Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Appreciating What We Have - While We Have It!
The sin of the Eigel HaZahav/Golden Calf is one of the most
intriguing stories of the Torah. Having mistakenly thought that Moshe
would no longer return from his forty-day stay atop Mount Sinai, the
Jews came to Aaron, requesting a replacement. "The people saw that
Moshe had delayed in descending from the mountain, and the people
gathered around Aaron and said to him, 'Come, make for us a god
that will go before us, for this man Moshe, who brought us out of
Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.'" (32:1)
What a strange request! Clearly, they are seeking a replacement for
Moshe. Yet instead of asking for a new leader, they ask for a "god"!
Rabbi Elazar of Kozhnitz zt"l, son of the Kozhnitzer Maggid, R'
Yisrael, finds in their request a *penetrating insight* into human
nature. Why is it, he asks, that when (G-d forbid) a Rebbe or great
leader dies, his followers have such a hard time accepting the
guidance of a new spiritual mentor? Indeed, countless arguments and
controversies have arisen over this very problem - how does one go
about "replacing the irreplaceable"?
Why does this occur? Because, he explains, human nature is for one
to give great distinction and consequence - almost to deify - that
which he no longer has. A great leader in his lifetime is just that - a
great leader. Once he dies, he becomes in our eyes a sort of demi-
god - a person so thoroughly irreplaceable that it would be senseless
even to try.
In part, we do this out of anguish for our loss. It also, he explains,
serves as a viable excuse not to seek the guidance of the great
leaders who remain. If one's loss is indeed "irreplaceable," then
nothing can be done but grieve, conveniently allowing one to
continue living without actively seeking the advice and guidance of
those greater and more knowledgable than he.
When Moshe was around, he was respected by the nation. But he
was human. When (mistakenly) they thought he had died, he became
a god in their eyes. The people gathered around Aaron and said to
him, "Come make for us a god... " Our leader Moshe can not be
replaced by a mere mortal, for he was a "god," and only a "god"
could replace him. [Likutei Mahara]
Incidentally, this insight highlights our extreme short-sightedness in
appreciating what we have - while we still have it. When the people
thought Moshe Rabbeinu (our teacher) had left them, they were
overcome with grief. Only when forced to contemplate what life would
be like without their revered leader, did they truly comprehend and
appreciate just how much Moshe really meant to them.
It is sad, is it not, to think that we rarely stop to appreciate all the
goodness we have in our lives. But take something essential away,
even just for a short while, and see how quickly it's worth grows in
our eyes. Every day, we make berachos (blessings) on our food,
before and after eating, with varied levels of concentration. Yet think
how much we miss our breakfast, snack, lunch, or coffee - on a fast
day. Imagine if every morning you thanked Hashem for your
breakfast after having contemplated what it would be like to have to
go through the day without food.
We read in this week's Sidrah that after the sin of the Eigel, Hashem
told Moshe that He would no longer accompany them - for they are
a stiff-necked nation - but would rather send His angel with them.
Understandably, the people were grief-stricken. They became full of
regret. Our Sages teach that when the Jews said (Shemos 24:7),
"Na'aseh ve-nishmah/We will do and we will listen," proclaiming
their willingness to accept unquestioningly Hashem's commandments
and teachings, angels came and affixed two crowns to their heads,
one in honour of "we will do," and one in honour of "we will listen."
(Shabbos 88b) Upon hearing the bad news - that Hashem would no
longer dwell among them - the people refused to don their crowns.
We read, "The people heard this bad tiding, and they became grief-
stricken, and no one donned his crown." (33:4) The pasuk then
continues (ibid:5-6), Hashem said to Moshe, "Say to Bnei Yisrael,
'You are a stiff-necked nation! And now, remove your crowns from
yourselves...' And thus Bnei Yisrael were stripped of their crowns
from Mount Chorev."
Why does Hashem command the Jews to remove their crowns? Did
we not just read in the previous verse that they had already refused
to don their crowns? This is a very difficult question with which many
mefarshim (commentators) grapple, each taking his own way.
Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak of Lublin, the "Choizeh" (seer) zt"l, explains
that when the pasuk says, "And no one donned his crown," it is not
to be taken in the literal sense. Surely they must have donned their
crowns, as is indicated by that which Hashem later commands them
to remove them. Rather, it means that in their state of dejection, they
neglected to appreciate them! Although they had sinned, and thereby
been deprived of Hashem's presence in their midst, all was not lost -
they still had their crowns. Because they failed to appreciate them,
their crowns too were stripped from them, as punishment for their
lack of appreciation! [This is truly a deep and penetrating insight
which can not be justly explained (appreciated?) in such limited
space. It is left for the reader to further contemplate the far-reaching
implications of this vort.]
Chazal say (Bereishis Rabbah 14:9), "With every breath [you take]
you should praise Hashem [for that breath]." I will not go as far as to
suggest that one hold one's breath in order to appreciate what it
means to be able to breathe. Yet even something so basic and so
easily taken for granted as the air we breathe, and the ability of our
lungs to function, can be the objects of our praise and appreciation.
No matter how difficult life can sometimes become, if we try to
appreciate what we have - while we have it - we will surely find that
there is so much to be thankful for!
Text Copyright © 1999 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.