Parshas Ki Tisa - Incomprehensible God, Infinitely Connected
וַיַּ֣רְא הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי בשֵׁ֥שׁ משֶׁ֖ה לָרֶ֣דֶת מִן־הָהָ֑ר וַיִּקָּהֵ֨ל הָעָ֜ם עַל־אַֽהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּֽאמְר֤וּ אֵלָיו֙ ק֣וּם | עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱלֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ כִּי־זֶ֣ה | משֶׁ֣ה הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֶֽעֱלָ֨נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְנוּ מֶה־הָ֥יָה לֽוֹ: וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲלֵהֶם֙ אַֽהֲרֹ֔ן פָּֽרְקוּ֙ נִזְמֵ֣י הַזָּהָ֔ב אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּאָזְנֵ֣י נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם בְּנֵיכֶ֖ם וּבְנֹֽתֵיכֶ֑ם וְהָבִ֖יאוּ אֵלָֽי: וַיִּתְפָּֽרְקוּ֙ כָּל־הָעָ֔ם אֶת־נִזְמֵ֥י הַזָּהָ֖ב אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶ֑ם וַיָּבִ֖יאוּ אֶל־אַֽהֲרֹֽן: וַיִּקַּ֣ח מִיָּדָ֗ם וַיָּ֤צַר אֹתוֹ֙ בַּחֶ֔רֶט וַיַּֽעֲשֵׂ֖הוּ עֵ֣גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֨יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶֽעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם: וַיַּ֣רְא אַֽהֲרֹ֔ן וַיִּ֥בֶן מִזְבֵּ֖חַ לְפָנָ֑יו וַיִּקְרָ֤א אַֽהֲרֹן֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר חַ֥ג לַֽיהֹוָ֖ה מָחָֽר: וַיַּשְׁכִּ֨ימוּ֙ מִמָּֽחֳרָ֔ת וַיַּֽעֲל֣וּ עֹלֹ֔ת וַיַּגִּ֖שׁוּ שְׁלָמִ֑ים וַיֵּ֤שֶׁב הָעָם֙ לֶֽאֱכֹ֣ל וְשָׁת֔וֹ וַיָּקֻ֖מוּ לְצַחֵֽק:
"When the people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: "Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don't know what has become of him." Aaron said to them, "Remove the golden earrings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them [those earrings] to me." And all the people stripped themselves of the golden earrings that were on their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took [them] from their hand[s], fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it into a molten calf, upon which they said: "These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!" When Aaron saw [this], he built an altar in front of it, and Aaron proclaimed and said: "Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord." On the next day they arose early, offered up burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and they got up to make merry." (Shemos 32:1-6)
Moshe Rabbeinu had promised Klal Yisrael that he would descend from the mountain after forty days. The fortieth day arrived and yet there was no sign of Moshe. What happened? Rashi explains the cause for confusion. Moshe ascended Har Sinai on the 7th day of Sivan with intention of returning on the morning of the forty-first day. Klal Yisrael understood this to include the day of the ascent in the count of the forty days, and therefore expected Moses to return on the morning of the 16th of Tamuz. In actuality, Moshe meant that he would be away for a full forty days and forty nights. The day of his ascent could not be counted as part of the forty days since he left in the morning (A Jewish day begins at night), thus his return date was meant to be on the 17th of Tamuz. When the 16th of Tammuz arrived, Rashi (citing the Gemara in Shabbos 89a) explains that the Satan showed a semblance of darkness, [even] pitch darkness, and confusion, [as if] indicating [that] Moses had surely died and therefore, confusion had come upon the world.
Forty days earlier the people had heard the second of the ten commandments which said, ""You shall have no other Gods but me" (Shemos 20:3) and yet they immediately turn to Aaron and ask him to "make for us a G‑d." Aaron complies and fashions for them a Golden Calf.
Aaron's participation in this horrific sin is difficult to understand. Why would Aaron not exhort the Klal to refrain from idolatry? On the day that Aaron died the Torah tells us:
וַיִּרְאוּ֙ כָּל־הָ֣עֵדָ֔ה כִּ֥י גָוַ֖ע אַֽהֲרֹ֑ן וַיִּבְכּ֤וּ אֶת־אַֽהֲרֹן֙ שְׁלשִׁ֣ים י֔וֹם כֹּ֖ל בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
"And the entire congregation saw that Aaron was dead; and they wept for Aaron thirty days, the entire House of Israel." (Bamidbar 20:29)
Rashi explains that the entire House of Israel means that both men and women grieved for the passing of Aaron. Aaron had pursued peace between quarreling parties and between husbands and wives. As such, he was beloved by the entire nation. Why then would Aaron not use his position as a beloved leader to influence Klal Yisrael to abstain from this terrible aveira? Why would such a holy personage as Aaron build the idol himself?
