless. The Jewish people (and the Eirev Rav) were fully aware of Who had taken them out of Egypt, and they certainly knew that this golden calf, which had not even been made at the time, had not done so. Thus, it is clear that the golden calf was not intended as a substitute for God but as an intermediary or representative of God, much in the way that they had understood Moses to be.

When this occurred, Aaron again attempted to delay the Jewish people from sinning by declaring that a festival for God would be made the next day. Aaron hoped that Moses would arrive before the people actually sinned. However, the next morning people got up very early to begin making sacrifices and rejoicing.

On the mountain, God told Moses to descend for the people had sinned and He would destroy them. Moses prayed to God on behalf of the Jewish people, and God accepted his prayer and He relented from His anger.

Moses then descended the mountain carrying the two Tablets of Testimony. When he came close to the camp and saw the calf and the rejoicing, he cast down the Tablets and shattered them. (This occurred on the 17th of Tammuz.)

Moses took the calf and ground it into powder. He mixed the powder with water and made the people drink it. He declared, "Whoever is for God, to me!" The entire tribe of Levi joined him and they went forth with the sword and killed 3,000 men. Moses then returned to pray to God to forgive the Jewish people. God then struck the people with a plague.

(Rashi states that there were three levels of guilt among the people. There were those who had sinned with witnesses and hasraah[1], those who had sinned with witnesses but no hasraah, and those who sinned without witnesses. The first group was killed by the sword, the second by the plague, and the third died from the water like a sotah (Numbers 5:11-31). It should be noted that only 3,000 Jews had committed the crime in the full sense. This is only about one half of a percent of the adult male population. The overwhelming majority of the Jewish people avoided involvement with the calf worshipers.)

The Torah then discusses at length the process of reconciliation between God and the Jewish people as mediated by Moses. Eventually God instructed Moses to carve two new Tablets to replace the ones that had been shattered. He was to ascend the mountain again and God would inscribe these new Tablets. At this time, God revealed to Moses the י"ג מדות של רחמים – “The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy” – that the Jewish people could rely upon to earn forgiveness for their sins when they repented.

After this the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people is repeated and emphasized. When Moses descended the mountain with the second Tablets his face had become radiant from holiness.

The Lessons

R' Samson Raphael Hirsch
There are many important lessons we learn from the incident of the golden calf. Among these lessons is the importance of recognizing the centrality of having a proper conception of our relationship with God and that we may make no compromises with God's law. As R' Samson Raphael Hirsch writes (on Exodus 32:6):
So, at the very time that the Divine Law of Morality was to have found a home and Sanctuary on earth in the midst of the Jewish people, they experienced the fact, for themselves and for all future time, that the slightest aberration from the idea of acknowledging God as the One and Only One, brings in its train the heathen cult in every form, inevitably denying His Law of Morality.
And the one who was designed to be the first High Priest of the Jewish people experienced for himself, and for all future time, that Jewish priests may not try to be "clever", that God's Truth's are not his own, with which, and for which he may make concessions, of which he may give up a part to save the rest. The Divine Evidence is inscribed on granite. One can acknowledge it, one can deny it, but no priest can alter the tiniest bit of it.
Another profoundly important lesson that we learn from the incident of the golden calf is the power of repentance. The Talmud (Avodah Zara 4b) makes a surprising statement:
א"ר יהושע בן לוי: לא עשו ישראל את העגל אלא ליתן פתחון פה לבעלי תשובה, שנאמר: מי יתן והיה לבבם זה להם ליראה אותי כל הימים וגו'.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “The [sin of] the Jewish people with the [Golden] Calf happened only to provide an opening for baalei teshuva (penitents), for it says, ‘If only their heart would always be like this, to fear me…’” (Deuteronomy 5:26)
Rashi explains:
גבורים ושליטים ביצרם היו ולא היו ראוי להתגבר יצרם עליהן אלא גזירת מלך היתה לשלוט בם כדי ליתן פתחון פה לבעלי תשובה שאם יאמר החוטא לא אשוב שלא יקבלני אומרים לו צא ולמד ממעשה העגל שכפרו ונתקבלו בתשובה.
They [i.e. the Jews at the time of the incident of the golden calf] were mighty and had complete control over their yetzer (natural inclinations) and their yetzer should not have been able to overpower them. However, it was the decree of the King that it overpower them in order to provide an opening for baalei teshuva. For if a sinner says, “I will not repent for He will not accept me,” they say to him, “Go and learn from the incident of the Calf, for [the Jews] committed heresy and they were accepted back through repentance!”
As understood by Rashi, the Talmud appears to be saying that the Jewish people in the desert were on such a high spiritual level that they never would have committed such a sin. Instead, God caused the sin to happen in order to provide encouragement to sinners from later generations. Many commentaries struggle with this idea. If the Jewish people were forced to sin, then they didn't actually sin at all and their repentance was actually unnecessary! How then, would this provide encouragement for a normal sinner?

