This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Ki Tisa (5763)
This week we read of how Moses convinced G-d to not destroy the Jews for their unforgivable sin of worshipping the Golden Calf.
At first glance it’s not so clear exactly how he succeeded.
It was the worst sin possible, they did it on purpose and they had no alibi!
Just 40 days earlier at Mount Sinai each Jew had heard (and seen, face to face Deut 5:4) G-d personally saying Don’t Worship Idols (Second Commandment). But they nevertheless did exactly that, with malice aforethought. And they knew full well what they were in for.
Why did G-d forgive them?! Even more, not only did He forgive them …. He taught Moses the 13 Attributes of Mercy to be used in future generations to win forgiveness for similar sins!
Wouldn’t this advertise that sin is not so bad? Wouldn’t it make light of all the prohibitions in the Torah for all time?
Even more, G-d’s plan was not to destroy ALL the Jews. He only wanted to eliminate those that sinned and make a new improved Jewish nation from Moses. This seems very correct, logical, just and practical. Why did He change His mind and decide to let the sinners live?
And why did Moses have to convince Him? If there was a reason for leniency then why did G-d have to wait for Moses to give it… why didn't He just forgive them on His own?
What is the Torah trying to teach us here?
To understand this here is a story that happened to me a while ago.
Every Friday I leave the frantic pre-Shabbat preparations in my home in Kfar Chabad and go to downtown Tel Aviv to encourage non-observant Jews to put on ‘Tefillin’.
[G-d, at Mt. Sinai some 3,300 years ago, commanded all adult Jewish males for all generations, to tie two leather boxes, one on the arm and another to the head, each containing four special parchments, for at least a few minutes every weekday. These are called ‘Tefillin.’ In 1967 two weeks before the Six-day war the Lubavitcher Rebbe began the 'Tefillin Campaign' and ordered the older Chassidim and young Talmudic students to actually leave their places of work and study and go into the streets to ask other Jews to do this commandment (really two commandments; head and hand).]
Accompanied by a friend or two I go to a huge outdoor artsy-craftsy market in Tel-Aviv (Midrachov of Nachalat Benyamin), take three pairs of Tefillin which I bought, borrow a table from one of the restaurants, set up stand and ask Jewish men walking in the street if they want come over and do a 'Mitzva'.
Literally hundreds of people, perhaps thousands on a sunny day, pass by our table and often as many as fifty put on. But one Friday something happened that made me appreciate what I was doing in anew.
It was a beautiful summer day, the market streets were filled with smiling people browsing around, taking a walk with their families or bustling to and from their destinations.
Suddenly a man brought his new ‘mountain’ bicycle to a screeching halt in front of our table, got off, looked us over contemptuously like a Baron reviewing his serfs, narrowed his eyes and said, "Aren't you ashamed!?"
He looked like a typical Israeli leftist-intellectual. Perhaps a professor; healthy build, perhaps sixty years old, a ring in his ear, balding, white hair drawn back into a neat little pony tail, dressed in shorts and sleeveless t-shirt revealing a small tattoo on his shoulder and superiority written all over his face.
His tone was that of a teacher that just caught his pupils writing graffiti on the walls.
"Aren't you disgusted with yourself?!" He repeated.
I thanked him, told him that I wasn't feeling particularly disgusted today and asked him why he asked?
"Why?! Ha Ha!" He scoffed. "I'll tell you why! Don't tell me you don't know why! Ha!!"
I just turned my palms up, shrugged my shoulders and he continued.
"You are standing here in the street, throwing your guilt-trips, Divine retribution hang-ups and neuroses on people, making them feel ashamed, inferior, guilty, depressed and miserable!!
"And" He paused for a moment, leaned a bit closer to me and calmly announced, "I want it stopped! Here is NOT going to be Iran!! Here everyone is free from your medieval superstitions!"
Interestingly enough he said all this without really raising his voice. Either he was trained in maintaining academic cool or perhaps he thought maybe if he was suave enough he could get me to stop forever. In any case I had to think fast because people were passing by, I wanted to ask them to put on Tefillin and it didn’t look like he was going to leave.
