The people of Israel experience the revelation of the divine and yet soon after, fall into the sin of the golden calf. One needs to comprehend the enormity of that transgression and attempt to understand how it could have transpired altogether. It was an event that had catastrophic implications. Our sages teach that the implications of the sin of the Golden Calf have become the source of all other communal sins of this people , (Sanhedrin 102a)
One could have wrongly assumed that that their sin was a sin of idolatry and of creating “other gods”. Yet clearly the children of Israel were not trying to replace G-d but rather they felt a compulsion to replace Moshe their leader and teacher.
On the 16th of Tammuz the people come to the mistaken conclusion that Moshe is overdue and that perhaps he has died. “When the people saw that Moses had not come down the mountain, they gathered round Aaron and said to him, ‘come make for us gods to go (Yeilchu-plural verb)before us [to lead us]; for that man [Moshe] who brought us here from Egypt – we do not know what has become of him’.” (ibid 32:1)
Aharon, Moshe’s brother, stalls for time and believes that all will be well, as Rashi states: “In his heart he intended it should be for Heaven ; he was certain that Moshe would arrive and they would serve the Omnipresent.” Yet, eventually he extracts the golden calf out of the fire.
“And they said, these are( Eleh) your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the Land of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:4)
Again we see the use of the plural with the word ELEH as in these are( Eleh) your gods”. The reason for the plurality was that G-d still remained G-d ,but in many ways He remained the awesome and fearful G-d .They felt that they needed to have some other entity to stand between them and the Ultimate G-d.
“Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of Hashem our G-d any more, then we shall die….. You go near, and hear all that Hashem our G-d may say; and you shall speak unto us all that Hashem our G-d may speak unto you; and we will hear it and do it.’ ” (Deuteronomy 5:21-23).
With Moshe gone they needed some entity to take his ( Moshe’s) place.
Therefore we need to understand that if in fact this sin originated out of this primitive and childish fear why was it perceived in the Heavens as being so catastrophic and fraught with eternal implications?
On the most basic level, it is clear that this turning to another entity at this climactic time and place achieved one painful result, and that was the desecration of G-d’s name( Chillul Hashem) . That according to Jewish understanding is the ultimate transgression as we are reminded further in the book of Leviticus; “And you shall not desecrate My holy name.”( Leviticus 22:32)
Here at the foot of Mount Sinai, after the Exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea, some of the children of Israel are turning to a “mediator”, or a stand in. The desecration of Hashem’s name ensconced in such an act is devastating. The word for “desecration” in Hebrew ,”Chillul “is related to the word ” Chalal” meaning empty and vacuous space. An act of “Chillul Hashem” becomes an act that hides Hashem’s Presence and mask His existence.It leaves a void.
Yet we need to understand how even a fraction of the Israelites could have fallen into a state wherein such behavior was possible?
Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira (Ztz”l) focuses on these questions in a lesson he taught shortly before he was tragically murdered. He relates the understanding that the people miscalculated when the forty days that Moshe had told them he would be gone, was over. They lost faith in his promise and in the mission. That lost faith was the source of their fall.
Rabbi Elazar (Ztz”l) turns to the story of Bilaam the prophet of the pagan nations. After saddling up his donkey Balaam rushes to curse the Israelites. The donkey sees what Balaam was not able to, and he veers to the right and left to avoid the menacing sword in the hands of the angel that stood before him. When he could not turn to either side the donkey falls to the ground which angers Balaam and he begins to strike the donkey.
“Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now. “The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your she-donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed( Haasken Hiskanti) to do this to you?” He said, “No.”( Numbers 22:28-30)
Rabbi Elazar (Ztzl) focuses on the words of the donkey “Have I been accustomed( Haasken Hiskanti) to do this to you?” to teach an important lesson.
Moshe promised them that he would be back. This was the same Moshe who brought to them Hashem’s promise of the Exodus and of the redemption at the shores of the Red Sea. This was the same Moshe who represented the unshakeable truth of G-d’s promise. The people of Israel should have been able to depend on that promise and not get swayed by their incorrect perceptions and fears. It is in that they did not, that they failed so miserably.
If one loses the ability or the desire to see Hashem working within and without one’s lives, the space becomes void and empty. If you do not acknowledge how He has been so present in your life until now you begin to falter. If you don’t look for Him , He remains invisible. The space becomes a Challal. That void and empty space then quickly becomes filled with fear , hatred and idolatry.
This is a lesson that needs to be constantly relearned. We all live in a reality fraught with concerns and dangers. There are times we all feel adrift without anchors as a people or even as individuals. It is then we need to examine our lives and our personal or communal history to remember and rediscover Hashem’s presence in every corner and hidden niche of our lives.
Our perception may become blurred by the hatred within and without our borders. It can be blunted by the disdain and rising tide of simple antisemitism rising again in Europe. We can become even disheartened by the betrayal of those we once thought were allies.
Yet the antidote necessitates a reconnecting of all the dots in our long voyage. When everything becomes connected and contextual the need to look for and depend on earth bound mediators and replacements become negated. When Hashem is seen as Imminent rather than just being transcendent then the possibility of creating a void and empty Challal becomes impossible. All that is left is Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of His name.
LeRefuat Yehudit bat Golda Yocheved