The Akeidas Yitzchak (R' Yitzchak Arama, d.1494), therefore, disagrees with Rashi’s explanation. He writes that the Talmud’s message here is that, even though the Jews of the midbar were on the highest possible spiritual level that a nation can possibly reach, they still sinned! We see from this that human perfection does not mean that you never do anything wrong, for human beings will inevitably stumble and sin on occasions. Rather, true human perfection is that, when you do inevitably sin, you truly repent.

Rav Dessler
This insight from the Akeidas Yitzchak is profoundly important, but it leaves us with the difficulty of how to understand Rashi's approach. Rav Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu 1:165) explains that sometimes a righteous person will have a flawed trait buried so deeply in his character that even he himself is not aware of it. In order for the righteous person to fix this hidden flaw, God will temporarily withdraw the help He normally provides us to aid us in our struggle with sin. This allows the hidden flaw to surface in the form of an obvious sin. Once the sin is exposed, the righteous person can now work to rectify the hidden flaw that led to the sin. This is what happened to the Jewish people. Thus, in the final analysis, the sin of the golden calf was committed willingly, and the acceptance of their teshuva provides hope for all generations of baalei teshuva.

[1] In order to be liable for a criminal penalty in a Jewish court, Jewish law requires that the criminal be formally warned in front of witnesses of the criminal nature of his actions and the relevant legal penalty immediately prior to the commission of the crime. This warning is called hasraah.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Merit of Mordechai

In the opening verse of Shoshanas Yakov, we say, שושנת יעקב צהלה ושמחה בראותם יחד תכלת מרדכי – “The rose of Jacob (i.e. the Jewish people) was cheerful and happy when together they saw the techeiles ( cloth) of Mordechai.” The language of the poem seems to indicate that there was some special significance to the techeiles worn by Mordechai, as if it was this, in particular, that brought joy to the Jewish people. Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (d.1869), in an essay for Parshas Zachor (ספר קהלת יעקב על המועדים, פרשת זכור, דרוש ג), raises this question, asking why the poem specifically mentions the techeiles of Mordechai.

To answer this question, R’ Shlomo Kluger begins by citing the Talmudic statement (Shabbos 55a), “תמה זכות אבות” – “the merit of the Patriarchs has ended.” (ועיין שם בתוס' ד"ה ושמואל אמר) The Jewish people were therefore afraid that, without zechus avos (the merit of the Patriarchs), they would be destroyed by Haman.

What is zechus avos? R’ Shlomo Kluger explains:
עיקר זכות האבות התחיל מאברהם, שכולם היו כופרים בו ית' והוא בשכלו חקר ודרש והבין שיש בורא כל העולמים, והכיר את בוראו, ומסר עצמו על כבוד שמו להיות נופל לכבשן האש, וממנו התחיל זכות האבות.
The primary merit of the Patriarchs began with Abraham, for [his contemporaries] were all deniers of His existence, but [Abraham] delved and sought with his intellect and came to understand that there is a Creator of the Universe. He willingly gave his life for the honor of God’s name when he was cast into the fiery furnace [and was miraculously saved]. It was from this that the merit of the Patriarchs began.
R’ Shlomo Kluger continues that when our relationship with God is based only on the tradition that we received from our ancestors, without coming to know God from our own understanding, then we are dependent entirely on zechus Avos. Just as we find, in Jewish law, that those idolaters who engage in idolatry simply on a cultural basis, following in the path of their ancestors (מנהג אבותיהם בידיהם), are not considered to be idolaters in the full sense, the same is true, in reverse, for the Jewish people. When we base our belief in God and our observance of His Torah on nothing but the fact that this is what we were taught by our ancestors, without any independent recognition and understanding of our own, then we do not truly have a fully developed relationship with God. In such a case we are dependent entirely on the merit of our ancestors, for it is only due to their efforts that we have any connection to God at all. This merit, as great as it is, is ultimately finite, and it is for this reason that the Jewish people were afraid.