This especially troubling in light of the fact that the Gemara in Sanhedrin (102a) teaches that while God did not destroy Klal Yisrael for the sin of the Golden Calf, we are held accountable for this sin throughout the rest of history. Whenever God takes an accounting for our sins, he also accounts for a little of the sin of the Cheit HaEigel and no punishment befalls Klal Yisrael in which there is not part of the punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf. The Gemara in Yoma (66b) teaches that whoever sacrificed and burned incense to the Golden Calf died by the sword; whoever embraced and kissed the calf died by the plague; and whoever rejoiced in his heart died of dropsy. Knowing the severity of such a sin, why would Aaron not do his best to stop Klal Yisrael?
To be sure we do see that Aaron did his utmost to delay Klal Yisrael. The Medrash Tanchuma (21) tells us that Aaron instructed the people to remove the golden earrings of their wives and children which he would then use to build the Golden Calf. Knowing that the women and children were fond of their jewelry they would be reluctant to part with their earrings and this would delay the building of the Golden Calf. Sadly, the people were so eager for this idol to be built, they immediately took off their own jewelry and donated it to the cause. After melting down the gold, Aaron single-handedly designed and molded a calf, engraving the calf with intricate images, all in an attempt to delay Klal Yisrael from this terrible aveira. Once the Golden Calf was built, Aaron built an altar in front of it and said: "Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord." Rashi explains that when Aaron proclaimed a Chag LaHashem, a festival to the Lord, he was not lying. The building of the altar and the proclamation of a Yom Tov on the next day was another stalling tactic. Surely Moshe Rabbeinu will have returned by then and it will indeed be a Chag where the one true God was served! According to some (see Malbim and Abarbanel) Aaron insisted that only the Kohen Gadol may build an altar to God and therefore Aaron stayed up all night single handedly building the altar. All this in an effort to stall Klal Yisrael but unfortunately the people awoke early in the morning, deified the calf and worshiped it. Rav Avraham ben HaRambam says that Aaron specifically chose the image of a calf because Klal Yisrael left Mitzrayim in Nissan and the Zodiac for Nissan is a calf. Aaron hoped that upon seeing the calf it would remind Klal Yisrael of their miraculous exodus from Egypt and they would refrain from idolatry. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch theorizes that Aaron chose a calf, as opposed to the sun or the moon, because celestial bodies would have more credence as deities. In contrast a calf is the lowest form of species that serves man and would not make a worthy image to worship. Aaron certainly did his best to stop Klal Yisrael from committing this terrible Aveira and yet still we are bothered. Why does Aaron not take a strong stand? Why doesn't he stand up to Klal Yisrael and refuse to engage is such a terrible aveira? Indeed we find that Aaron's nephew, Hur, was killed when he rebuked Klal Yisrael for their desire to build an idol. Rashi quotes the Medrash (Vayikrah Rabbah 10:3) which explains that when the passuk says וַיַּ֣רְא אַֽהֲרֹ֔ן, and Aaron saw, it is referring to when Aaron saw his sister’s son Hur, who had reproved them [Klal Yisrael], and they assassinated him. That is [the meaning of] וַיִּבֶן, [an expression of בִּינָה, understanding]. מִזְבֵּח לְפָנָיו [should be understood as if it were written] וַיִבֶן מִזָָּבוּחַ לְפָנָיו, [meaning] he understood from the slaughtered one in front of him.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin (7a) teaches that “Aaron saw and built a mizbeiach before him.” What did he see? Rabbi Binyamin the son of Yefes said in the name of Rabbi Elazar: He saw Hur slaughtered before him. He figured: If I do not do as they wish, they will now do to me what they did to Hur, and they will fulfill through me the words of the passuk (Eichah 2, 20): “Should a kohen and a navi be killed in the Sanctuary of Hashem.” As a consequence, there will never be a remedy for them; therefore, it is preferable that they make an eigel—leaving open the possibility that they will have a remedy by means of teshuvah.”
But since when are we permitted to make such calculations? If something is forbidden, it is forbidden. It would be better to die and sanctify God's name rather than building an idol for Klal Yisrael to worship. Klal Yisrael's standing is God's department. Why does Aaron feel he has the right to build an idol so that Klal Yisrael has the possibility to do Teshuva?
And not only was Aaron not punished for building the Golden Calf, the Medrash (Vayikrah Rabbah 10:3) teaches that in this merit he was chosen to be the Kohen Gadol!!! Aaron reasoned, “Better I should be blamed and not they.” In taking the blame for the building of the eigel, Aaron was given the great privilege of being the one who brought a kappara for Klal Yisrael on Yom Kippur. We would have expected Aaron to have lost his chance to attain such an exalted position because of his participation in such a terrible aveira and yet is is exactly his participation that makes him the Kohen Gadol. How can this be understood?
