When examining the sin of the Eigel Ha-zahav (Golden Calf), one is
compelled to look for its root cause. True, it is not unlikely that
among a large nation, there will be more than a few rotten apples.
Thus, that there were individuals who were prepared to sin so soon
after receiving the Torah (the sin of the Golden Calf came a mere 40
or so days after Kabbalas Ha-Torah) should come as no surprise.
What is shocking is how an entire nation could allow itself to be
drawn into so foolish a sin!
The Midrash (Tanna de-Bei Eliyahu 4) cites Moshe's plea-bargain
Master of the Universe: You are both righteous and fair!
Everything You do is with complete faith. Is it just that
because of three-thousand men who served the Golden
Calf, a nation of 600,000 (men over the age of 20) should
be wiped out?
If there were in fact only a paltry 3,000 individuals (0.5%) out of an
entire nation who "served" the Calf in the true sense, why do we
collectively suffer the repercussions of this sin to this very day? - "And
from now on, whenever I visit punishment upon you, there will be
an element of punishment for the Golden Calf (32:34, Rashi ibid.)." -
Furthermore, asks R' Yehoshua Leib Diskin zt"l, if the sin was
committed (principally) by 3,000 people, that leaves approximately
597,000 people who had little interest in serving the Bovine deity!
How is it possible that none of them joined forces and took a stand?
Could they not have overcome the (vocal) minority with relative ease?
In fact, says R' Diskin, every individual on his own was disgusted and
appalled by the actions of the Cow-bowers. "If I could," each of them
thought, "I would take a stand. But how can I? I'm just a face in the
crowd! Who would listen to me? Can I overcome an nation of sinners
and idol worshippers?"
If each individual had given his contemporaries the benefit of the
doubt (as indeed we are obligated to do [see Avos 1:6]), says R'
Yehoshua Leib, the believers, who were in fact the vast majority,
would have easily overcome the minority, and the Golden Calf would
never have come about. It is only because each person saw himself
as being the only one who had his priorities straight, and failed to
judge others equitably, that the sinners were able to proceed
unhindered. This is why an entire nation was implicated in the sin of
a mere few.
This doesn't, however, completely explain why an entire nation was
implicated in the sin of idol worship, if their failure was only one of
not judging others favourably.
I believe that aside from the obvious lesson here - which is never to
assume we're the only ones around with good intentions - there is
another salient point we can take out of this. Can you think of a time
when you sat by and feebly let something happen that you knew was
wrong, yet didn't have the "guts" to say so? When you meekly "looked
the other way" and pretended everything was ok, out of fear of ruffling
someone's feathers? But what if, as you bonelessly sat there
pondering what to do, someone else with a mouth bigger than yours
came along and had the guts to speak out? Did you suddenly find it
easier to speak your mind?
It's scary to be alone.
It has happened to most of us: You're a small child with a parent in
a big place; perhaps a shopping mall or an airport. Suddenly, you
find yourself alone. Panic stricken, you search the sea of faces for
your father or mother, yet you fail to find them. You're too scared
even to cry. The tears only start to flow when, after a few anxious
moments, you're reunited...
Some people call it group psychology. It's what makes it possible for
a group of mainly decent individuals to behave in a callous and
sometimes heinous manner. We desperately desire to belong, and if
that means on occasion sacrificing our scruples, so be it. We know
we are wrong, yet we feel powerless to do anything but go with the
Would there have arisen just a few strong-willed individuals who had
the inner strength to speak out against the Calf-worshippers, their
upstart group would likely have blossomed in no time into a
formidable opposition, and perhaps our history would have been
different. Alas, it was not meant to be.
Perhaps this is why an entire nation was punished for the sin of idol
worship, even though according to R' Diskin most of them did not
sin by worshipping the Calf per se. Fearing the speculation of others
more than we fear Hashem is itself a tacit form of idol worship.
While we can not turn back the clock and undo the Golden Calf, by
studying and integrating its lesson, we rectify the original sin. What
we should truly fear is sin, not the ridicule of others. All the more so
if we remember that there are likely many others who feel just as we
do - but they're just too scared to say so.
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication was sponsored by R'
Zalman Deutsch, and by R' Shalom D'ancona, in honour
of the Yoma De'Hilula of the holy Rebbe R' Elimelech of
Lizensk. May his merit protect us.