By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
March 2, 2002
The people saw that Moshe delayed in coming down from the mountain, and the people gathered around Aharon and said to him: "Arise, make for us gods that shall go before us; for [as for] this man Moshe who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." And Aharon said to them, "Take off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons and your daughters, and bring them to me." And all the people disencumbered themselves of the golden earrings that were in their ears and they brought them to Aharon. And he took it from their hands and fashioned it with an engraving tool and made it into a molten calf. And they said, "These are your gods, Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt (Shemot 32:1-4).
What has happened to the Children of Israel? How is it possible that this nation, only forty days after accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai, and while yet standing at the foot of that mountain where Hashem's Presence still resides, now clamor for idols? This sharp contrast with the people's recent declarations of faith is highlighted by the Midrash:
It was proper for our forefathers to receive the Torah and to say, "All that Hashem has said, we will do and we will listen" (Shemot 24:7). Was it proper for them to say, "These are your gods, Israel"? I am amazed! (Shemot Rabbah 41:1).
The Beit HaLevi (R. Yosef Dovbaer Soloveitchik, 1820-1892) begins his detailed analysis of the sin of the golden calf by trying to uncover the intentions of the Children of Israel: What did they expect to accomplish by making the calf?
The Children of Israel, he explains, understood that each and every mitzvah contains deep mysteries, to the extent that their fulfillment affects the whole universe. Human actions bring Hashem and the world closer together. Such, for example, is the case of the Mishkan, which is a man-made structure for bringing Hashem's Presence into the world, as we have been learning in the chapters since the Revelation:
And they shall make for Me a Sanctuary, so that I may dwell in their midst (25:8).
Since, the people reasoned, the mitzvot are essentially means to sublime ends, then if those ends can be achieved by other means - through the intercession of exceptional, intensely godly people like Moshe - then that would be effective. When Moshe did not return from the top of the mountain at the time they expected, they sought to construct an entity that - like the future Mishkan - would provide for the Shechinah to rest in their midst. They did not rely on their own imagination, but turned to Aharon the Kohen for
Commendable though their intentions may have been however, their actions were based upon a flawed premise, says the Beit Halevi. Human actions do have cosmic consequences, but only when they are the
fulfillment of Hashem's commands. Otherwise, not only are these unbidden actions fruitless, but, as with the building of the calf, they can be sinful.
And see, that this nation is Your people (33:13).
The people's sin, severe though it may be, does not bespeak a rejection of Hashem; rather, it is an error in trying to serve Him.
But, how unlike NA'ASEH V'NISHMA - We will do and we will listen!
In order to do, of course it is necessary to "hear"; we must know what it is we must do. Therefore, NISHMA - we will listen - must refer to
understanding, as in SHMA - Listen, O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One (Devarim 6:4).
Consequently, NA'ASEH V'NISHMA is a commitment
to learn what Hashem demands of us and, although we will endeavor to probe the inner meanings of His commands, we will not make our compliance contingent upon our understanding. Rather, we will trust in Hashem and fulfill His will, guided by His wisdom, not by ours.
Indeed, the greater our grasp of some of the Torah's profundities, the greater must be our vigilance in not being misled by our limited understanding. Our meticulous observance, dictated by Hashem's wisdom, must be maintained all the more.
But, in stark, tragic contrast, the golden calf was a reversal of these priorities. It was the people's attempt to approach Hashem using methods of human invention, placing NISHMA before NA'ASEH.
To remedy this sin, the people of Israel need to demonstrate that they have learned once again to place NA'ASEH before V'NISHMA. This they achieve, through repentance and recommitment in the period between the sin of the calf (on the 17th of Tammuz) and the construction of the Mishkan (beginning on the 11th of Tishrei, the day after Yom Kippur). They now serve Hashem using the same means whereby they had sinned:
What is written of that transgression? "Take off the golden earrings." And when they built the Mishkan it was constructed of voluntary offerings. And what is written? " Everyone of generous heart brought bracelets, and earrings, rings and ornaments" (35:22). With earrings they sinned and with earrings they were accepted (Shemot Rabbah 48:7).
Moreover, they show that they have learned obedience to Hashem's will. Even Betzalel, who knew how to combine the letters through which heaven and earth were created (Berachot 55a), and thus could have been led by his own esoteric wisdom, nonetheless built the Mishkan as Hashem commanded Moshe (Shemot 39:1,5,7,21,26,29,31).
Ultimately, And all of the work of the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting, was complete; and the Children of Israel did according to all that Hashem had commanded Moshe, so did they do (39:32).
And Moshe saw all the work, and behold, they did it as Hashem had commanded so did they do. And Moshe blessed them (39:43).
When we put our trust in Hashem, and we subjugate our understanding to obey Him, we allow Hashem's Wisdom to elevate us.