While Aaron's participation is indeed astounding, it is far from the most surprising element of the story. Seeing that Moshe Rabbeinu is dead, the people look for a replacement. Why not turn to Aaron and ask him to be their leader? And if it is a replacement for Moshe that they are looking for, why do they request of Aaron to ""make for us a G‑d"? The very same people who witnessed God at Sinai are somehow no longer interested in serving God! Indeed, the Gemara in Shabbos (146a) teaches that at Har Sinai the spiritual toxicity which entered the human consciousness after Adam ate from the Eitz HaDaas ceased. While it is understandable that the death of a leader is a traumatic event, it is difficult to comprehend why people who had reached such an exalted level would want to replace God. Why not simply appoint a new leader?
Teshuva Is Always Possible
A strange Gemara in Avodah Zara (4b) sheds some light on how a nation on such an exalted level could fall so far and so quickly. The Gemara tells us that "the only reason Israel made the Calf was to provide a way out for penitents." Rashi explains: "The Israelites were strong and in control of their inclinations. Their inclinations should not have been able to overpower them. But it was a decree of the King in order to provide a way out for penitents. If the sinner will say, "I cannot repent for I will not be accepted", we say to him, "Go out and learn from the affair with the Calf in which [the Israelites] denied [G‑d's existence] yet their repentance was accepted."
Indeed the Teffilah of Moshe on behalf of Klal Yisrael after the Cheit HaEigel has become the Teffilah for all sinners who wish to return to God.
וַיַּֽעֲבֹ֨ר יְהֹוָ֥ה | עַל־פָּנָיו֘ וַיִּקְרָא֒ יְהֹוָ֣ה | יְהֹוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶֽאֱמֶֽת: נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֨סֶד֙ לָֽאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֹ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד | עֲוֹ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים:
"And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed: Lord, Lord, benevolent God, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin; yet He does not completely clear [of sin] He visits the iniquity of parents on children and children's children, to the third and fourth generations." (Shemos 34:6,7)
The Divine qualities listed in this passage are known as the "Thirteen Attributes of Mercy."
The Gemara in Rosh Hashana says in the name of Rav Yochanan, "If it would not be expressly stated in the Torah, it would be sacrilegious for us to think it. God wrapped Himself in a prayer shawl like a cantor, and showed Moses how to pray. He told him, 'Whenever Israel sins, they should pray before me in this fashion and I will forgive them.'" The Yalkut (Ki Tisa 398) teaches that a Teffilah that includes the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy will never go unanswered.
The message of the Gemara is indeed an important one. The sins we have committed need not define us. Teshuva is an option for the sinner. The sin of the Golden Calf serves as a response to those that believe that they are too far gone to return. Even those that were involved in the Cheit HaEigel had their Teshuva accepted on Yom Kippur (when the second luchos were given to Moshe).
Leaving aside the question of how Klal Yisrael could be punished for the sin of the Golden Calf when it was clearly God's intervention that caused it to happen, why does God teach us this important lesson specifically through the aveira of the Golden Calf? Why not the sin of the Meraglim or any of the other sins we have committed throughout history? There seems to be some intrinsic connection between our capacity to always do Teshuva and this particular sin. What is that connection?
The Golden Calf And The Bones of Yosef
Another troubling issue is, of all the various forms that could have been chosen, why a Golden Calf?
The Medrash (Tanchuma 19 - cited by Rashi, Shemos 32:4) tells us that the Golden Calf was actually formed in a miraculous fashion. The Eirev Rav ( the mixed multitude, a group of ill intentioned Egyptian converts) threw a metal plate with the words alei shur, arise ox, upon it into the gold that had been amassed. This metal plate had been used by Moshe to raise the bones of Yoseph, who is called an "ox" (Bereishis 33:17)), from the bottom of the Nile. The Eirev Rav took this plate and used it to create the Golden Calf. Rashi (Shemos 32:5) even goes so far as to say that the calf was alive as the passuk in Tehillim (106:20)says, "“for the likeness of an ox eating grass.”
What is the connection between the rising of the bones of Yosef HaTzaddik from the Nile and the creation of the Golden Calf?
Worshiping A God Beyond Our Understanding
In order to understand these questions let us first acknowledge a basic axiom of Judaism. The human mind is incapable of understanding God. In Tikkunei Zohar (17a) Eliyahu says to Hashem, "You are One, but not in a numerical sense. You are transcendent above all transcendences, concealed beyond all concealments. No thought can grasp you at all." The Alter Rebbe in Tanya explains this to mean that just as a physical hand cannot grasp a thought, so too, man's intellect cannot grasp God.
