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   by Jacob Solomon

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G-d spoke to Moses: ‘Go: descend! For the people that you brought up from Egypt have become corrupt… they have made themselves a molten calf… I have seen this people, and behold! It is a stiff-necked people (32:7-9).

Thus the Israelites committed their first collective break with the Torah. That was when, some forty days after the most intense experience of the Revelation at Mount Sinai, they allowed themselves to be deluded (Talmud: Shabbat 89a) that Moses would not return. Although the relatively small number of people who were actively involved were killed, G-d finally returned His Presence to His people. Later, however, as a consequence of the Sin of the Spies, all the adult Israelites except Joshua and Caleb were forbidden entry to the Promised Land.

The following issues present themselves:

1.In this incident, G-d referred to the Israelites (above) as ‘your people’ – Moses’ people, not His people. In the narrative of the Spies (Num. 14:11), G-d distances himself even further from the Israelites, referring to them as ‘this people’ – How long will this people provoke Me? What is the reason for that difference?

2.Being informed that the Israelites had sinned in that way during his absence, why did Moses take the Tablets, instead of leaving them?

3.How could Moses have broken the most holy object in the world and get a ‘thank you’ from G-d for it? (Talmud: Shabbat 87a)

As an approach, look at the following anecdote:

Reb Schmelke, who was a very observant Jew, had attended beth haknesseth and shiurim for twenty years and decided to make a short break, “for a change”. His yetzer hara (evil inclination) persuaded him to go off to Las Vegas for a little gambling spree: ‘after all what are three days compared to twenty years?’ So he dressed in Bermuda shorts, flowered T-shirt, Stetson hat, and dark sunglasses and flew off to Las Vegas. Upon his arrival he hailed a taxi, but he stumbled and broke an arm, a leg, and a few ribs. While he was in hospital, he lamented to G-d: “Why should this have happened to me after twenty years? You didn’t even give me the chance to get started properly!” A heavenly voice called out, “Schmelke, it that you? We didn’t recognize you…!” [Rabbi C. Wilschanski: For the Shabbat Table, p.114 (1999)].

This story illustrates the situation of the Israelites at the time of the Sin of the Golden Calf. They had experienced highly intensive encounters with the Almighty - in the Exodus, and at the Splitting of the Red Sea, and at the Giving of the Torah. At Marah, and at Masa-u-Meriva they had been saved miraculously from death by thirst. And at Rephidim, they were delivered from the Amalekites’ attack. They had shorter, but far more intensive ‘shiurim’ than Reb Schmelke ever had. But, as with Reb Schmelke, the strain began to tell. Thus when the time and circumstances were ripe, they changed their spiritual identity. They did this by taking off their gold ornaments, and following their yetzer hara by at least tacitly acquiescing to the service of the Golden Calf – in open violation of the first two Commandments.

So at that moment, in the spiritual sense, G-d did not see the Israelites as ‘his people’. G-d said that they were Moses’ people – and that was a hint that he had to restore relations between the Israelites and the Almighty so that they might again fulfill what Moses later prayed, “…see, that this nation is Your people.” (33:13)

This explains why Moses did not ask G-d allow him to leave the Torah at the top of Mount Sinai until such a time that the Israelites might be worthy of it. G-d had hinted to Moses by calling the Israelites ‘your people’ that he was required to set the Israelites back on the right path. The Tablets of Stone were the essential objects to bring the Israelites to order. For they were a miracle in themselves: as the test relates, “the Tablets were written on both sides”. The Talmud (Shabbat 104a) relates the tradition that the letters were engraved through and through – to such a degree that the middle of the letters ‘samech’ and ‘final mem’ remained suspended in mid air by a miracle. As the Or HaChaim points out, the very manner in which the Tablets were inscribed was a powerful testimony to their Divine origin. The writing was in the form of black fire on white fire (Midrash, Tanchuma Bereishit 1, based on Deut. 33:2). And in addition, as the Or Hachaim derives, the writing was not reversed on either side.

So Moses did not leave the Tablets with G-d, but he took them down in the hope that their Divine authority would be instantly recognized by their wondrous nature. “The Tablets were the work of G-d” (32:16). But when Moses neared the camp there was no sudden, shocked pause in the worship of the Golden Calf. There was no marvelling at the great miracles of the Tablets. That object lesson had failed. It was at that point that Moses had to use the much stronger object lesson of smashing the tablets - shock treatment to make the Israelites not merely ‘his people’, but ‘the Almighty’s people’. The message: the Torah and idol-worship cannot co-exist!

The text relates how the Levites took the lesson to heart by purging all the three thousand active offenders, even where they might be close friends or relatives. This, together with repeated pleas from Moses to G-d, caused Him to finally make them His people once more: “My Presence will go…” (33:14).

Returning to the story of Reb Schmelke, the heavenly voice called out: “Schmelke, is that you?” With the Golden Calf, the Israelites had behaved like Reb Schmelke – ‘having a break’. Regarding similar situations, Rabbeinu Yona (Gate One: 6, then 5) writes in Shaarei Teshuva:

It is true that some of the righteous sometimes fall into sin, as it is said, “For there is not a righteous man on Earth that does good and does not sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:10). However… if they have succumbed to a sin once, they do not repeat it, for they become loathsome in their own eyes, and so they repent… But if one repeats his sin… the sin becomes permissible to him. Our Sages (Talmud: Yoma 86b) have said, “when a person has committed a transgression and repeated it, it has become permissible to him”.

The latter was the situation with the Spies. With the Golden Calf, the Israelites were acting out of character – transgressing in the full knowledge that the Almighty was witnessing their conduct. A sharp shock – in the killing of the active offenders and a temporary spiritual withdrawal – was enough for G-d to eventually resume normal relations with His people. But with the spies, G-d did not ask: “Israelites, can these people be you?” At that moment they were not G-d’s people, they were not Moses’ people. They were just ‘this people’. Their collective offences subsequent to Golden Calf in repeatedly turning their back on the Almighty when it suited them gave them a new label – ‘this evil congregation’ (Num. 14:27). Consequently the Israelites had to suffer prolonged rejection by G-d: being stalled in the desert until the whole offending adult male population died out…



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