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Posted on August 18, 2022 (5782) By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

Arise, descend quickly…for your people…have become corrupt…they have made themselves a molten image…I have seen this people, and behold! It is a stiff-necked people. Release me and I shall destroy them.[2]

The Bnei Yisrael commit a grievous sin when they make the eigel/golden calf. Hashem minces no words in voicing His anger. He threatens to wipe them out. For what, exactly? Not for disloyalty to Him, or for flirting with idolatry, or for a massive chilul Hashem? What is His reason for wanting to destroy them? For being stiff-necked!

The explanation is simple. All kinds of failures can be countenanced, if a person retains the ability to mend his ways. That capacity, however, can be lost. “A man deserving rebukes stiffens his neck. He will be broken suddenly, with none to heal him.”[3] The breaking point comes when a person stubbornly puts himself out of range of rebuke. When that happens, he can no longer redeem himself.

I would take it further. I think that the subject of the pasuk in Mishlei is Man, or humankind, rather than man the individual. Man’s spiritual structure stands on a foundation of rebuke – of the ability to listen to chastisement external to him. People rarely discover their own flaws. Everyone needs rebuke, or more accurately, needs the dialectic of listening to and responding to others.

Rav Yochanan mourned the loss of Reish Lakish, who always peppered him with questions and objections. Only through that give-and-take did he arrive at clear halachic decisions.[4] The same holds true in our arriving at ethical and moral decisions. We need to be challenged with questions about our assumptions, and to formulate answers to those questions, in order to make ethical progress.

When we are stiff-necked, when we can’t listen to rebuke, we remove ourselves from the growth curve. When we don’t grow, we inevitably head in the opposite direction. Conversely, when we are open to rebuke, we can be forgiven for many things. Even an eigel ha-zahav.

Chazal speak of acquiring a “good friend” as the straight path that a person should elect for himself.[5] The good friend is the person who will not be afraid to ask the hard questions, to point to the inconsistencies, and to rebuke when necessary. This friend is necessary because there are limits as to how much harm can be suffered before irreversible damage occurs. A person’s body can encounter diseases and stresses and recover – but there are limits beyond with there is no recovery. The same is true of a person’s midos, his character. It is even more so that there is a point at which it becomes practically impossible for a person to restore the purity of his soul after it has been stained by sin. Closing off the avenue of rebuke is one such point.

When the Bnei Yisroel sinned with the eigel, Hashem told Moshe to hurry, to descend quickly. We now understand the reason for haste. Moshe had a small window of opportunity, during which the Bnei Yisroel’s receptivity to rebuke was still alive. It could be anticipated that this openness would soon pass, and turn into stiff-necked rejection and even hatred of rebuke.

He had to act quickly.

  1. Based on Daas Torah, by Rav Yeruchem Levovitz zt”l, Devarim pgs.166-167
  2. Devarim 9:12-14
  3. Mishlei 29:1
  4. Bava Metzia 84a
  5. Avos 2:9