This is what the passuk in Yeshayahu (55:8,9) means when it says:
כִּ֣י לֹ֚א מַחְשְׁבוֹתַי֙ מַחְשְׁב֣וֹתֵיכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א דַרְכֵיכֶ֖ם דְּרָכָ֑י נְאֻ֖ם יְהֹוָֽה: כִּי־גָֽבְה֥וּ שָׁמַ֖יִם מֵאָ֑רֶץ כֵּ֣ן גָּֽבְה֚וּ דְרָכַי֙ מִדַּרְכֵיכֶ֔ם וּמַחְשְׁבֹתַ֖י מִמַּחְשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶֽם:
"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways," says the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts [higher] than your thoughts."
The Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah 2:8) explains that even the highest level of Malachim is incapable of understanding God because it lacks the intellectual capacity to do so.
Even to say that God is infinite is incorrect. When a mathematician uses the word infinite they mean that which is beyond measure. While this is correct definition in the world of math, this definition of infinity cannot be applied to God for the infinite of something finite is by definition finite. For example, infinite can refer to an infinite amount of finite numbers. When we speak about the word infinite with regards to God, we mean beyond all conceivable limitations. In Shaar Yichud ViHaEmunah (chapter 9) the Alter Rebbe teaches that for a human being to say that God is beyond finite comprehension is so removed from what God truly is, it as if one would say that a thought is so deep that it cannot be grasped with one's hands. Obviously a thought cannot be grasped with our physical hands! And so too with God. God is so beyond definition even the definition of being infinite. In other words, we have no linguistic capacity to speak about God on any level.
But if we have no capacity to understand God how can we relate to Him? This is where true emunah comes into play. Emunah is poorly translated as faith. In truth, emunah is an innate perception of the truth that transcends reason. Emunah is not irrational, it is super rational. While reason can and should enhance our emunah, emunah is not limited to human understanding. Because emunah is innate it cannot be learned. Our emunah emanates from our souls and therefore it must be uncovered. A Jew doesn't believe in God because logic dictates that we ought to believe in God but because we are, as the Gemara in Shabbos (97a) says, believers the sons of believers. In other words, because our souls are a piece of God (Iyov 31:2), we are intrinsically connected to God. Our emunah is a function of that innate connection. As such it is an essential quality of who we are and it can never be destroyed. The Gemara in Berachos (63a) tells us that even the thief, before breaking into a house, will pray to God that he should be successful in his theft. While clearly the thief's emunah is not manifesting itself in a Godly fashion, it is nonetheless clearly present.
Experiencing this emunah means transcending human comprehension and identifying with the knowledge of the Godly soul. While this sounds simple enough, we often feel disconnected from this perception of reality. As with all things, emunah is a talent that needs to be cultivated. In fact the word emunah is related to the word emun, to practice or to train. We need to train ourselves to become conscious of the soul's worldview. The more awareness we have of our Godly soul, the deeper our connection to our essence and by extension to God.
Where do we see the essential emunah of every Jew expressed? When it comes to dying to sanctify the name of God, even the least observant Jews, will sacrifice their lives rather than transgressing the laws of the Torah. Why would someone who has not lived for God be willing to die for God? In extreme times, the truth of who we are becomes our reality. Too deny our emunah would be to deny the quintessence of our being. In such times, even the least observant Jews will go beyond the realm of logic and tap into the super-rational knowledge of the soul, giving them the strength and conviction to die Al Kiddush Hashem. (see Tanya Chapter 18)
With this in mind we can gain a critical insight into the nature of idolatry. Ultimately, idolatry is an attempt to fashion a God that is comprehensible to the human mind. As ridiculous as it may be to worship Gods of sticks and stones, we can appreciate the psychological need for someone to connect to something that is tangible. Judaism rejects the notion of a concrete God and challenges us to tap into the inner essence of our soul to connect with the transcendent. In Judaism God is beyond comprehension but eternally connected to the soul of every Jew.
Beyond Reason - Dying Al Kiddush Hashem
In our first encounter with Avraham Avinu we find that he was willing to die Al Kiddush Hashem.
וַיָּ֣מָת הָרָ֔ן עַל־פְּנֵ֖י תֶּ֣רַח אָבִ֑יו בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מֽוֹלַדְתּ֖וֹ בְּא֥וּר כַּשְׂדִּֽים:
"And Haran died during the lifetime of Terah his father in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldees." (Bereishis 11:28)
Various Medrashic sources (Bereishis Rabbah 38:13, Targum Yonasan Bereishis 11:28) fill in the back story of the death of Avram's brother Haran.
Terach, Avram’s father, was a purveyor of idols. Avram, recognizing the foolishness of such pursuits, publicly demonstrated the ridiculousness of idol worship. Eventually, Avram was brought by his father to Nimrod, the greatest idolater of the time, where a great debate ensued.
