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Parshas Ki Sisa - Vol. 12, Issue 21
Compiled by Oizer Alport
A mere 40 days after accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people committed the worst sin in our national history: making and worshipping a golden calf. However, while this episode is recorded in the Torah and it is therefore incumbent upon us to study it, we are fortunately quite distant from being tempted to commit such sins, and it is difficult for us to relate to this story and find lessons in it that we can apply to our own lives.
Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Greenwald was a renowned psychologist in Monsey who was very close with the Steipler Gaon and wrote a book called Eitzos V'Hadrachos containing advice that he received from the Steipler. In one section, he discusses common mistakes that people make, one of which the attitude that for every challenge that a person confronts, whether it be in the areas of shidduchim, health, or finances, there must be a clear answer, and until he is able to find the proper resolution to the situation, he is deeply perturbed not only by the actual problem, but also by his inability to determine how to respond to it.
This approach is incorrect. Because of our tendency to feel that we must immediately solve the problem, we blindly grasp for a way out and end up making bad choices that compound the original situation and make it even worse. If we find ourselves facing a dilemma with no readily apparent solution, it would be far preferable to simply accept the ambiguity and sleep on it until the proper course of action becomes clear or the situation resolves itself.
What was the immediate cause of the sin of the golden calf? Rashi writes (32:1) that when Moshe did not return at the time that the Jewish people expected him, they erroneously concluded that he had died. As a result, they were distraught and confused about who would lead them. As Rabbi Greenwald writes, the proper response would have been to wait patiently until they could assess the situation and rationally determine the best course of action. Had they slept on it, the issue would have resolved itself when Moshe returned the following day. However, they were unwilling and unable to do so because they felt such a burning, pressing need for immediate action that they opted for an ill-fated plan that changed the course of history.
Rav Yisroel Reisman notes that we often find that when the Gemora raises a difficulty with a certain opinion or explanation, it responds kasha, which means that the question is indeed valid and no answer is readily apparent, yet the Gemora moves on without rejecting the original position, as Chazal understood that not every question has an easy answer. Similarly, when we find ourselves in challenging situations where the correct response is unclear, rather than rashly trade one set of problems for a new set, we should instead say kasha, mentally acknowledging the difficulty, but also giving ourselves time to assess the issue calmly and rationally, rather than feeling compelled to rush and make an immediate decision that we will likely regret.
Along these lines, Rav Reisman cites an essay by Dr. Lewis Thomas, who served as Dean of Yale Medical School and President of Memorial-Sloan Kettering, in which he writes, "The great secret of doctors, known only to their wives, but still hidden from the public, is that most things get better by themselves; most things, in fact, are better in the morning." He explains that because most ailments will resolve themselves on their own within a few days, doctors could simply tell their patients to wait until the presenting issue goes away on its own. However, because doctors recognize that people are impatient and feel a need to actively address their maladies, they therefore advise their patients to get extra rest and drink a lot of fluids, not because this is truly necessary to heal the illness, but because the underlying problem will most likely resolve itself during this time.
In the first blessing of Shemoneh Esrei, we refer to Hashem as Koneh HaKol, which is traditionally translated as "Owner of everything." However, the Vilna Gaon writes that the word koneh is connected to the word m'sakein - to fix - as we praise Hashem for His unique ability to repair everything. Although building and worshipping a golden calf is not a sin that tempts us, the impetuosity that enabled it to happen is indeed an area in which we can all strive to improve, as we internalize the understanding that we may not have a good solution for every difficulty that we face, but rather than make it worse, we should instead acknowledge the kasha and leave it in the capable hands of the Koneh HaKol.
In the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, Moshe asked Hashem to show him His glory. The Torah records that Hashem descended in a cloud and passed before Moshe, who was standing in a cleft in the rock, and proclaimed the 13 Middos (Attributes) of Rachamim (Divine Mercy): Hashem, Hashem, G-d, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of Kindness for thousands of generations, Who forgives Iniquity, Willful Sin, and Error, and Cleanses.
