Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
A Matter of Choice
In Parshas Ki Sisa, we read about one of the most tragic events in
Jewish history; the sin of the Golden Calf. It is almost inconceivable
how a nation could rise to such a pinnacle - to receive the Torah, the
Word of Hashem on Har Sinai - and yet just forty days later, to take
their gold, form with it a calf, and say, "This is your god, O Israel,
who brought you up from the land of Egypt! (32:8)"
But did the Jews indeed sin? Certainly a cursory reading of the
pesukim indicates so. A plague broke out as a result of the golden
calf (32:35). Furthermore, approximately 3,000 Jews were killed by
the Levi'im, at the command of Moshe (32:28). And perhaps most
tragically, Hashem declared (32:34), "And on the day that I make My
account, I shall bring their sin against them," namely, that whenever
a Jew sins and is punished, he suffers a small portion of the
punishment the Jews were to have received then (Rashi).
Yet there is an amazing Gemara which seems to indicate otherwise:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: The only
reason the Jews sinned with the Golden Calf
was in order to provide an opening for ba'alei
teshuva (repentants). As R' Yochanan said in
the name of R' Shimon bar Yochai: David was
not disposed to sin (with Bas Sheva), nor were
the Jews disposed to sin (with the Golden
Calf). So why did they sin? In order to teach
the concept of teshuva (repentance)! [Avodah
Apparently, the Jews were "pushed" into sinning. On their own
accord, this would not have happened; Hashem thrust this sin upon
them in order to teach the important lesson of repentance; that no
matter how far one has strayed - even if he has made himself a
golden calf - he can still return.
Mefarshim (commentators), however, ask a perplexing question: If
indeed the Jews on their own accord would not have sinned, were it
not that the Master of the Universe "steered" them to do so, then in
what way can their teshuva serve to teach us the concept of
repentance? Their "teshuva" was accepted as a matter of course -
after all they should really not have sinned in the first place! But when
we sin by exercising our bechira, our free-will to do good or bad, who
is to say that our repentance will be accepted?
Different answers are proposed to deal with this question (see
Maharal, Michtav Me-Eliyahu, and others). Basically, they all agree
that to some degree the Jews sinned as a matter of free-will - if not
there could be no punishment and repercussions. What the Gemara
means is that there was a sudden shift of events which made it very
difficult - but not impossible - for the Jews to avoid sinning.
Ultimately, though, one can still question: Why teach the concept of
teshuva by means of such a complex and coerced situation? Perhaps
we could take a slightly different tack.
It is no secret that we live today in a society that tends to avoid
blaming the individual for his own shortcomings. People, society says,
are the product of their environment and circumstance - they can for
the most part not be blamed for their actions. Joey shot his teacher
because he was abused as a child. Michael steals because he grew
up in an impoverished home. Robert is taking drugs because he has
been rejected by his peers - this is his way of gaining acceptance.
Given different environments and different circumstances, they might
have turned out different...
The Torah sees things differently. True, environment and
circumstance play a crucial role in character development. Parents
and teachers must certainly do everything they can to provide a
climate within which Torah values can thrive. But one always has the
choice to do good or bad. Bechira - free will - is the most basic tenet
of the Torah. Without the choice between good and bad, man ceases
to be distinct from the animals, who enjoy no such choice. We
become products of our whims, ruled only by our own desires.
The importance of imparting this message to our youth can not be
ignored. It is perhaps the most important concept they (we) will ever
learn; that whatever the circumstances, the ultimate choice in is our
hands. No one can be forced to do bad. And even when things have
taken a turn for the worse, it's never too late, one can always return.
No one is beyond repentance.
Perhaps this is precisely the message the Torah is trying to convey
with the sin of the Golden Calf. It is true that the Golden Calf was
largely a product of circumstance. The Jews had been misled into
believing Moshe had died. Different factors combined to make their
avoidance of sin extremely difficult. The Gemara declares
unequivocally that, "The Jews were not disposed to have sinned with
the Golden Calf!" Yet, notwithstanding all the excuses, justifications,
and circumstances, they are still held responsible for their actions.
"So why did they sin? In order to teach the concept of teshuva." The
sin of the Golden Calf teaches us the most basic rule of repentance:
Accepting responsibility for our actions and misdeeds. Accepting that
every person has the freedom to do as they choose. We all know of
great individuals that came from the lowliest of backgrounds. Society,
peers, circumstance - they all wield great, yet not insurmountable
influence over our lives. Ultimately the choice is ours.
Text Copyright © 2000 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.