Nimrod said to Avram, “Let us both bow down to fire”, to which Avram responded, “Why not bow down to water, which extinguishes the fire”. For sure, if water extinguishes fire, then water is the more powerful of the two. If you are going to worship either, then why not the stronger one?
“Very well”, said Nimrod, “Let’s bow down to water”, to which Avram responded, “If so, better that we bow to the clouds, which carry the water”.
“Very well”, said Nimrod, “Let’s bow down to the clouds”, to which Avram responded, “If so, better that we bow to the wind, which blows the clouds away”.
“Very well”, said Nimrod, “Let’s bow down to the wind”, to which Avram responded, “If so, better that we bow to humans, who can withstand the wind”.
Nimrod told him: “You’re just playing with words. I bow to nothing but fire, and I hereby throw you into it. And let the G-d to Whom you bow come and save you from it!”.
Standing on the sidelines throughout this debate was Avram's brother Haran. Haran could not decide if Nimrod or Avram was correct so he made a decision to see what happened to Avram when thrown into the furnace. If Avram survived then Haran would side with Avram, if not he would follow Nimrod. Avram survived and Haran declared his allegiance to Avram. Thereupon Nimrod threw Haran into the very same furnace where he was burnt alive. When the passuk tells us that “Haran died in the presence of his father Terah... in Ur Kasdim” it is referencing this story (Ur means fire).
But why did Haran deserve to die when Avram was miraculously saved? Haran was also willing to be die while sanctifying the name of God!
In order to understand the mistake of Haran we need to delve into the root of his soul. The Arizal (Gate of Reincarnations: Chapter Thirty-Three, Section 3b) writes that Hevel's soul (Hevel the son of Adam and Chava) divided into two roots, Haran and Nahor (the brother's of Avraham Avinu). Nahor reincarnated as Hur and Haran reincarnated as Aaron. The name Hur is the last two letters of Nahor and Haran is the last three letters of Aaron (hei, reish, nun). The Arizal explains, "Now, Haran himself came to rectify the sin of Adam who had performed idol-worship. However, not only did he not rectify, but he didn’t even believe in G‑d until after Abraham came out of the fiery furnace, as the Sages say. Therefore Haran was burned in Ur Kasdim..."
With this in mind we can begin to understand the mistake of Haran. Adam HaRishon's sin was a form of idolatry. The Nachash tells Chava that on the day they eat from the Eitz HaDaas they will become like God's (Bereishis 3:5). Haran was meant to rectify the sin of Adam HaRishon at Ur Kasdim but he failed to do so. What exactly was his failure? After all he was thrown into the furnace just as Avraham was!
Dying Al Kiddush Hashem is not the same thing as dying to advance a cause. It is logical for a person to die for their cause. Sometimes, a martyred death can advance the cause more than any other movement. Dying Al Kiddush Hashem, as we said above, has nothing to do with logic. It is a function of the super-rational Godly soul. It is an expressions of the essence of the soul. The difference between Avraham and Haran was that Avraham did not make any calculations whereas Haran did. For Avraham going into the furnace in Ur Kasdim was an expression of the soul. It had nothing to do with logic. He needed no calculations. Haran approached the confrontation between Avraham and Nimrod logically. Haran waited to see which side would emerge victorious. While logic is certainly important, as we said above, it is also limited. It alone cannot serve as a means of connecting to God. Haran was limited to his own intellect and as such his sacrifice was not one that rectified the sin of Adam HaRishon. In contrast, Avraham tapped into the transcendent soul and became so deeply connected to God that the capacity to sacrifice one's life in the sanctification of God's name became the hallmark of every single Jew throughout history (see Tanya chapter 18). But while Haran may not have succeeded in bringing about a tikkun for Adam HaRishon's idolatry, there would be another opportunity at the sin of the golden calf.
No Intermediaries Necessary
What did losing Moshe Rabbeinu mean to Klal Yisrael? Klal Yisrael was only too aware of the infinite nature of Hashem. The Gemara in Makkos (Makkos 23b) teaches Rabbi Simlai presented the following elucidation: Six hundred and thirteen Mitzvos were said to Moshe—365 prohibitions corresponding to the days of the solar calendar and 248 positive commandments corresponding to a human being’s limbs. Rabbi Himnona said: Which passuk teaches this? The passuk: “The Torah which Moshe commanded us is the heritage . . .” The word Torah has a numerical equivalent of 611 (indicating that we heard 611 Mitzvos from Moshe); “Anochi” and “Lo yihiyeh lecha,” we heard directly from the mouth of the Almighty (giving us a total of 613). Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim, II:33) states that the Jews only heard one kol which said “anochi” and “lo yihiyeh” and then after that because of their fear, Moshe had to come and accept the rest of the dibros and give it over to them. Why did Klal Yisrael experience such a fear at the giving of the Dibros? The Gemara in Shabbos (88b) tells us that after each commandment, the entire Jewish people died from the intensity of the Divine voice, and God subsequently brought them back to life. After that, the people asked that Moses act as an intermediary for them, communicating with G‑d on the mountain and then conveying God’s will to them.