The recital of the 13 Middos appears frequently and plays a central role in our prayers, as the Gemora (Rosh Hashana 17b) teaches that they have tremendous significance and power. Rav Yochanan explains that Hashem so-to-speak wrapped Himself in a tallis like a Shaliach Tzibbur (prayer leader) and taught Moshe that whenever the Jewish people sin, they should proclaim these 13 Attributes, and Hashem will forgive their sins. Rav Yehuda adds that Hashem made a covenant with the 13 Middos promising that they will always have an effect and will never return empty-handed. Accordingly, we invoke these Attributes at times when we seek Divine mercy, such as on fast days and during the pivotal 10 Days of Repentance, confident in the Divine guarantee of their potency. However, the obvious difficulty is that experience has shown that this is not always the case. Many times we recite this passage, but do not obtain the outcome that we desire. How can this be reconciled with the Gemora's promise of its efficacy?
The Alshich HaKadosh and Shelah HaKadosh explain that in order to obtain the results we seek, it is not sufficient to merely read the 13 Middos of Rachamim. They point out that the Gemora's wording in its discussion of this topic is ya'asu l'fanai k'seder ha'zeh, which does not mean, "They shall recite this order of prayer," but rather, "They shall perform this order of prayer." In other words, the Gemora is hinting to us that it is not enough to simply read the words from the siddur. In order to receive Hashem's promise that the 13 Middos will not return empty-handed, we must act them out by embodying His Attributes of mercy and compassion in our interactions with others.
Rav Yonason Eibeshutz disagrees with this interpretation. He notes that while it is possible to embody Hashem's Attributes of Rachum v'Chanun (Compassionate and Gracious), it is impossible to emulate the Attribute of K-el, which connotes His Divine, omnipotent status, something that is by definition beyond human capabilities. He brilliantly adds that this is alluded to in the paragraph that precedes our recitation of the 13 Middos of Rachamim, in which we say K-el horeisa lanu lomar shelosh esreh, which literally means that Hashem taught us to recite these 13 Attributes of Mercy. However, it can also be interpreted as saying that the Attribute of K-el, which is impossible to imitate, horeisa lanu - teaches us that the requirement is not to emulate the 13 Middos, but lomar shelosh esreh - merely to say them. However, this leads us back to our original question: If we are merely instructed to read the 13 Middos, who don't we always see the desired results after publicly reciting them?
Rav Yissocher Frand cites a sefer called Imrei Binah, which suggests that there is an additional component of the covenant that Hashem made with the 13 Middos of Rachamim. The Gemora says that prior to teaching Moshe the 13 Attributes, Hashem first wrapped Himself in a tallis like a prayer leader. This hints to us that even according to the opinion that it is enough to merely say the words, one must say them like a Shaliach Tzibbur. In other words, it is insufficient to recite the 13 Middos on behalf of ourselves; we must invoke them with the welfare of the entire community in mind. When we cry out with all our might pleading with Hashem to tear up any evil decrees against us, instead of only focusing on our own needs, we must endeavor to pray as a Shaliach Tzibbur by magnanimously moving outside ourselves and also focusing on the needs of others.
Rav Frand notes that this is often quite difficult to do. To combat the natural tendency to think only of ourselves, he quotes the sefer Mikdash Mordechai, which points out that the Torah's narrative of this episode stresses that prior to teaching Moshe the 13 Middos of Rachamim, Hashem first descended in a cloud. This teaches us that when life is going well, it is easy to think about others. However, when a person feels like he is inside of a tumultuous cloud, grappling with his own overwhelming struggles, it is much more challenging to do so. Therefore, Hashem specifically approached Moshe in a cloud to hint that even at such times, we are expected to selflessly empathize with others and pray on their behalf, an act which is guaranteed to merit Hashem's mercy and compassion.
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) Rashi writes (30:31) that the anointment oil will remain for use in the Messianic era. For what will it be used? (Ramban Sefer HaMitzvos 3:7, Minchas Chinuch 107, Ayeles HaShachar)
2) The Medrash teaches (Pirkei D'Rebbi Eliezer 45) that prior to Moshe throwing down the Tablets and breaking them, the writing that was on the Tablets miraculously flew away. As the letters weren't written on the Tablets but were carved through them, how was it possible for them to fly away? (Maharsha Pesachim 87b, Korban HaEidah Yerushalmi Taanis 23a)
3) The Gemora in Gittin (60b) derives from 34:27 that it is forbidden to say parts of the Written Torah by heart. Is it permitted to say Tehillim from memory? (Shu"t Chavos Yair 175, Chai Odom 8:11, Mateh Ephraim 619:23, Kaf HaChaim Orach Chaim 49:6, Mishnah Berurah 49:6, Piskei Teshuvos 49:1, Ma'adanei Asher 5768)
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