“And now leave me and my anger will be expressed towards them and I will destroy them. And I will make you into a great nation.” (Shemot 32:10)
Parshat Ki Tisa relates the incident of the Egel HaZahav – the Golden Calf. The basic outline of the incident is very clear. The Torah explains that Moshe ascended Sinai. Moshe was on the mountain for forty days. The people became alarmed that he had not returned and assumed that he would not come back. They turned to Aharon and pleaded with him to create a deity that would lead them. Aharon created the Egel and the nation immediately initiated worship of this figure. Hashem tells Moshe that He will destroy Bnai Yisrael and create a new nation from Moshe’s descendants. Moshe prays on behalf of Bnai Yisrael and succeeds in saving the nation.
It is not clear from the Torah exactly how many members of the nation were involved in the sin of the Egel. However, Malbim argues that only three thousand members of Bnai Yisrael actually participated in this sin. His argument is based an interesting problem in the pesukim.
“And the children of Leyve did as Moshe had directed. And on that day, three thousand men fell from the nation.” (Shemot 32:28)
Moshe descends from Sinai. He breaks the Luchot – the Tablets. He asks those who remain faithful to Hashem, to rally around him. Shevet Leyve responds to Moshe’s call. He instructs the members of Shevet Leyve to execute those who have sinned by worshipping the Egel. The members of Shevet Leyve execute three thousand people. However, these are not the only people that were killed in response to the sin of the Egel.
“And Hashem struck the nation because they served the Egel that Aharon had made.” (Shemot 32:35)
The Torah tells us that in addition to those who were executed by Shevet Leyve, others died in a plague that Hashem brought upon the nation. It is interesting that the Torah does not specify the number of people that died in the plague. This contrasts sharply with the account of the executions performed by Shevet Leyve. In that instance, the Torah indicates that three thousand people were executed.
There is a further question. Presumably Shevet Leyve killed those members of the nation that participated in the sin. Yet, a plague was necessary. Who did Hashem kill with the plague?
Rashi suggests that Shevet Leyve were only empowered to execute those members of the nation who were forewarned to not participate in the sin and then were seen worshipping the Egel. Therefore, they could not execute all of the members of the nation involved in the sin. Some of the sinner had not been forewarned or were not seen participating in worship. Shevet Leyve was not empowered to judge and execute these people. The plague addressed this problem. Malbim notes that the Sages suggest that those sinners, who were not executed by Shevet Leyve, were struck down by the plague.
This explains why the plague was needed. However, the Sages’ comments do not explain why the Torah does not reveal the number of people killed in this plague. Malbim raises another issue. The Torah describes the worship of the Egel as a public event. It seems unlikely that a significant number of people participated in this event and were not seen by witnesses. Although the Torah does not indicate how many people died in the plague, the very term plague indicates the number must have been significant. How is it possible that a substantial number of people participated in the sin and were not seen by witnesses?
Malbim answers these questions based in an earlier pasuk. The Torah tells us that when Bnai Yisrael left Egypt they were accompanied by a mixed group of people from other nations. This group was composed of individual who were not members of Bnai Yisrael. However, they were impressed by the wonders they had witnessed Hashem perform on Bnai Yisrael’s behalf. They decided to join Bnai Yisrael and follow them out of Egypt. The Torah does not explicitly tell us of the fate of the group – the Erev Rav. However, they quickly disappear from the narrative of the Torah.
Malbim suggests that although only a small portion of Bnai Yisrael participated in the sin of the Egel, a large portion of the Erev Rav were involved in the sin. Therefore, among Bnai Yisrael there were many innocent people that forewarned their neighbors to not worship the Egel. If their forewarning was disregarded these same individuals were available to serve as witnesses of the sin. Shevet Leyve relied on these innocent people in order to judge and execute those who were guilty of worshipping the Egel.
In contrast, among the Erev Rav there were few if any innocents who forewarned their neighbors. And there were few members of the Erev Rav who were untainted by the sin of the Egel and qualified to testify against others. Therefore, Shevet Leyve was not empowered to punish members of the Erev Rav who had participated in the sin.
Malbim suggests that these members of the Erev Rav who went unpunished by Shevet Leyve were killed by the plague. Malbim’s insight explains why the Torah does not indicate the number of people killed by the plague. The Torah indicates the number of members of Bnai Yisrael executed by Shevet Leyve because this information is relevant to the narrative of the Torah. The Torah is describing the development of the Jewish nation. However, the Erev Rav was not part of Bnai Yisrael. After this incident, the Erev Rav was decimated and no longer significant. Therefore, the number of members of the Erev Rav killed by the plague is not treated as a significant element of the narrative.
Malbim’s position raises an important question. According to Malbim, the three thousand people executed by Shevet Leyve represent the entire portion of the nation that worshiped the Egel. Yet, Hashem tells Moshe that because of this sin He wishes to destroy Bnai Yisrael. This seems like a remarkably harsh punishment. How could Hashem destroy an entire nation because of the sin of a relatively small minority of its members?
Sfrono addresses this question through a remarkable analysis of another issue.
“And he said to them, “So says Hashem the G-d of Israel: Each man should place his sword on his thigh and pass back and froth from one gate to the other in the camp. Each man should kill his brother; each man should kill his friend and each man should kill his relative.” (Shemot 32:27)
Moshe addresses the members of Shevet Leyve. He tells them that Hashem expects them to act as executioners. They are to execute all those guilty of the sin of worshipping the Egel. They may not show mercy to brothers, friends or relatives. Any person who is judged to be guilty must be executed.
Sforno is bothered by a problem in this passage. Moshe begins by instructing the members of Shevet Leyve to pass back and forth through the camp. Why did Moshe add this detail to his instructions? Sforno suggests that Moshe was instructing Shevet Leyve to perform its task as publicly as possible. The sinners were to be judged and then executed in the open. The actions of Shevet Leyve should be observed by the entire nation.
Why was Moshe concerned with creating a public display? Sforno suggest that this was a fundamental element of the punishment! How?
Sforno is bothered by another problem. He assumes that only a portion of Bnai Yisrael were involved in the worship of the Egel. What was the attitude of the rest of the nation? Why did the rest of the nation not take action to prevent the creation of the Egel and its worship? He concludes that although only a small portion of the nation actually worshipped the Egel, many others stood by passively and did little to prevent their neighbors from violating the prohibition against idolatry – one of the most important injunctions of the Torah. They could have acted responsibly and forcibly prevented the sin from taking place. But they could not bring themselves to take aggressive action. As a result, the sin of the Egel took place. In other words, the sin was the result of the actions of the few and the passivity of the majority.
Hashem wanted to punish both those who sinned actively by worshipping the Egel and those who sinned through their passivity – by not taking the action necessary to prevent the sin. The sinners were punished by death. Those who failed to act were punished by being forced to watch the executions. They had been unable to take action against their friends. They would not watch the executions of these same friends.
Sforno’s insight explains Hashem’s response to the sin of the Egel. It is true that only a small portion of the nation was actively involved in the sin. However, the Egel could not have been created a worshipped without the passive acquiescence of the many others. Hashem suggested to Moshe that the nation deserved to be destroyed. They deserved this punishment because of the sin of the few and the passivity of the majority.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 32:20.  Rabbaynu Meir Libush (Malbim), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 32:35.  Sefer Shemot 12:38.  Rabbaynu Meir Libush (Malbim), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 32:35.  Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 32:27.