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Torah Attitude: Parashas Ki Sisa: The evil inclination and the golden calf
When Moses did not appear at the expected time the Jewish people gathered around Aaron and demanded that he should create an idol to replace Moses. How can it be that an entire nation, who only forty days earlier had been elevated to a state of prophecy, fell so low in just one instant? The evil inclination has plenty of time and is satisfied to take one small step at a time. The Torah first warns us against idol worshippers and continues to warn us that there might be a subtle root that will eventually flourish into full fledged sins and transgressions, as bitter as the gall and the wormwood. First the evil inclination entices a person to follow the desires of the heart rather than doing what the intellect would dictate. Eventually this person will follow the idols or ideals of the nations of the world, and stray from observing the Torah and its commandments. The Jewish people served idols not so much because they believed in them as due to the fact that this gave them the freedom to follow their desires and lusts without any restrictions. "Every day the evil inclination of a person will come with new schemes against him." In general, the evil inclination works step by step over a long time. Sometimes it will get permission to test a person or community with a sudden situation that they are not prepared for to see if they can overcome such a challenge. Prior to the sin of the golden calf, the Jewish people were confused and scared at the new situation. That made them extremely vulnerable to the enticement of the evil inclination, to the extent that they could in one instant fall from the highest level of trust into the abyss of despair. Too often we see young teenagers turning to drugs and criminal acts because they feel rejected by their surroundings. When Orpah saw that she had failed her challenge, she felt so depressed and had such a low self-esteem that she totally lost her moral bearing. Families who for generations had been Torah observant suddenly turned their back on the faith of their fathers and adapted to the melting pot of America. When the Sephardic Jews came from North Africa to Israel soon after the proclamation of the new state, many of them stopped observing the commandments of the Torah. In every group there are individuals who, like the tribe of Levy, stand up and answer the call, "Who is to G'd, come to me".
Forty days miscalculation
After the revelation at Mount Sinai, G'd instructed Moses to ascend the mountain to receive the two tablets and the commandments of the Torah. Moses followed G'd's instructions and stayed on the mountain for forty days (see Shemos 24:12-18). The Jewish people eagerly awaited Moses' return and calculated when the forty days would be finished. Unfortunately, they made a mistake as they assumed that the date Moses ascended the mountain was part of the forty days. They did not realize that the calculation was forty full days starting with the night following Moses' ascent. They had patiently waited for Moses' return but when he did not appear at the expected time they gathered around Aaron and demanded (Shemos 32:1), "Make us gods … for this man Moses that took us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him."
This seems very difficult to understand. How can it be that an entire nation, who only forty days earlier had been elevated to a state of prophecy and experienced how G'd revealed Himself to all of them, should fall so low in just one instant? This was not a gradual deterioration of their belief and trust in G'd, for until that very last day they had no intent of deviating from what they had taken upon themselves at the time of the revelation.
The Talmud (Shabbos 105b) teaches: "This is the modus operandi of the evil inclination: Today it will entice you to do this, and tomorrow it will entice you to do that, till it gradually entices you to go and serve idols." The reason for this is that the evil inclination will approach every individual according to that particular person's situation and level of observance. It has plenty of time and is satisfied to take one small step at a time.
Gall and wormwood
It may sometimes take a few generations till the wrongdoings of a family become noticeable. Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel, known as the Alter of Slabodka, explains that if we find a teenager from a good family shoplifting, chances are that this did not develop overnight. It is possible that the first step was when this teenager's pious grandfather tried to appear more humble than he really was, and thus deceived his fellow human beings in a very subtle way. The teenager's scholarly father may have taken the next step when he gave lectures and used another scholar's thoughts without mentioning the source. The lack of honesty by plagiarizing someone else's thoughts was already more pronounced than the grandfather's shortcomings. But only in the third generation did it develop into real theft. This is what the Torah warns us against, when it says (Devarim 29:17), "Lest there is among you, a man or woman or family, whose heart turns away today from HASHEM our G'd, to go and serve the idols of those nations. Lest there is among you a root flourishing with gall and wormwood." The Torah first warns us against someone who actually worships idols. Afterwards, it warns us that there might be a subtle root that will eventually flourish into full fledged sins and transgressions, as bitter as the gall and the wormwood.
