Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Parshas Ki Sisa

עשו להם עגל מסכה וישתחוו לו ויזבחו לו ויאמרו אלה אלהיך ישראל אשר העלוך מארץ מצרים ויאמר ד' אל משה ראיתי את העם הזה והנה עם קשה ערף הוא ועתה הניחה לי ויחר אפי בהם ואכלם (32:8-10)

A mere 40 days after accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people committed the worst sin in the history of their nation: the making and worship of the golden calf. Hashem’s preliminary reaction was to create a new nation which would be descended from Moshe, a plan which was fortunately rejected as a result of Moshe’s fervent prayers on their behalf.

Curiously, Rav Shalom Schwadron points out that a careful reading of our verses reveals that even this terrible sin didn’t arouse sufficient Divine wrath to warrant the annihilation of the Jewish people. Only after Hashem added that they were a stiff-necked people did He conclude that they were deserving of eradication. Although stubbornness is an undesirable trait, how can its severity be compared to the grievous sin of the golden calf, and why was this the primary cause of Hashem’s initial decree?

Rav Shalom answers that no matter how grave a sin a person may commit, it is always possible to correct his ways. However, this is dependent upon his willingness to critically examine his ways. After Hashem noted that besides having committed a terrible sin the Jewish people were also stubborn and inflexible, there was no longer a chance that they would be willing to admit the error of their ways. Only at this point was their fate sealed.

The importance of accepting rebuke is illustrated by the following humorous story. At one time, certain bus routes in Jerusalem were separated by gender for reasons of modesty. Late one stormy Friday afternoon, a pregnant woman missed the last bus for women before Shabbos. When the final men’s bus approached, she attempted to board. A fanatical man on the bus began vocally protesting her “immodesty.” One of the other passengers defended her, asking the extremist, “What about the prohibition against publicly embarrassing another Jew?” The zealot turned to her supporter and responded, “You’re right, so why are you embarrassing me!”

This lesson can also be applied to marriage. When considering a person as a prospective spouse, the Chazon Ish advised that it is impossible to completely examine every attribute, viewpoint, and philosophy of the person in question. Therefore, in addition to making a good-faith effort to clarify the most important issues, it is also critical to find out whether the person is intransigent in his thinking.

No matter how similar and well-matched two people may seem, there will inevitably arise differences of opinion and style in confronting life’s challenges. As long as each person is open-minded and flexible, willing to listen to and understand the viewpoint of the other and then reconsider his own, this needn’t be a cause for concern. However, if one spouse is stubborn and set in his ways, refusing to even consider alternate viewpoints, this presents a tremendous danger to the future peace and harmony in his home, and the Chazon Ish advised that one stay far away from such a match.

Although many of us go through life convinced that we are always correct (and wondering when those around us will finally realize it), the lesson of the golden calf is that more important than the propriety of our deeds is our willingness to question them, maturely admit when we are wrong, and attempt to improve and learn from our mistakes.


ויפל מן העם ביום ההוא כשלשת אלפי איש (32:28)

On the Torah’s statement that the Levites killed 3000 Jews for their role in the sin of the golden calf, there is a perplexing Medrash which teaches that our verse illustrates the Torah’s rule (21:37) חמשה בקר ישלם תחת השור – when a person steals an ox and slaughters or sells it, he must pay the owner five times its value. As these verses have no apparent connection, how is this Medrash to be understood?

The Vilna Gaon brilliantly explains that our Medrash can be understood in light of a second Medrash. Shlomo HaMelech cryptically writes in Koheles (7:28) אדם אחד מאלף מצאתי ואשה בכל אלה לא מצאתי – one man out of one thousand I found, but not a single woman did I find. The Medrash elucidates that Shlomo was referring to the sin of the golden calf, in which one out of each thousand men sinned, yet not a single woman participated (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:10).