In other words, because their encounter with the Divine was so overwhelming, Klal Yisrael saw Moshe as their conduit to God. They could not imagine a connection to Hashem without Moshe acting as an intermediary. This mistake was the beginning of Klal Yisrael's descent into Avodah Zarah. Because they knew first hand that God was beyond human comprehension (their own deaths attested to the fragility of our capacity to interact with God) they sought to have a medium through which they could connect to God. With this in mind we can imagine how Klal Yisrael was counting the minutes until the return of Moshe Rabeinu. When Moshe failed to appear, the Satan showed them an image of a deceased Moshe Rabeinu. Klal Yisrael reasoned that if even the great Moshe Rabbeinu could not could not survive such intense contact with God, certainly no other human being could successfully replace him.
When the passuk tells us that Klal Yisrael instructed Aaron to "make for them a God" it is not that they believed the idol would be a God but that the idol could serve as a medium through which they could connect to God. The Kuzari (1:97) explains it thus: "All the while they (Klal Yisrael) did not deny the divinity of He Who had taken then from Egypt – they simply desired that they should be constantly accompanied by a tangible deity to whom they could relate the wonders of their God… the nation’s sin, then, was in making an image (of a deity), something that was forbidden to them. They thus ascribed divinity to an object they had fashioned with their own hands, without receiving a command from God in this regard…"
The Ramban (Shemos 32:1) explains that that in their search for a suitable replacement for Moshe, the people looked to the symbolic images Hashem had designated for the four legs of His throne, the face of Adam HaRishon, the lion, the eagle and the ox. Why did Klal Yisrael choose an ox (the Ramban is unlike the others quoted above who said that Aaron chose the image)? Clearly the image of a person could not be used, humans had already proven incapable of creating a direct relationship with God. The human intellect cannot comprehend the Divine. An animal with no intelligence would be better suited to serve as a medium through which Klal Yisrael could connect to God. But which animal? In this model, the less intelligence the better. Intellect is an impediment to connection. Even Moshe Rabbeinu with his enormous intellect could not survive his meeting with God. Of the lion, the eagle and the ox, the ox is clearly the least intelligent beast. But even the ox has some limited comprehension and so a baby ox, a calf, was chosen to be the medium through which they would cleave to Hashem.
Where was Klal Yisrael's mistake? While it is true that the finite mind cannot comprehend infinite God, the soul, as a piece of God, already shares an intimate connection with the Creator. A relationship with God does not need to be built but discovered within. Moshe Rabbeinu as the most humble of all men stood as the model for how to discover the relationship with God. To the degree that we are convinced of our own independent existence we stand apart from our Maker. The intellect can be used as an expression of arrogance. With our intelligence we can conquer the world and stand assured of our own independent existence. We can even be led to the conclusion that God does not exist at all. The humble man lives with a calibrated worldview of soul and intellect. That is to say that the intellect becomes a vehicle to understand that which it is given to understand but it recognizes that the transcendent is beyond human comprehension. In this way, a person uncovers the innate connection between their soul and God and uses the intellect in an appropriate fashion that enhances said relationship. In this model Moshe Rabbeinu was not an intermediary between Klal Yisrael and Hashem for no intermediary is necessary when the relationship is essential. He was a role model, guiding us to diminish our ego and tap into our preexisting essential connection with Hashem. (Parenthetically, the tikkun for the Cheit HaEigel was the Parah Adumah (see Rashi Bamidbar 19:1). Though the Parah Adumah had a rationale (ie. it rectifies the sin of the Golden Calf) it is still called a chok, a Mitzvah which is beyond rationale. Since the Cheit HaEigel was a sin that was predicated on our over indulgence in Daas, tt makes sense that the tikkun was our going beyond the realm of Daas.)
When given the opportunity to build the Golden Calf or die Al Kiddush Hashem Hur chose to give up his life. Hur made no calculations. He made no attempt at stall tactics. No logic was involved at all. His Jewish soul demanded that he give up his life and so he did. Hur possessed a transcendent worldview. He lived with the consciousness of the Godly soul.
