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Parshat Ki Tisa (5760)

In this week's section we read the tragic story of the sin of the Golden Calf.

I once gave a lecture before a group of non-religious Israeli High School students. The big question that bothered them was could I prove to them that G-d exists. They had heard various 'proofs' of G-d's existence on the many cassettes circulating here in Israel and still were unconvinced.

I told them that the reason I believe in G-d is because I always suspected that there was a Creator and a plan for creation, even before I became religious, and when I saw the Rebbe I knew that Judaism was real and fresh. But as far as proofs, well, when the Torah itself tells us the story of the Golden Calf; how all the Jewish people SAW and EXPERIENCED G-d, and never the less did EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what He wanted, it thereby assures us that no proof can ever be fool-proof.

But after all, isn't it astounding? The Jewish people back then all saw how G-d, with a series of astounding panoramic miracles, took an entire nation out of Egyptian slavery, over two million Jews at one time! How He surrounded them with protective clouds, guided them with a pillar of fire through the desert, fed them bread from heaven, and water that flowed copiously from a rock. Finally they witnessed the greatest miracle of all time: He actually revealed Himself to the entire nation and PERSONALLY told them not to worship other gods!
And in a matter of days they forgot all of the above and worshiped a Golden Calf…!

How did it happen? What went wrong? How could they make such an obviously stupid mistake? And what can we learn from it all? If they saw G-d and never the less sinned, then what chance have we got?

Here are two stories that may provide possible clues:

Sam and Max were successful businessmen well into their seventies. They had gone though the holocaust together and had both seen and experienced unspeakable horrors, but through it all they remained religious Jews and even remarried and built new lives.

One day as they were taking a stroll together in the park suddenly Max grabs at his chest and falls to the ground "It's a heart attack, Sam!!" He whispered, breathing with difficulty and his face contorted in pain.

"Don't worry, Max, it'll be alright! Hold on buddy, I'm calling a doctor; the ambulance will be here in a second! Just take it easy Max!!!"

"No, there's no time for that now, Sam". Max gasped clutching at his heart, "Forget the doctor… Call a priest!"

Sam couldn't believe his ears "What! Max, are you crazy!!! What the hell do you want a priest for??"

As fate would have it a priest that just happened to be passing by, noticed the scene and came rushing over.

"Ahh, good" Said Max upon seeing the priest "I want to convert". The priest without hesitation whipped out his prayer book, made a few incantations and gestures and solemnly declared Max a Catholic.

"Max!!! Max!!" Sam was shaking back and forth holding his head in shock and looking at his dying friend in wide-eyed disbelief, "How could you do it?!! For sixty years we held on to Judaism against all odds, though fire and hell!! What have you done, Max!!!?"

So Max looks up at his bewildered friend and says, "Listen Sam, I'm dying, … It's better that one of them should go then one of us."

Second Story:

Once there was a ninety-year-old ultra-ultra orthodox Jewish lady laying on her deathbed in her small room in Mea Shaarim (ultra-orthodox section of Jerusalem). "Bring me my Michat Yerushaliem Siddur" (a prayer book that has a thirty-page prayer to be said before death) she said to those of her family and friends standing around her. When she finished praying she weakly whispered, "Now bring me a cross".

"A cross?!!" They repeated, not believing their ears "Why would you want that?!" They asked incredulously.

"Well" The old woman sort of regained a bit of energy, propped herself up slightly and said clearly; "There's no sense in taking chances, I want to cover all the options."

Both stories are essentially the same; the heroes of both were uncertain deep down about what is a Jew, and pressure brought out unexpected results.

Similarly when the Torah was given, the Jews couldn't take the revelation, in the Talmud it says that they all experienced death, so they got confused and desperate and worshiped an idol.
It's like a Prime minister or a soldier who is more loyal to himself than to his own country; in times of crises the results will be tragic.

But here in our Torah Section, we aren't speaking about isolated cases as in our jokes. Here we have hundreds of thousands of people, (an entire nation!) surrounded by G-d's undeniable presence, forgetting, en masse, the essence of Jewish faith!!
We must also remember that the sin was committed over a month AFTER the soul shaking revelation at Mt. Siani! There was no pressure!

What happened?

Before we can understand this, let us first consider another, even more basic question:

What is so bad about worshiping 'other gods'?

Why did G-d get so angry to the degree that He actually considered killing all the Nation!? Why couldn't He just keep calm and punish them in another few years after they all died of natural causes?!

After all, we are not talking about human sacrifices here, just a little harmless bowing, WHAT'S SO BAD ABOUT THAT!!!?

And while we're at it, another question:

What are 'OTHER GODS' anyway?! Isn't there only One

The answer to all these questions:

The entire Torah is one long story about how G-d made the world and put man into it in order to give it meaning.

The world, and human personality conceals G-d's purpose. But through the Torah, man can change his own selfish nature and even that of the entire world and reveal G-dliness, like it was in the Tabernacle and Holy Temple. (That is why the previous two Torah sections speak about the Tabernacle; G-d's presence revealed here in this world through the Jewish people.)

The Midrash tells us that the Torah is the reason for creation, the blueprint of creation, and the fulfillment of creation. The Torah, when fulfilled properly by the Jews, will bring the Moshiach and even the raising of the dead!

