Ki Sisa - The Golden Calf
By Rabbi Heshy Grossman
Moshe Rabbeinu descends from Har Sinai and discovers that Klal Yisrael has
created a Golden Calf in his absence, a basis for idolatry. He casts to the
ground the tablets of Hashem, stirring the Jewish people to repentance.
Forgiven, but not forgotten, the sin of the Egel HaZahav echoes still. The
suffering of the Jewish people throughout history is an element of
retribution for this moumental sin.
Let us consider a number of questions.
What is it that gives this sin its comprehensive nature; how is it
paradigmatic of all future misdeed? And how have the B'nai Yisrael sunk so
quickly, from the pinnacle of Divine revelation to the depths of idolatry?
Even so, why does Moshe break the Luchos? In the absence of a Divine
command, what gave him the right to do so? Not only is he never rebuked,
but Hashem ultimately praises his initiative.
"And I will send an angel before you, and send away the Canaani, the Emori,
the Hitti.... for I [Hashem] will not dwell in your midst, for you are a
stiff-necked people, lest I destroy you on the way."
"And the nation heard this terrible word, and they mourned, and no man
placed his crown upon him."
"VaYisnatzlu B'nai Yisrael Es Edyam MeiHar Chorev" - "And the B'nai Yisrael
were removed from the crowns they had received at Har Chorev" (Shmos 33, 2-6)
What were these unique crowns that had been acquired after accepting the
'Edyam' parallels 'Eden', both words having the same numerical value.
At Har Sinai, Klal Yisrael had achieved an exalted level, that of Adam
HaRishon in the Garden of Eden, before the sin. They were freed from the
angel of death and ready to dominate the world stage, entering the Promised
Land for eternity.
The sin of the Egel HaZahav parallels the original sin, and man falls from
the heights of immortality, losing the crown that is his connection to the
Let us explain these two pivotal events, demonstrating why they are the
foundation of all subsequent sin.
As we asked in regards to the sin of the Golden Calf, how is it that Adam
HaRishon, the direct handiwork of G-d, can violate the one Mitzva he has?
Adam's choice was not as ours, a clear-cut decision: good or evil. Rather,
he was obliged to distinguish between two versions of good; that which was
truly G-d's will and the duplicitous sham proffered by the snake.
Let us explain.
In the world of Adam, evil did not exist. He was aware only of truth and
falsehood. To violate G-d's word was unthinkable foolishness and meant
opting for a world of anti-existence. He never imagined that were evil to
be actualized in life man might choose to pursue it.
He reckoned as follows: The purpose of life is the revelation of G-d's
presence, the sanctification of His name. In Eden however, when man is
catered to by angels, spirituality is everywhere. If I will eat from the
tree and allow for an element of darkness in existence, hiding G-d's Hand,
the ultimate unmasking will enlighten the world in a way that is presently
Partaking from the Etz HaDa'as brought a new dimension to life. Evil was
now transformed into a viable option, and man was forced to overcome its
The sin in the desert is strikingly similar. A world with Moshe Rabbeinu as
its guide is witness to Divine revelation. When Moshe fails to appear at
the expected time, Klal Yisrael is panic-stricken. How are we to achieve
our spiritual goals in his absence?
Ramban explains that the Golden Calf represented one element of the Divine
chariot of Yechezkel's prophecy, specifically, the ox which draws the left
side. The chariot symbolizes Divine providence, G-d's direction of wordly
affairs. The ox plows the earth, representing the material bounty that
sustains all life.
The people were guilty of this: separating one aspect of life from the
unity that is the true basis of existence.
One as exalted as Moshe Rabbeinu, they felt, can grow spiritually with the
open miracles of life in an arid desert. The average person, however, needs
to recognize the truth on his own, and requires natural law in order to
sanctify His Name. This is the Calf that they make real.
The physical functions of life, the apparent power of cause and effect,
conceal G-d's presence. They certainly understood that it is the Hand of
G-d that operates behind the scenes, but they hoped to serve as vehicles
for His service. By empowering the Golden Calf, man will learn of its
emptiness, recognizing cause and effect as a smokescreen, and negating its
apparent control, bringing the world to a deeper recognition of Divine
Though well-intentioned, as was Adam HaRishon, they did not sin as much as
act foolishly. It is never wise to hide from G-d, for one can never be
certain that the physical blandishments of a tempting world will be
repulsed. Once open, the doorway to sin is not easily closed.
