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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashios Vayakheil/Pikudie (70)

With your permission I will stray from our usual Rashi-comment format this week and discuss some broader thoughts I have on the Sin of the Golden Calf (last week's sedra).


If we were to ask: What is a unique and basic message of our Torah? We might get answers such as:

" One of the central themes of the Torah is as Hillel taught "What is disliked by you, do not do your friend." Or as Rabbi Akiva said: This is big rule of the Torah: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Meaning the commandments between man and man are the main point of our Torah.

" Others may point out that the verse "You shall be holy" describes the highest striving in the Torah. A person should strive to control his urges and in so doing reach higher and higher levels of sanctity.

" And, of course, others would say: "Both these and these are the words of the living G-d."

But I would suggest another view which is truly unique to Judaism; a point of religious striving which is repeatedly emphasized in the Torah and Tanach and which no other religion emphasizes to the same extent.

A repeated theme we find in the Torah is as Solomon said (Kohelles 7:20): "There is no righteous man in the world, who does only good and does not sin.


When we consider this we find an amazing thing. Our greatest men all sinned! Judah, who is the father of kings, sinned with Tamar; Moses, who is the master of all prophets, sinned at the Waters of Contention; David, who was the Moshiach of G-d and greatest of kings, sinned with Bat Sheva and Uriah. Solomon, the wisest of all men, sinned with his all his wives; Abraham, the father of the patriarchs, sinned when he said that Sarah was his sister, thus exposing her to sexual abuse (see Ramban there). Aaron sinned at the Golden Calf. How is it that nearly all of our Biblical heroes - righteous, G-d fearing men, all models of Torah ideals - all of them sinned and sinned grievously!

How do we digest that? But first we should point out that no other holy scripture (New Testament, Koran) ascribe any sins to their holy men! They are all portrayed as perfect, flawless, in their righteousness! But not our great men!


Another point must be added to this discovery. That is that these men repented their sins. Judah said "She is more righteous than I". He need not have admitted his guilt; no one would have known the difference. It was his word against hers. He was a leader; she was a mere woman! But he was great enough to admit his sin. David admitted to the prophet Nathan "I have sinned to G-d." David could have had Nathan killed for insubordination. The conversation between them was a private one, no one else knew of it. He was the king, there was no "Assistant King". But he admitted his sin.

But we see no where that Moses repented for his sin. Perhaps this is because it was not clear what exactly his sin was (The Torah commentators were uncertain what exactly it was; they have found 13 different sins!) Since it was not clear what his sin was, it was difficult for him to do teshuva. Others say, he Moses didn't actually sin, he just showed poor leadership ability and that is why Hashem said he couldn't lead the nation into the Holy Land.


It would seem that the Torah is telling us an important message: "To sin is human; to repent is divine."

After having seen how the Torah records faithfully the transgressions of our leaders and how so many of them had the human frailty of sinning, we can begin to understand the Sin of the Golden Calf. How it is that Jews would, under any circumstances, believe that a molten image had divine powers? The question is doubly troubling when we remember that it was these Jews who were the only ones who heard G-d speak directly to the whole congregation. After personally having heard G-d say "You shall have no other gods besides Me" it is inconceivable to think they would believe such hogwash as a molten calf having any powers whatsoever!

But they did believe this! It seems to me that just as the Torah makes a point of letting us know the weaknesses of our great leaders, so too, the Torah wanted us to know the weakness of the whole nation, that they could fall so low. The message seems to be: Anyone who thinks he is beyond sin is precisely the person most vulnerable to sin. The nation after hearing G-d's words at Mt. Sinai may have believed that they reached the highest spiritual level possible - just then, with that false confidence, they fell and fell very low.

The Torah teaches us of man susceptibility to sin and it tells us that he can correct himself, he can do teshuva and draw nearer to G-d, even nearer than he had been before he sinned!

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

"What's Bothering Rashi?" is produced by the Institute for the Study of Rashi and Early Commentaries. The five volume set of "What's Bothering Rashi?" is available at all Judaica bookstores.

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