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COMMUNAL RESPONSIBILITY

by Avi Wagner    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"Three million refugees continue their stand in the desert with only a day's rations . . .their leader has been reported missing."

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"Three million refugees continue their stand in the desert with only a day's rations . . .their leader has been reported missing."

No, this is not a headline from Rwanda. This is about the Children of Israel awaiting Moses' delayed return at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The hours pass by and still no Moses. Mt. Sinai's presence takes a back seat to their fear for survival. The emotional state of the Jewish people as they approached Aaron prior to the construction of the golden calf was that of a people under duress. Rabbi Yaacov Kamenetsky, one of the leading Torah scholars of the past generation, explains in the words of our sages (Talmud Tractate Eruvin 41b) that poverty is one of three things that causes a person to lose focus on Hashem. So we see the Jewish people, who were sustained only by the daily-falling manna and had no emergency rations in the desert, are distracted easily by Moses' apparent tardiness. The Ibn Ezra, a classic 12th century commentator on the Torah, further comments that for forty days the people failed to see manna fall to Moses on the mountain top, and they feared he had died of starvation.

Now the time had come to regroup. The Kuzari, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi's classic treatise on Jewish fundamentals, explains that the nation, having been recently emancipated from an Egyptian culture where talisman and symbols were used to represent deities, wanted a physical medium of communication between Hashem and themselves. Unfortunately this behavior transgressed the second of the Ten Commandments, not to have any graven images. (This idea is explained in greater detail in Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein's article The Gold Standard.)

The Kuzari further elaborates that the real idolatry was performed only by 3,000 amongst them, all of whom were subsequently killed. Nevertheless, this sin is viewed as a tremendous embarrassment to the entire people of Israel following their spiritual climax at Mt. Sinai.

Three fundamental lessons emerge from this understanding of the sin of the calf. Firstly, in difficult situations, our inclination may lean toward extreme action. We must harness our emotions and attempt to remain objective when we find ourselves in these positions. We must ask ourselves: What have we seen and what is only fear; did Moses really die on Mt. Sinai, or was it simply a miscalculation?

Secondly, in order to act in accordance with Jewish law, we must scrutinize our actions. Using a symbol as a vehicle to draw closer to Hashem seems like a good idea, but what does Hashem say about it? Our emotions may chide us to enhance our spirituality by introducing non-Jewish values where they are inappropriate.

Finally, we must realize the importance of each and every Jew as a member of the community. Even if only a small fraction of a community behaves irresponsibly, the whole group should be embarrassed, as our sages says, "All of Israel is responsible for one another."

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Avi Wagner, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying abroad at the Yeshiva Bais Yisrael in Jerusalem.

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