However, R' Shlomo Kluger explains, a new zechus Avos for the Jewish people began to shine forth from Mordechai. For like Abraham, Mordechai had come to know God through his own understanding, fulfilling the injunction of King David to his son, Solomon, to "know the God of your father" (1 Chronicles 28:9) and not simply rely on your father's tradition.

The Talmud (Sotah 17a) tells us that the symbolic message of the string of techeiles on the tzitzis is that the color of the techeiles resembles the sea, the sea resembles the sky, and the sky resembles God's "Throne of Glory." R' Shlomo Kluger understands this to symbolically express the idea that we are supposed to study and contemplate the world and through this work our way up to an independent recognition of God.

By emphasizing the techeiles, the Shoshanas Yakov is telling us that the Jewish people recognized that Mordechai had this characteristic, and it is for this reason that they rejoiced for they understood that in this merit there would be a new zechus Avos for the Jewish people.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Tetzaveh - The Hidden Name of Moses

Many commentators note that despite the fact that he is present throughout the portion, the name of Moses is not mentioned in Parshas Tetzaveh. The best known answer to this question is provided by the Baal HaTurim:
לא הזכיר משה בזה הסדר, מה שאין כן בכל החומש, שמשעה שנולד משה אין סדר שלא הוזכר בה. והטעם משום שאמר מחני נא מספרך אשר כתבת, וקללת חכם אפילו על תנאי באה, ונתקיים בזה.
The name of Moses is not mentioned in this portion, unlike the rest of the Pentateuch, where, from the moment that Moses was born, there is no portion that does not mention him. The reason for this is because (when Moses prayed to God that he should forgive the Jewish people for the sin of the golden calf) he said, "[And now, if You will forgive their sin--, and if not] erase me from Your book which You have written." (Exodus 32:32), and [there is a principle (Talmud, Makkos 11a) that] the curse of a chacham (wise person) is fulfilled, even if it is conditional. [The curse] was fulfilled in this (i.e. the omission of his name from this portion).
The Vilna Gaon
The question that remains, however, is why God chose to omit the name of Moses specifically from Parshas Tetzaveh, especially being that Tetzaveh precedes the verse in which Moses asked to be "erased" from the Torah.  The Vilna Gaon, R' Eliyhau of Vilna, famously explained (הובא בספר קהלת יצחק עה"ת) that God chose Parshas Tetzaveh for this purpose because the seventh of Adar, the yahrtzeit (anniversary of the passing) of Moses, almost always occurs the week of Parshas Tetzaveh.

Moreover, the Vilna Gaon continues, there are 101 verses in Parshas Tetzaveh. This number is equivalent to the numerical value of the "hidden" portion of Moses' name. Most of us are familiar with the concept of gematria, the idea that Hebrew words have numerical values. The "hidden", or nistar, value of a word is calculated by spelling out each letter in full, and calculating the value of the additional letters. For example, the letter 'א is spelled in full as אל"ף, thus the "hidden" letters of 'א are ל"ף, with the numerical value of 110 (the full value of the letter 'א is 111). The name of Moses is משה. The letter 'מ is spelled מ"ם.  The letter 'ש is spelled שי"ן.  The letter 'ה is spelled ה"א. The hidden portion of Moses' name is therefore מינ"א) 101).

Thus, even though Moses's name is not mentioned explicitly in Parsha Tetzaveh, in reality it is still there in a hidden form. The Vilna Gaon explains that this is intended to teach us that even though Moses is no longer with us physically, his inner spiritual essence is still with us in the form of the Torah that he taught us and the great deeds of righteousness that he performed.