In contrast, Aaron did the exact opposite of Hur. He made calculations. He reasoned that if Klal Yisrael killed a Kohen and a Navi in the Sanctuary of Hashem that they would no longer be forgivable. He thought it was better for him to take the blame rather than Klal Yisrael. The Arzial (ibid.) tells us that in doing so Aaron failed to rectify the idolatry of Adam HaRishon. In his own words "After that, he reincarnated into Aaron to rectify the sin - but in the end he did just the opposite by making the [Golden] Calf. Really he should have instead sacrificed himself when the Mixed Multitude came to him and said, "Arise and make a god for us." (Ex. 32:1) However he erred, thinking that it was enough that they had already killed Hur, who was also from the root of Abel. This is the secret of, "And he built an altar before him," (Ex. 32:5) which the Sages interpret to mean that he built an altar as a result of the one slaughtered before him - that is Hur. Thus, he didn’t stop them and sacrifice himself instead - and sinned as a result."
How could Aaron have made such a tragic mistake? He had an opportunity to die Al Kiddush Hashem and rectify the sin of Adam HaRishon and yet he chose to stall?!? Did Aaron not have a transcendent worldview? An awareness of the Godly soul?
As we mentioned above, the foundation of the soul of Aaron was his love for every Jew. This love is also beyond the realm of logic. To the intellect each one of us is separate and distinct from our fellow Jews. To the transcendent soul we are all infinitely connected in our source. Our individual intellects are like various pieces of a puzzle. When put together we form an amazing picture. A puzzle piece on its own has no true value.
And so Aaron is faced with a choice. On the one hand, he is aware of his root soul and his connection to Haran and the idolatry of Adam HaRishon. He has a once in a lifetime opportunity to fulfill his own mission in this world. On the other hand, if he dies and sanctifies God's name, Klal Yisrael will lose their opportunity to do Teshuva. As the Arizal said, Aaron thought that perhaps Hur had already achieved the necessary tikkun for Adam HaRishon leaving him in the clear to follow the path of his own soul, namely to live and fight for Klal Yisrael. Aaron understood that Klal Yisrael was in such a fragile state of mind that there was nothing he could say to convince them otherwise. Even as a beloved leader, Aaron would not be able to win the day. Their issue was not emotional but ideological. The Eirev Rav had been successful in implanting heretical ideologies in Klal Yisrael. The best Aaron could do was to stall them until Moshe Rabbeinu arrived. The return of Moshe Rabbeinu would surely show them the error of their ways. An egoless human being with his innate connection to God could withstand an encounter with the Divine. Moshe Rabbeinu would role model for them how they too could achieve the same results. Aaron employed every tactic he could but unfortunately was not successful.
Did Aaron fail? He was not successful in rectifying the sin of Adam HaRishon but we see that Hashem approved of his approach. Aaron was rewarded with the position of Kohen Gadol. From here on in it would be Aaron HaKohen and his descendants who would walk into the Kodesh HaKedoshim on Yom Kippur and bring atonement for Klal Yisrael.
Why was this Aaron's reward?
The Medrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Tehillim 25) recounts the following dialogue on the significance of sin:
Wisdom was asked: What is the fate of the transgressor? Wisdom replied: “Evil pursues iniquity” (Mishlei 13:21).
Prophecy was asked: What is the fate of the transgressor? Prophecy replied: “The soul that sins, it shall die” (Yechezkel 18:20).
The Torah was asked: What is the fate of the transgressor? Torah replied: He shall bring a guilt offering, and it shall atone for him (Vayikra 5).
G‑d was asked: What is the fate of the transgressor? G‑d replied: He shall do teshuvah, and it shall atone for him.
In other words, according to wisdom the negative impact of sin is a natural consequence of leading a life that runs contrary to the will of God. According to prophecy, sin severs the lifeline that exists between the soul and its source. According to the Torah, sin does not define us. Believing that we are defined by our aveiros is a superficial way of seeing the world. A part of us may have sinned but our true self is capable of atoning for the aveira and rejoining with God.
In order to understand God's response to sin a brief introduction is in order.
The Gemara (Pesachim 54a, Nedarim 39b) teaches us:
שבעה דברים נבראו קודם שנברא העולם ואלו הן תורה ותשובה וגן עדן וגיהנם וכסא הכבוד ובית המקדש ושמו של משיח
Seven phenomena were created before the world was created, and they are: Torah, and repentance, and the Garden of Eden, and Gehenna, and the Throne of Glory, and the Temple, and the name of Messiah.
Why is it that Teshuva needed to be created before the world itself?
The entire notion of Teshuva is difficult to understand. We cannot travel back in time to undo that which we have done. Once a sin is committed there ought to be no going back. How then does Teshuva work? This is the inner meaning of the fact that Teshuva was created before the creation of the world. Teshuva is transcendent. It is unbound by time and space. It is rooted in infinity itself and therefore time is of no consequence to Teshuva. Past and present are one timeless continuum. What was done in the past can be rectified in the future. Seen through this lens Teshuva is not merely repentance but an accessing of our transcendent souls. In reaching into the innermost point of being we enter a dimension that is beyond time and rectify our past. The result of such a movement is truly transformative.