However, if there were 600,000 men and only one out of 1000 transgressed, this translates to only 600 sinners. The Medrash is bothered why 3000 people died for a sin in which only 600 participated. The Medrash answers that when a sin occurs through forbidden actions involving a cow – in this case, the golden calf – the Torah prescribes that the punishment must be five times the actual crime. In this case, five times the 600 sinners is exactly the 3000 people who perished!


ואם אין מחני נא מספרך אשר כתבת (32:32)

The Arizal writes that Moshe contained within him a spark of the soul of Noach, and part of his life’s mission was to rectify Noach’s mistakes. What were these errors, and how did Moshe fix them?

The Zohar HaKadosh notes that the Haftorah for Parshas Noach curiously makes reference to מי נח – “the flood-waters of Noach” (Yeshaya 54:9). If Noach was the only one found worthy of salvation in his generation, wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to refer to the flood of his wicked contemporaries?

The Zohar HaKadosh explains that during the 120 years Noach spent building the ark, he neglected to pray for the repentance of his contemporaries. The Medrash compares Noach to a captain who saved himself while allowing his boat and its passengers to drown. Had he been more concerned about them, he could have prevented the flood. Hence, it is memorialized as “the flood of Noach.”

How did Moshe correct Noach’s lack of concern for others? Although Divine Providence brought him to Pharaoh’s palace where he was spared the fate of his fellow Jews, Moshe felt their pain from his youth. In spending the 120 years of his life living completely for others, Moshe perfectly rectified the 120 years that Noach spent building the ark solely absorbed in ensuring his own salvation.

After the sin of the golden calf, Moshe proved the extent of his dedication. Hashem wanted to destroy the people and create a new nation consisting of Moshe’s descendants. Moshe had every right to be furious with the Jews. Instead, he prayed that if Hashem refused to forgive them, He should erase Moshe’s name from the Torah. This selflessness represented the ultimate correction of Noach’s errors, which is hinted to in the word מחני (“Erase me”), whose letters also spell מי נח!

The Ponovezher Rav, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, understood this lesson well. He was one of the most indefatigable builders of all that was destroyed in the Holocaust. He explained that he was haunted by his inability to save the rest of his generation, accusing himself of falling pray to the error of Noach. Instead of being dejected over his perceived failure, he reasoned that if he was unsuccessful in rescuing the previous generation, he would at least do everything in his power to help save the next one.

We live in a time when there are numerous “floods” surrounding us. We cannot content ourselves with our own personal survival. We must each prepare an answer to the question we will have to answer, “Did you do all that you could to help save your contemporaries from their floods?”


Answers to the weekly Points to Ponder are now available!

To receive the full version with answers email the author at parshapotpourri@optonline.net.


Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1) We are required to desecrate Shabbos in order to save a fellow Jew’s life, which indicates that human life is more valuable than Shabbos. On the other hand, the Torah decrees (31:14) that any Jew who performs forbidden labor on Shabbos is put to death, which implies that Shabbos takes precedence over human life. Which of the two is more precious? (Meshech Chochmah)

2) If the Torah commands us (Devorim 9:7) to remember the sin of the golden calf, why is there no annual reading to enable us to do so as we do with Parshas Zachor? (Artzos HaChaim, Yismach Moshe quoted in Shu”t Arugas HaBosem 205, Shu”t Doveiv Meishorim 2:43)

3) After Moshe learned the entire Torah during his first 40 days on Mount Sinai, why did he need to spend a second set of 40 days (34:28) after the sin of the golden calf relearning the Torah which had already been taught to him? (Darash Moshe, Pirkei Torah)

4) Rashi writes (34:29) that Moshe descended from Mount Sinai with the second set of Tablets on Yom Kippur. How was he permitted to carry the Tablets from the mountain, which is a private domain, to the Jewish camp, a public domain, on Yom Kippur? (Ramban 18:13, Shu”t Rivash 96, Panim Yafos, Chasam Sofer 20:22, Shu”t Yehuda Ya’aleh Orach Chaim 192, Tzafnas Paneiach and Rinas Yitzchok Devorim 10:5, Chavatzeles HaSharon)


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