In short: the rationalization that engagement with a physical world will
serve to reveal G-d's presence is an element of the original sin.
Let us now explain how they went wrong.
The Torah reveals a striking similarity in its introduction to both of
these cardinal sins.
"And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and desirous to the
"And the nation saw that Moshe was delayed in descending from the
They followed their eyes.
Of this, we remind ourselves each day: "And do not stray after your hearts,
or your eyes..."
The Torah's warning refers to material desire and temptation. Eyes present
man with an attractive image, and only the intellect subjects that vision
to critical analysis. While the insightful man can look beyond the surface
and recognize lasting value, the man who folows his eyes is betrayed by a
vision that senses nothing but physicality.
There are those who insist that the purpose of creation is achieved by the
merging of man's spiritual self with the realities of the physical world.
True. At times, it is necessary to lower one's self from the spiritual
heights and confront the physical dimension of Olam HaZeh. But, this is a
test, not a Mitzva. It is Adam's curse to work the land, one of the many
obstacles facing man in his drive towards spiritual devotion. Success in
the physical world is not our goal, nor should it be the focus of our
This world may be a vehicle for the service of G-d. But, it is not an
excuse for fun and pleasure.
Simply put, if it is the will of G-d that you hope to express, why does it
taste so good?
This was their mistake.
As Queen Esther demonstrated when she entered the den of Achashverosh, sin
is sometimes justified, when one's intentions are completely pure, an
'Aveirah Lishmah'. But, who is the man who can confidently state that he
has no desire of his own?
When Moshe Rabbeinu destroys the Luchos, he leaves man with no option but
to independently discover the truth. Is this not similar to the motive of
those who produced the Golden Calf?
Unlike the people who hastily besieged Aharon, Moshe had long ago ceased to
be concerned for himself, his every breath reflecting the word of G-d. On
the contrary, his act of pure devotion is perfect atonement for the
Original Sin - Part II, his was an 'Aveirah Lishmah'. While the people were
guilty of undue attachment to a materialistic existence, Moshe Rabbeinu
leads them once again, this time to a discovery of the true value of Olam
HaZeh. He eventually returns with the second Tablets, representing the
Torah SheBa'al Peh. Under his tutelage, man does become partner with G-d,
and his connection to this world does help to produce a different aspect of
Perhaps this is the lesson: only Moshe Rabbeinu can bring the word of G-d
down from heaven. Without him, the best of intentions deteriorate into a
dance before the Golden Calf.
"VaYashkimu MiMochoras VaYa'alu Olos, VaYagishu Shelamim, VaYeshev HaAm
Le'Echol, V'Shasu, VaYakumu L'Tzachek" (Shmos 32, 6)
Hoping to serve their Creator, the nation initially offered varied
sacrifices to G-d before descending towards idolatry. This slippery slope
parallels the path of the ideological movements that have swept the Jewish
people in recent times.
At first - 'Olos' - a burnt offering, dedicated completely to Hashem. The
first stage of every revolution is marked by passion and fervor, the
earnest commitment of the true believer.
As time goes on, the enthusiasm fades, the sacrifice offered is 'Shelamim'.
While a portion remains dedicated to the Temple, the owner benefits as
well. In other words, though enthusiasm for the cause is still present, man
now attends to his own self-interest.
Ultimately, the original idea is forgotten, either in despair over
unmaterialized promise, or having lived out its usefulness. Without ideals,
and bereft of values, man is left to 'Echol V'Shasah' - eat and drink, with
no hint of Divine sacrifice.
From here it's only a short step towards the abyss - 'VaYakumu L'Tzachek'.
We wait for G-d to repair the damage done. In the meantime, we can only
pray, as Eliyahu on Har HaCarmel, in the Haftora of this week's Parsha.
"Aneni Hashem Aneni, V'Yed'u Ha'Am HaZeh Ki Attah Hashem HaElokim, V'Attah
HaSibosa Es Libam Achoranis" (it is You who has turned their hearts astray)
'You have provided a place for them to turn away from You, and it is in
Your Hand to repair their hearts towards You." (Rashi)
JerusalemViews, Copyright (c) 1999 by Rabbi Heshy Grossman and Project