Strange as it may seem, if the Jews did not receive then or do not fulfill today the Torah, the entire world would revert to nothingness. (See Rashi Berashis 1:1, 1:31)

But here is the 'catch'; what exactly does it mean to 'receive and fulfill the Torah'?

The answer to this can be found in a story told about the first Rebbe of Chabad, Rebbe Shneur Zalman, the author of The Tanya. Once his Chassidim overheard him speaking to G-d in the middle of his prayers and saying (loosely translated): "I don't want anything, I don't want your Heaven, I don't want any spiritual revelations or levels, or rewards, I want only You."

It is the job of the Tzaddik, the Moshe of each generation, to inspire the Jews to have such an attitude; to receive the Torah not just as an intellectual book or a manual of religious rituals, but rather as what it is; 'only You', G-d's essence (see Tanya Chaps. 5 & 47); to embrace the Torah with one's own essence and with complete surrender to the Creator, as we say three times every day in the 'Shma" prayer: "With all your heart, all your soul, all your being."

That is the meaning of what it says in Proverbs (10:25) "The Tzaddik (righteous) supports the world".

In other words; the Tzaddik strengthens creation by waking every Jewish Soul and teaching the Jews HOW to accept and fulfill the Torah.
Without Moshe, the Jews, like dying Sam in our joke, think that they can be 'one of them' and can easily come to worship other gods.

What are other gods?

'Other gods' are any of the myriads of spiritual powers that G-d creates. These powers, because they seem to us to be mystical and beneficent, and because they are more accessible and less demanding than The Creator, boost one's ego are, therefore, enticing substitutes for Judaism and the Torah.

It's like stealing, adultery, or any other transgression; it's quick, and it feels good …TO ME 'Anochi'.

In fact, worshiping, even just bowing down to 'other gods' is the essence of all transgressions; one directly ignores The Creator and becomes devoted only to one's self. Egoism is the opposite of Judiasm, and it can destroy the very foundation and purpose of Creation. And only Moshe Rebbenu can correct it.

That is why G-d got so mad, because the Jewish idolater is something like the man who bores a hole in the floor under his own seat in the boat; he endangers not just himself, but everyone, and everything else.

Now we can understand the real reason why the entire nation sinned…. They sinned because they thought that MOSHE was gone, (Shmos 31: 1) and without Moshe, the Jews are like a flock of sheep with no leader. All the miracles, proofs, and even Torah knowledge, won't help, everyone forgets their Jewish purpose, their Jewish Soul, and reverts to selfish, human nature.

[I read in a book called 'Fire and brimstone' by JJ Hecht, that the real meaning of what Moshe said when he heard, from Mt. Siani, the noise of the people worshiping the Calf: "Kol Anot Anochi Shomaia" (32:18) is: "I hear the Jews shouting: 'Anochi!' (I, me!)."]

Now we can understand an additional thing, why Moshe broke the tablets. Moshe broke the Tablets for two reasons; first, in order to save the Jews (Dev. 34 13) and second, to inspire and remind them that the essence of a Jew, the Jewish soul that they disregarded, (even that of a sinning Jew!) is more valuable than even the most precious thing in existence; the Torah itself.

What can we learn from the above?

Here is a story that I hope illustrates what I learned.

I was once in 770 (the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Synagogue and headquarters in New York) waiting in the line for dollars (the Rebbe used to personally hand out dollars, blessings and advice to literally thousands of people, mostly Jews, every Sunday, in order to encourage others to give more charity and to act more Jewish). The line hadn't begun moving because the Rebbe had not yet come out, so I stuck up a conversation with one of the many old beggars there who were getting ready to ask people for charity once Rebbe started giving out dollars. He told me that he had been collecting here every Sunday for three years, so I asked him if in all that time he had ever himself gotten a dollar from the Rebbe.

"No, of course not!" he answered " If I wait in line to get a dollar from the Rebbe, then I'll only get one dollar and here I can collect even a hundred dollars, even more!"

"O.K." I answered smiling slightly from the shallowness of his answer, "But the Rebbe's dollar has a blessing with it and these dollars are just regular dollars"

"Ahhh! A Blessing!" He exclaimed, "A blessing? I don't need no dollar to get a blessing…. Every time I see the Rebbe's eyes it's a blessing!" This sort of surprised me coming from such a person, but what he said next surprised me even more.

He leaned over near my ear and spoke in a very low voice, almost a whisper and said in his Brooklyn accent: " You might think that I'm an apikoris or somethin' but do you know why people steal and kill and do all sorts of terrible things to each udder? Well I'll tell you why" he said, without giving me a chance to answer "Because they don' believe in G-d. An' do you know why they don' believe in G-d? Because they don't see G-d! Even if ya look around you don't see Him… do ya"

"Well I want to tell you something" he continued, suddenly speaking more clearly "You might think that I'm an apikoris or somethin'… but when I see the Rebbe I know that there is a G-d, I see G-d, I don't understand it but I know it's true."

That is the job of the Rebbe, the job that Moshe began and that the Moshiach will finish, to bring all the Jews to 'see' G-d always, and serve Him with all their Heart, their Soul and their Being.

Copyright © 1999-2018 Rabbi Tuvia Bolton. All rights reserved. No unauthorized reproduction or copying of this material shall occur without prior permission.

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