Perhaps we can expand on this idea in connection to Purim. Just as Moses is not mentioned in Parshas Tetzaveh, the name of God is not mentioned in the book of Esther! The Talmud (Chullin 139b) tells us that God hid His face in the days of Esther, and through the entire megilla we do not read of a single super-natural event. The lesson of Megillas Esther is that we must recognize God's miracles and providence even in what appear to be ordinary events. Even when we cannot perceive God openly, we must always know that He is still with us.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Teruma - You Only Have What You Give

With Parshas Teruma, the Torah begins to discuss the the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). This is the main topic of the remainder of the book of Exodus. The parsha opens with God telling Moses to instruct the people to donate materials for the Mishkan (Exodus 25:1-2):
וידבר ה' אל משה לאמר: דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו לי תרומה מאת כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו תקחו את תרומתי:
And God spoke to Moses, saying: "Speak to the children of Israel, and they shall take to Me a portion; from every man whose heart is willing you shall take My portion."
Many commentaries note the rather odd phrasing of "ויקחו לי" - literally, "and they shall take to Me" - rather than the more conventional, "ויתנו לי" - "and they shall give to Me" - and they provide a variety of explanations. Many see in this phrasing an allusion to the idea that, ultimately, the only true acquisitions that we possess are the good deeds that we perform in our lives.

Thus, when the Torah speaks of the Jewish people donating their material wealth to God's service, does not say,  "ויתנו" - "and they shall give to Me," for we cannot truly give anything to God, for both we and our possessions are already in His possession, as the verse states, "The earth and that which fills it is God's; the world, and they who dwell in it." (Psalms 24:1) Instead the Torah uses the phrase,  "ויקחו" - "and they shall take" - alluding to the idea that it is only by giving to God that we truly "acquire" for ourselves.

The Chasam Sofer
The Chasam Sofer (R' Moshe Sofer, d.1839) expands further on this idea, noting that if everything already belongs to God, so that we are not truly donating anything to Him in the first place, then there is no merit inherent in the donation in of itself. Rather, the merit of the donation is rooted in our attitude towards the donation. When we give of our possessions to God, the only actual share we have in the donation is the joy and good-will that we feel in the donation. This is why the verse states, "from every man whose heart is willing you shall take My portion" - for it is the willing heart that is the true gift to God.

As should be self-evident, this principle applies to far more than the donation of material wealth. In reality, everything we have, including our very lives and strength, belongs to God. In every mitzva, the true merit is in the attitude with which we perform the mitzva. In his commentary on Psalms (חומת אנ"ך, תהלים ק:ב), the Chida (R' Chaim Yosef David Azulay, d.1807) makes an analogy to the relationship between a slave and his master. While a good and kind master will certainly reward his slaves for obedient service, strictly speaking he is under no obligation to do so. As such, any such reward is fundamentally an unearned gift. Similarly, we cannot truly speak of earning reward for simple obedience to God, because everything we do, we do with that which He has given us. The only truly earned reward is the reward for serving God with joy and love.

The Chida writes that this is the meaning of the verse, "Serve God with happiness; come before Him with singing." (Psalms 100:2) Only by serving God with joy can we merit to ultimately come before Him, not as beggars asking for a handout or slaves asking for a gift, but as self-respecting beings that have an actual claim to their earned reward.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Mishpatim - Our Spiritual Struggles are the Purpose of Our Existence

At the end of Parshas Mishpatim, the Torah returns to the narrative of the Sinai Revelation. (The commentaries debate whether the events described in Exodus 24 took place before or after the revelation of the Aseres Hadibros (Ten Commandments) described in Parshas Yisro.) It is here we find the famous declaration of the Jewish people (Exodus 24:7), "All that God has spoke, we shall do and we shall hear."

