The Anatomy of a Great Fall

The English Poet Alexander Pope’s phrase, To err is human, to forgive is divine, can readily be applied to the great sin that occurs in Parshat Ki Tisa, the Sin of the Golden Calf. Yet, inkwells have been spilled trying to explain exactly what the sin was and how it came about. These were people who saw scores of miracles throughout the year of the Ten Plagues. This was the nation that miraculously walked on dry land amid the bed of the Red Sea. These were the souls who personally witnessed G-d speaking the first two of the Ten Commandments. How could they fall from such a lofty level, to one where they worshiped an idol, the Golden Calf?

וַיַּ֣רְא הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה לָרֶ֣דֶת מִן־הָהָ֑ר וַיִּקָּהֵ֨ל הָעָ֜ם עַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֤וּ אֵלָיו֙ ק֣וּם ׀ עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱלִֹ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ כִּי־זֶ֣ה ׀ מֹשֶׁ֣ה הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֶֽעֱלָ֙נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְנוּ מֶה־הָ֥יָה לֽוֹ׃

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.”

The great 19th century German commentator the Ketav Vekabbalah, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg -  draws our attention to the first word of the verse  וַיַּ֣רְא - And they saw

The fact is, the people didn’t see anything, but rather it was that they didn’t see Moshe after they counted 40 days and nights and they grew frightened and concerned that he would never be coming back. Despite Aaron trying to comfort them and to delay them with the hopes of Moshe returning, the group was unstoppable. It is written in the Talmud that they actually killed Moshe’s nephew Chur who tried to prevent them from pursuing the Golden Calf.

What went wrong?

Some commentators, including Rashi, write that it was only a small group of rabble rousers called the Eruv Rav from Egypt, who tagged along with Israel, felt lost without Moshe and began to cling to their previous ways when asking for a substitute for Moshe. 

Alternatively, Nachmanidies writes that the reason a calf was formed, and not a sheep (which was the god of the Egyptians) is because at Sinai, the Israelites saw a prophetic vision of a chariot that on one side had a baby calf. Therefore, the people wanted to reconnect to G-d at Mt. Sinai by recreating an image they had seen during the Siniatic Revalation.

However, the late Rosh Yeshiva of the Mirrer in Jerusalem, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitzs zt”l explains that the origins of the sin of the Golden Calf was the trembling and crippling fear our ancestors felt when they suspected Moshe was dead or gone and not coming back. When that agita took hold of them, they longed for some security, something tangible for them to grasp onto. They were so distraught that they built a Golden Calf and worshiped it. 

A great lesson for us from the Sin of the Golden Calf is the need to remain calm and faithful in the face of uncertainty. Life is anything but certain. The only thing we know for sure today, is that tomorrow will be different. Therefore, we aim to remain confident based on the blessings of the past, and trust in G-d’s mercy going forward. With this in mind we embrace the future as it unfolds in front of us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Epstein
Community Scholar in Residence