"Listen, maybe you're right" I answered feebly, trying to force a smile "I certainly don't want to make people feel bad. I'll tell you what," I was thinking while I was talking, "you stand over here behind me and the first person that you notice reacts to me with a sour face, well, you just tap me on the shoulder and I promise that I'll stop everything and listen to you for ten minutes. Maybe you’re right."
Now, the truth is that up till then I had never really taken notice of how people reacted to my advances so I didn't really know what I was in for but I figured that at least I would be rid of him for a few minutes and maybe some other 'cause' would catch his ‘Don Quixote’ eye and he would leave.
He took his place off to a side and I asked the first man that passed,
"Hello there my friend! Come put on Tefillin"
He, looked at me with a big smile and without stopping, raised his hands and shook his head 'no' as he passed me by.
"Sir! Tefillin?" I shouted at the next passerby.
He smiled, pointed to his watch, and kept going.
"Hey, Yehudi! (Jew) Have you got a minute for Tefillin, only one minute on the clock!!"
"He too broke into a smile and said "Nope, not me!"
The next one also grinned and let out a big TSK! Sound with his lips (which the Israeli's do when they mean '"Sorry, I can't help you") and kept going.
Meanwhile I'm noticing, for the first time, that everyone is replying with a smile! Then suddenly another bicycle came to a screeching halt about ten feet away from us and the driver just sat there staring at us defiantly.
He was almost a copy of the first ‘professor’; about fifty, healthily built, rings in both ears, balding, white hair drawn back into a neat little pony tail, dressed in shorts and sleeveless t-shirt revealing a small tattoo on his shoulder.
'Oy', I thought to myself, "I've got two of them! What am I going to do now?!"
He got off the bike and approached with absolutely no expression on his face, just like the first one did. So, expecting the worst, I forced a smile and said the only thing I know how to say in such situations,
"Nu, want to ...... put on ……Tefillin?"
He stopped about two feet in front of me, looked me in the eye, stuck out his arm, grinned and said ….. "Sure!"
I shot a glance over my shoulder to see if the professor behind me was observing all this and saw only his back profile fading into the distance on his bicycle. He ran away!!
I realized something very important that afternoon:
Jews like The Commandments.
Maybe they don't do them, maybe they don't understand them, maybe they even oppose them, but somewhere deep down in their consciousness they like them.
And who revealed this amazing secret?
Back then it was Moses. In our generation it’s the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
If it wasn't for him no one would even dream it's possible to stop a non-religious stranger in the street on his way to somewhere important, ask him to do a religious ritual for five long minutes in public! And he'll actually do it!!!
I think this is the answer to our question.
The Jews got forgiven for the sin of the Golden calf because Moses 'convinced' G-d that the only reason they sinned in the first place was because they lost their identities. Namely, when they thought, as the Torah explains, that Moses was dead they ‘lost Jewish consciousness’ and weren’t aware of what they were doing.
In other words it wasn't their 'real' selves that sinned; their ‘real’ selves could never do such a thing. The previous Rebbe said it best in his last essay; (called ’Basi L’Gani); "A Jew neither wants to nor is able to sin against G-d; the only reason it happens is …. temporary insanity."
Just as the Jews in my story did until they were asked to do a 'Mitzva' by a representative of the ‘Moses’ of our generation. They simply weren't aware of how much they really enjoyed the Commandments.
That is the big lesson the Torah is teaching us here. Without Moses, and the Moses of every generation, Jews forget they are Jews. They forget the Torah, G-d, the Commandments and themselves.
And this is the job of Moshiach; to do what Moses back then and the Lubavitcher Rebbe today did and awaken the true inner nature in each and every Jew; as the Rambam says: "Moshiach will 'force' them (by making them happy, as in our story) to walk in the path of the Torah."
Then G-d will forget and forgive all the past mistakes of His people and His thirteen attributes of Mercy will shine on the entire world bringing peace, prosperity, meaning, joy and blessing.
The positive, unique potential in each human will shine and there will be no more war, disease, famine or hatred. We only have to open our eyes and do all we can, even one more good deed, word or even thought, can tilt the scales and bring…..
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