Two verses previously, the Torah states, "And he (Moses) sent the youths of the children of Israel and they brought up elevation-offerings and they slaughtered oxen as peace-offerings to God." This was the final step in sealing the covenant of kabalas haTorah - the receiving of the Torah - in which the Jewish people converted to Judaism. As Maimonides writes (Hil. Issurei Biah 13):
Israel entered the covenant through three things: Circumcision, immersion [in a mikva], and korban (a sacrifice). The circumcision took place in Egypt, as it states (Exodus 12:48), "And no uncircumcised man eat of it (the Paschal lamb)." ... Immersion was performed in the wilderness before the Giving of the Torah, as it says (19:10), "Sanctify them today and tomorrow  and they shall wash their clothing." And the korban, as it says, ""And he sent the youths of the children of Israel and they brought up elevation-offerings." They made these sacrifices on behalf of all Israel.
The Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai was what made the Jewish people Jewish; it was their conversion to Judaism, and it serves as the model for all later conversion. As Maimonides continues:
And so it is for [future] generations, when a non-Jew wishes to enter the covenant and shelter beneath the wings of the Shechina and he accepts upon himself the yoke of the Torah, he requires circumcision, immersion, and offering a korban. If she is a woman, she requires [only] immersion and a korban. For the Torah says (Numbers 15:15), "As for you, so for the convert," [meaning] just as you required circumcision, immersion, and the offering of a korban, a convert in [future] generations will also require circumcision, immersion, and the offering of a korban. ... And in our time, when we cannot bring korbanos, a convert requires circumcision and immersion, and when the Temple is built he will bring his korban
This event was the highest pinnacle of spiritual achievement in the history of the Jewish people. The Talmud (Shabbos 88a) tell us that when the Jewish people declared, "We shall do and we shall hear", six hundred thousand  angels came and set two crowns upon each Jewish man. Yet, just forty days later, the Jewish people sinned with the golden calf, and, the Talmud continues, they lost those crowns that they had earned only a short time before. Ultimately, despite the powerful and transformative experience of their conversion, the Jewish people were still subject to the same challenges and temptations that they had been subject to before they underwent their conversion.

If this was true even for the Jewish nation at Sinai, it is certainly true for converts of later generations. Despite the fact that conversion definitely effects a fundamental spiritual change in the spiritual makeup of the convert, the convert nevertheless retains the same basic personality, with the same spiritual challenges and difficulties that he had before his conversion. Indeed, earlier in this parsha (23:9), we are commanded, "Do not oppress a stranger (i.e. a convert); you know the nature of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Rashi comments (based on Bava Metzia 59b):
בהרבה מקומות הזהירה תורה על הגר, מפני שסורו רע
The Torah admonishes in many places regarding [afflicting] the convert, because his original nature is bad (and he is therefore more likely to abandon the Torah - Gur Aryeh).
As should be self-evident, this does not mean that converts are inherently "bad" people. There are innumerable sources that speak of the great virtues of converts (including the medrash upon which I based the name of this blog). The point is that, just as that first generation of Jews faced exceptional challenges because of their background in Egypt, a convert also faces spiritual challenges that are far more difficult that those faced by someone who was born a Jew, and we are required to bear this in mind when we interact with a convert. It is also of vital importance for those who mentor converts to be sure to make this clear to a potential convert. It is all too easy for a potential convert to imagine that his conversion will transform him into a new reborn being, without the challenges and difficulties that he had before conversion. This is simply a falsehood, and only sets the convert up for a sense of failure and rejection when it inevitably fails to come true.

The truth is that this principle is relevant not just for converts, but for every Jew. We all face spiritual challenges with which we struggle and we are taught that God helps us in our struggles with the yetzer hara (evil inclination), as in the famous Talmudic passage (Yoma 38b), "בא לטהר מסייעין אותו" - "one who comes to be purified, they (i.e. Heavenly forces) help him." We are even supposed to pray to God for such help, and we find such prayers in the traditional prayer services. People sometimes misunderstand these teachings to mean that if they just try hard enough, at some point God will simply take their yetzer hara away from them. The reality, however, is that God does not - ever - directly change us for the better. As Maimonides states in Moreh Nevuchim (III:32): 
The nature of man is never changed by God by way of miracle.... it has never never been His will to do it and it never will be. If it were part of His will to change the nature of any person, the mission of the prophets and the giving of the Law would have been altogether superfluous.
The sources that describe God's help in our struggles with temptation are telling us only that if a person has truly reached the limits of his ability - so that he literally no longer has the ability to resist succumbing to sin - then God will give him the strength to continue the struggle. God helps us with our struggle, by giving us the strength to keep fighting, but the struggle itself is ultimately entirely our responsibility  and it will end only when we pass on to the next world. (See my previous discussion of this concept: Va'eira - The Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart.)

The Baal Shem Tov ('ספר הבעש"ט לך לך ג) is quoted as saying in the name R' Saadia Gaon, כי עיקר בריאת האדם בעוה"ז הוא לשבר מדות רעות שלו הטבעיות - "The primary purpose for the creation of man in this world is for him to break his natural bad characteristics." The struggle to overcome our natural, inborn urges is the primary purpose of our existence. It is the reason why we are here in this world.