We are now ready to understand God's response regarding the fate of the transgressor. Whereas according to wisdom, prophecy and the Torah sin is seen as a negative, according to God our sins have the opportunity to be transformative events in our lives. As the Gemara in Berachos (34b) states: מָקוֹם שֶׁבַּעֲלֵי תְשׁוּבָה עוֹמְדִין — צַדִּיקִים גְּמוּרִים אֵינָם עוֹמְדִי, In the place where penitents stand, even the full-fledged righteous do not stand. From a transcendent perspective sin becomes a vehicle for growth.
With this in mind we can readily understand why Aaron is chosen to become the Kohen Gadol. Aaron was faced with a choice. Rectify the sin of Adam HaRishon and fulfill the mission for which he was created or save Klal Yisrael. While dying Al Kiddush Hashem would have been transcendent, giving up his own mission to save Klal Yisrael was even more transcendent. While it appears on the surface that Aaron is making calculations and using logic, in truth his choice was far beyond the boundaries of rational thought. A rational choice would have led him to fulfill his personal mission. A super rational choice to love every Jew meant that he could not abandon Klal Yisrael. Aaron embodies the very notion of transcendence and as such is the perfect choice to be the Kohen Gadol. In this position Aaron can lead Klal Yisrael into the nadir of their soul and guide them to atonement.
We are now ready to understand the role of the bones of Yosef in the creation of the Golden Calf.
The Medrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shmos 234) tells us that the angels complained to Hashem regarding the miracles that were being done on behalf of Klal Yisrael. After all, they too were idol worshipers. The sea saw Klal Yisrael for the idolaters they were and refused to split. This is hinted at in the Verse (Shmos 14:29), “V’hamayim lohem Chomah” – that the water transformed into a wall. The word “Chomah” is written without the letter “vov”, which therefore also spells “Cheimah” anger.
Why did the sea refuse to split simply because Klal Ysrael sinned? The Medrash in Bereishis Rabbah (5:5) teaches that during creation Hashem made a deal with the sea that it would only be created on condition that it would split for Klal Yisrael during Yetzias Mitzrayim. After seeing the elevated souls of Klal Yisrael the sea agreed to the condition. However, when Klal Yisrael showed up on the banks of the river as a nation that worshipped idols the sea refused to part.
Why did the sea split? The pasuk in Tehilim ( 114:3) states, “Hayom Ro’oh Vayonos” — the sea saw and it fled. Dovid HaMelech is alluding to the miracle of Kriyas Yam Suf. ut what did the sea see that made it flee? The Medrash on Tehilim (Shochar Tov, 114:3, see also Medrash Tanchuma, Bereshis Parshas Vayeshev, 9) explains that the sea saw the casket of Yosef entering the sea and just as Yosef fled before Potiphar, the sea fled (split) before the bones of Yosef.
What was it about the bones of Yosef that made the sea change its mind? The passuk (Shmos 13:19) tells us, “Vayikach Moshe es atzmos Yosef imo” Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him. The word “atzmos” bones, also means essence. Initially the sea identified the Jews with their idolatrous behavior. Upon seeing Yosef's bones the sea saw through to the essence of the Jews. Yosef held on to the essence of who he was even in the midst of his aveira with the wife of Potiphar. It was this knowledge of his true essence that gave Yosef the capacity to flee from his aveira. The bones of Yosef reminded the sea that we should not look at the extrenal behavior but to the innocent transcendent soul that has the capacity to travel back in time to do Teshuva.
With this in mind we can understand why it was the same metal plate that brought up the bones of Yosef from the Nile that created the Eigel. Just as this plate brought out the essence that was buried underneath so too would Klal Yisrael be reminded of their inner essence when faced with the Golden Calf. Even in the midst of an aveira that would hanut them for the rest of time, Klal Yisrael was reminded of the inextinguishable Godly spark that resides within.
With this in mind we can answer why the Gemara in Avodah Zara (4b) says, "the only reason Israel made the Calf was to provide a way out for penitents." The Golden Calf was created because we did not believe in the power of our transcendent soul to connect with God. The metal plate that brought out the essence of Yosef was meant to remind the Jews of their essential relationship with Hashem. Teshuva is predicated on the belief that our souls transcend time and space. When we reach into the inner recesses of our souls we can go back in time and rectify the past. Our aveiros can even become an instrument of growth! No matter how great the sin, we must remember that we are not defined by our actions. Our inner essence remains untainted. We forever belong to God and the path to Teshuva is always available. God understood that Klal Yisrael would need to know this Torah throughout a long and arduous golus. Perhaps on our own we could have withstood the test to worship the Eigel but Hashem had a better plan. When the Jews failed to recognize the infinity of their own souls it was the perfect time to teach Klal Yisrael that no matter how distant we may feel, a Jew is always infinitely connected.