JUMPING THE GUN
by Avraham Chaim
Watching the story of the golden calf unfold, one may easily wonder how it was possible that such a righteous generation, a nation that witnessed the speech of Hashem and revelation at Mt. Sinai, could stoop to such a low level that they were able to worship a calf made in front of their own eyes as they waited for Moses to descend from the mountain with the Torah.
Watching the story of the golden calf unfold, one may easily wonder how it was possible that such a righteous generation, a nation that witnessed the speech of Hashem and revelation at Mt. Sinai, could stoop to such a low level that they were able to worship a calf made in front of their own eyes as they waited for Moses to descend from the mountain with the Torah. In order for us to understand their mistake, let us first raise some other questions.
The Midrash on this week's Torah portion states: It was praiseworthy for the Children of Israel to declare, "Na'aseh venishma - we will do and we will hear" (an acceptance to perform the will of Hashem regardless of what it may be); was it then proper for them to say, "This is your god, Israel (referring to the golden calf)"? Why does the Midrash compare the willingness of Israel to accept the Torah with their act of creating the golden calf? What do the two have to do with each other?
Another Midrash, this one in Parshat Chukat which discusses the mitzvah of parah adumah (the red heifer used in purifying the spiritually impure), gives us an astounding analogy. The child of a maidservant dirties himself in front of the king. The king responds, "Let the mother come and clean the excrement of her son." So too, Hashem said, "Let the red heifer come and atone for the sin of the golden calf." How can the Midrash give a reason for the commandment of the red heifer which the Torah itself identifies as the quintessential chok, a commandment without a comprehensible reason?
The Beis Halevi, one of the most brilliant Torah scholars of 19th century Lithuania, explains that there are ways by which we can create places on earth where the shechinah, the presence of Hashem, can reside. This concept is demonstrated most clearly with regard to the Mishkan (Tabernacle), about which Hashem declared, "Make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst you." Those who built the golden calf thought that they could create a place where Hashem's presence could dwell by using their own intuition and feelings, with their own understanding and intelligence. However, they were gravely mistaken. Although we may truly desire the presence of Hashem, a place for the shechinah can only be created in reaction to a commandment from Hashem Himself to do so, as it was in the case of the Mishkan. The sin of the golden calf was in their introducing a novel method by which to draw Hashem's presence closer, without first receiving a command to do so. Their intentions were, in fact, solely for the purpose of serving Hashem, but they stumbled in this respect.
We can now understand the comparison drawn by the Midrash between the proclamation of "na'aseh venishma" to the building of the golden calf. When the Children of Israel said "na'aseh venishma" they were declaring that they would perform whatever Hashem commanded, whether it agreed with their own intelligence or not. On the other hand, when they built the golden calf, they were stating that they could create a resting place for Hashem's presence without a divine command, based solely on their own feelings and understandings. Just a few weeks after completely accepting the Torah simply because it was the word of G-d, they made the mistake of anticipating Hashem's command and incorporating their own misguided opinions into their divine service.
This also explains the analogy given by the Midrash, "Let the red heifer come and atone for the sin of the golden calf." When the sages presented us with this analogy, they did not mean to provide a reason for the commandment of the red heifer itself. On the contrary, it is specifically because we fulfill this commandment that has no logical explanation that it is identified as the one that provides atonement for the sin of the golden calf.
The Talmud in Tractate Berachot tells us that the shechinah is present wherever even a single person sits and studies Torah, as Hashem states, "Wherever you cause My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you" (Exodus 20:21). Hashem has clearly established a method by which we can cause Him to dwell amongst us. Let us all emulate our ancestors in their zealousness to have Hashem's presence close to them.
Avraham Chaim Feldman, a native Atlantan, is a junior at the Israel Henry Beren High School of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.
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