Ki Tisa: The Sin of Silence

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Golden Calf
03 Mar 2010

Much of the Golden Calf [eigel hazahav] saga confounds. Among the classic elements of inquiry are:

Alas, these questions must wait for another day; our focus pointed upon the vexing section of the eigel hazahav aftermath. First, the background: Moshe is atop the mountain. God informs Moshe of the terrible sin: [32:7-10]

“Go down, for your people have become corrupt— those whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt. .. Now leave Me alone and My wrath will blaze against them and destroy them. I will then make you into a great nation.”

In defense of Klal Yisrael, Moshe employs three arguments: [32:11-13]:

  1. Hashem – these are the people you brought out of Egypt .. for this!!
  2. What will the Egyptians say ? [chilul Hashem]
  3. Remember the Patriarchs [zechus avos]

.. and is successful: [32:14]

Ad-noy reconsidered the [intent of doing] evil that He had said He would do to His people.

Moshe descends, sees it happening, breaks the tablets, questions Aharon and implements justice: [26-28]

Moshe stood at the entrance of the camp and said, “Whoever is for Ad-noy, [come] to me.” All the sons of Levi gathered around him. He said .. [the] G-d of Yisrael has said, ‘Let each man put his sword on his hip .. Let each man kill [even] his brother, each man his friend, each man his relative. The sons of Levi did as Moshe said. On that day those that fell from among the people, numbered approximately three thousand men.

Ostensibly, now the breach has been repaired and mission accomplished. And yet the next day Moshe turns to the people: [32:30]

Moshe said to the nation: “You have committed a great sin. Now I will go up to Ad-noy, perhaps I will gain atonement for your sin.”

Moshe negotiates heroically with Hashem, is willing to have his name blotted out from the book 1, before he finally invokes the classic thirteen attributes of Divine Mercy. So much needs clarification here. Consider:

  1. According to the text, 3,000 people sinned [less than a ¼ of a percent of the adults of klal Yisrael]. This hardly constitutes a national sin – And yet Moshe turns to the nation? Similarly, why does Hashem say to Moshe that nation sinned?
  2. All the sinners have been put to death, so whither teshuva?
  3. Why does Moshe need to pray again? Didn’t Hashem answer him the first time around?
  4. Moshe uses the feminine term for great sin chata’a gedolah three times here, a term that repeats itself only one other time in Tanach.

To this we may add:

  1. Why do we find repercussions of the sin till this very day?

A classic Chofetz Chaim – Rav Schwab story resonates:

Rav Schwab spent a Shabbos with the Chofetz Chaim, z”l, in Radin. Friday morning in the middle of a discussion concerning the function of Kohanim, the Chofetz Chaim turned to Rav Schwab and asked, “Are you a Kohen?” “No,” replied Rav Schwab. “Perhaps you have heard that I am a Kohen,” the Chofetz Chaim said. “Yes, I have heard,” Rav Schwab quietly responded. “Perhaps you are a Levi?” the Chofetz Chaim asked. “No, I am not,” was Rav Schwab’s reply.

“What a shame! Moshiach is coming, and the Beit HaMikdash will be rebuilt. You will not be able to perform the avodah, service, in the Sanctuary. Do you know why? Because 3,000 years ago, dein Zayda, [your grandfather], is nisht gelafen, [did not run forward], when Moshe Rabbeinu declared “Mi l’Hashem eilai!” “Whoever is with Hashem should come to me!” The next time you hear the call, “Mi l’Hashem eilai!” come running!

In the Golden Calf episode, two sins have occurred. The first sin, that of formal idol worship is Moshe’s immediate task of order. He gains initial forgiveness for the whole nation and administers justice. The Golden Calf instigators are gone.

But two other groups remain. The Levi’im are heroes. They stood up and out to engage the unpleasant task of rooting out sinners. They are rewarded by serving in the Temple. But what of that third group – those that neither fought with the Levi’im nor committed the terrible sin?

For the quiet spectator, a poignant piece of Talmud [relating Pharaoh’s Wannsee conference – dealing with the Jewish problem] informs: [Sanhedrin 106a]:

And that is what R. Hiyya b. Abba said in R. Simai’s name: Three were involved in that scheme,6 viz., Balaam, Job, and Jethro. Balaam, who advised it, was slain; Job, who was silent, was punished through suffering; and Jethro, who fled — his descendants were privileged to sit in the Hall of Hewn Stones.

Silence in the face of evil is a sin, not an option. Western culture might laud the Good Samaritan, but it does not condemn the passive onlooker. By contrast, a Jew in name and in halacha [do not stand idly over thy brother’s blood] – is compelled to stand up!

This great sin of omission, that chat’ah gedolah, a passive [feminine] sin required a new ma’aseh kaparah [act of atonement] for the bulk of the Jewish people who did nothing. That sin of omission revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of Jewish ethics. To the extent that we are quiet in deed and expressionless in prayer in the face of other’s pain, the sin of the Golden Calf lingers on

One final note: Iyov is punished with yissurin suffering for being silent. Why? What could Iyov have accomplished – certainly Paroh’s decree was a fait accompli. Based upon a poignant midrash, the Brisker Rav explained:

G-d brings upon Iyov terrible suffering. Iyov cries out to G-d and complains. Why do you cry – says God aren’t you the who chose not to raise your voice to Paroh? Why do you cry now? – “Because it hurts.”2

Pain is reflexive. If I feel it, I express it. My silence in the face of the other’s pain [be it man’s or God’s – keviyachol] reflects a chasm. Silence also is an expression, an ultimate statement of insensitivity3.

Let our sincere cries evoke the Divine voice of redemption, speedily in our days


1. Cf. Rashi Ramban what the book is. To Rashi, it is the Torah, for Ramban it is the Book of Eternal Life. cf. Reflections Ki Tisa 5767.

2. Thus Iyov’s punishment stirred him to react in a manner that demonstrated the error of his failure to raise his voice in protest against Pharaoh’s plan.

3. Bringing to mind Pastor Martin Niemoller’s haunting words: “ In Germany they first came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me — and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.