By Rabbi Aron Tendler
One of the most dramatic moments in the Torah was when G-d informed Moshe
that the Bnai Yisroel were sinning with the Golden Calf and that He was going
to destroy them. Rather than questioning or arguing the merits of the case,
Moshe accepted the facts as stated by G-d and immediately launched into his
defense of the nation. That moment of Moshe confronting the wrath of G-d and
coming to the defense of his charges was an unequaled display of loving
leadership. Regardless of the circumstances or degree of their betrayal,
Moshe demanded forgiveness. As the events then revealed, Moshe was concerned
about the nation more so than the individual. Individuals deserving of
punishment would certainly be punished; however, the nation as a whole had to
be forgiven and saved from G-d's wrath. As the Torah states, "G-d relented
regarding the evil…" and did not punish the nation.
Following his successful defense of the nation, Moshe descended from Mt.
Sinai, broke the Luchos, and confronted the Jews. He destroyed the Golden
Calf and began punishing those who had actually participated in worshiping
the idol. He questioned Aharon regarding the circumstances of the sin and
gathered around him the tribe of Levi. With the help of Shevet Levi, the
remaining sinners were punished.
The next morning, Moshe demanded that G-d forgives the Bnai Yisroel, and G-d
consented to do so. However, G-d's forgiveness did not mean that there
wouldn't be consequences to the nation's relationship with G-d. In fact, the
relationship was profoundly changed because of the sin of the Golden Calf.
Following the sin of Adam and Chava, G-d withdrew His overt presence from the
workings of nature. Before the sin, G-d's presence could be heard
"manifesting itself in the garden." (Ber. -3:8). After the sin, His
presence was secreted within the laws of nature. As a way of illustrating
this change, imagine the difference between seeing someone in person to only
hearing a description of that person. Seeing someone does not require that
we engage in any mental processing. We see the person and we know what that
person looks like. Whatever processing takes place happens automatically
without exerting any effort. However, when that same person is described to
us without our seeing him in person, the description requires that we engage
in a series of mental processes that translate the description into a
picture. Imagine the processing that is demanded if afterwards we actually
met that person. Taking the mental picture generated by the description and
matching it to the real person would require a complex process of association
G-d's manifestation before the sin was similar to seeing the actual person.
G-d's manifestation after the sin was similar to hearing a description. The
first didn't require that Adam and Chava engage in any mental processing.
They simply knew that G-d existed. Experiencing nature meant recognizing the
Creator. G-d's manifestation after they sinned was similar to the second
case of hearing a description of the person but not seeing him. Both the
initial description and the subsequent face-to-face meeting require
processing and effort.
Contrast the reaction of the Jews toward G-d at the time of the splitting of
the sea to our reaction to the record of that event. For those who were
there the verse in As Yashir (Song by the Sea, Shemos - 15:2) Says, "This is
my G-d…" Rashi references the Medresh that says that the Jews were able to
point with their fingers and say with absolute certainty, "Look, there is my
G-d!" The manifestation of G-d was so clear that the Jews did not have to
engage in any mental processing. It was as if they were seeing G-d in
person! On the other hand, we must process the story of the sea parting and
believe that it was a manifestation of G-d. We must use our minds and
imaginations to process and accept events that others witnessed.
The same Medresh that Rashi referenced is also the source of the famous
quote, "A maidservant at the splitting of the sea witnessed more of G-d's
actuality than the famous prophet Yichezkel." I have always questioned how
that was possible. Becoming a prophet required the most rigorous and
comprehensive training imaginable. A prophet had to be both an extraordinary
scholar as well as truly righteous. Only then could an individual hope to
attain the understanding of G-d called prophecy. How could a mere
maidservant have ever understood more than Yichezkel who was considered among
the greatest of our prophets? However, now I understand the meaning of the
Medresh. The Medresh was not describing a sophisticated understanding of G-d
or His relationship to justice, society, and the universe. The Medresh was
describing the basic recognition of G-d as He manifested His actuality in the
parting of the sea. Yichezkel understood G-d through the highly
sophisticated and complex processing of Torah knowledge, natural law, and
life experience. He functioned on the level of the person who must form a
mental picture based upon someone else's description. The maidservant, on
the other hand, functioned on the level of the person who had met G-d in
person. She might not have understood the depths of G-d's mastery or her
subsequent responsibilities, but she knew that He existed even more clearly
than the greatest of prophets.
Adam and Chava before their sin were minimally like the maidservant at the
parting of the sea. After they sinned, G-d could only be maximally realized
on the level of prophecy. Therefore, it is following their sin that G-d
began to speak to humanity. Prior to their sinning, there was no need for
G-d to speak. He may have spoken, but it was not His primary means for
communicating His actuality. Through "working and guarding" (Ber. - 2:15)
Gan Eden, humanity would understand the depths of G-d's profundity.
Following their sin, G-d withdrew Himself from nature. No longer would He be
clearly manifest within the laws of nature. From then on, humanity would
have to struggle to recognize G-d's manifest presence. Through their
observation of the laws of nature they could derive the existence of the
Creator Who is ever present. After struggling to reveal the truth of G-d's
existence and living a life style that reflected His presence, G-d would then
grant a chosen few the benefit of receiving His prophecy. Only then would
His presence be absolutely confirmed. However, even then the recognition of
His presence required the mental exertions to translate prophecy into
That is why the early generations lived so much longer than the generations
after the Mabul. It required far more time to recognize G-d through the
study of nature and to understand His expectations for humanity than it did
once Torah was introduced.
At the giving of the Torah, G-d once again decided to manifest Himself to the
Bnai Yisroel on a level that was similar to Gan Eden. Although His presence
was to remain secreted within nature, He would reveal Himself to an entire
nation through prophecy. However, not just any prophesy. G-d was prepared
to reveal Himself on the highest level of prophecy - the level of "word."
The Rambam - Maimonidies explained that all prophets, except for Moshe
Rabbeinu, received prophecy while asleep or in a trance through the medium of
a "vision." Moshe, on the other hand, received prophecy in a fully conscious
state, "like a secretary taking dictation." G-d spoke to Moshe through words
not pictures. All other prophets had to be trained to translate their
visions into an understanding of G-d's wishes. Moshe did not have to undergo
any processing or translation. G-d told him exactly what He wanted.
At the giving of the Torah, G-d spoke to the entire nation. They were fully
conscious when they heard the word of G-d. G-d's manifest presence was no
longer a matter of individual belief or intense training. The entire nation
had experienced G-d together. The very nature of a shared experience
validates the veracity of the experience. If only one person had experienced
the word of G-d, it would have been no different than any other prophecy and
subject to belief, question, and debate. However, if 3,000,000 people
experience the word of G-d in a clear and unambiguous communication, then G-d
must certainly exist.
Following the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d again withdrew His clear manifest
presence. No longer would G-d speak to the entire nation. No longer would
the nation hear as G-d communicated with Moshe. Only a chosen few would
merit the level of prophecy and "hear G-d speak from between the Cherubim."
Everyone else would have to learn from the prophets and believe that they
were hearing the word of G-d. Had they not sinned with the Golden Calf,
everyone would have merited hearing G-d speak. G-d's revelation would have
been an ongoing encounter, not a one-time experience.
The aftermath of the Golden Calf irreversibly altered the manner of G-d's
revelation. No longer would His presence be clearly manifested in nature and
no longer would He publicly reveal Himself through word. It remains to the
study of Torah (His word) and the sciences (His presence in nature) to
recognize G-d's presence and understand His expectations.
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.