Follow the heart
Similarly, we find a warning in the second portion of the Shema, where it says (Devarim 11:16), "Watch out for yourself, lest that your heart entices you, and you turn away and serve idols." This verse needs clarification. Why would someone who was enticed by his heart necessarily go and serve idols? However, here again the Torah teaches us the ways of the evil inclination. The first little step is not necessarily a transgression of any sort. Initially the evil inclination is satisfied if it manages to entice a person to follow the desires of the heart, rather than doing what the intellect would dictate. This is sufficient for the evil inclination. It knows that once a person is motivated to do something because that is what he feels like, rather than because it is the right thing to do, eventually this person will follow the idols or ideals of the nations of the world, and stray from observing the Torah and its commandments.
Follow desires and lusts
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 63b) teaches that the Jewish people did not serve idols because they believed in them, but due to the fact that this gave them the freedom to follow their desires and lusts without any restrictions. This is similar to the general acceptance of the Theory of Evolution, although it is based on a ridiculous theory of unlikely sequences of mutations that supposedly happened by mistake. However, it is no secret that this theory has only gained its tremendous popularity due to the fear of the alternative. For if mankind did not evolve from a simple cell but was created by a Creator, it is obvious that one must follow the directions and instructions of this Creator.
The evil inclination is very experienced and shrewd, and will daily entice a person step after step. As the Talmud (Kidushin 30b) teaches, "Every day the evil inclination of a person will come with new schemes against him." Patiently and slowly it will bring the person to sin. However, if this is the case the obvious question arises: What went wrong prior to the sin of the golden calf? What caused almost the whole nation in one instant to get involved in creating an idol? Only a relatively small group of three thousand actively served it. But the vast majority of the Jewish people participated passively by not protesting or trying to stop the creation of the golden calf. How could such a momentous change occur so quickly? As G'd said to Moses (Shemos 32:7-8), "The people that you have brought up from Egypt has become corrupt. They have strayed quickly from the way that I commanded them; they have made themselves a molten calf; and they have bowed down to it …"
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevits explains that although in general the evil inclination works step by step over a long time, sometimes it will get permission to challenge a person or a whole community with a sudden situation that they are not prepared for to test if they can overcome such a challenge. On that fateful day, the Jewish people made their own calculations instead of putting their trust in their leader. This brought about that the Satan, who, the Talmud (Bava Basra 16b) teaches is the same as the evil inclination, got permission to challenge them. Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Shabbos 89a) that the Satan caused the elements to be in turmoil. The sky suddenly turned extremely dark and everybody sensed that something terrible had happened. The Jewish people were sure that this had been caused by the death of Moses, and they imagined that they saw the death bed of Moses in the sky.
Says Rabbi Shmulevits, our sages here teach us what caused the sin of the golden calf. Since the exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people had become totally dependent on Moses, their beloved leader. He had guided them through every difficulty, and taken care of all their needs. As long as they knew where he was, it did not disturb them that he ascended the mountain for fourty days. But when he failed to return at the expected time, they feared the worst. When, on top of this, the Satan orchestrated the turmoil of the elements, they were certain that Moses had died. This caused them to lose their balance as they were broken over the perceived death of their leader. They were confused and scared at this new situation. All this made them extremely vulnerable to the enticement of the evil inclination, to the extent that they could in one instant fall from the highest level of trust into the abyss of despair. In such a situation, the Satan did not have to proceed step by step, but was able to reach its goal in a very short while. The Jewish people were totally not prepared for this challenge and were easy prey for their evil inclination.
This kind of situation, says Rabbi Shmulevits, can come about in many variations. When Cain's offering was not accepted, our sages say that he turned into a heretic (see Targum Yonasan Bereishis 4:8). How can it be that someone who just served G'd and was the very first one to bring an offering could turn into a heretic? The answer is, says Rabbi Shmulevits, that Cain felt rejected by G'd, and this feeling of rejection was sufficient in one instant to make him easy prey for his evil inclination. G'd had His reasons for rejecting Cain's offering; but we can learn from this that we should never write-off or reject a person. Too often do we see young teenagers turning to drugs and criminal acts because of feeling rejected by their surroundings.
Feelings of inadequacy
Sometimes a person despairs because of feelings of inadequacy after making a wrong choice in life. In the Book of Ruth, both Ruth and Orpah were determined to follow their mother-in-law Naomi back to the land of Israel and accept a life of Torah observance. However, along the way only Ruth continued to cling to her mother-in-law, whereas Orpah eventually decided to let herself be discouraged from taking such a giant step. Our sages (Midrash Rabba Ruth 2:20) teach that the very same night that Orpah left Naomi she turned totally immoral and acted without any restraints. How could she fall so quickly in one instant from a resolve to lead a G'd-fearing life to a life of total immorality? Says Rabbi Shmulevits, when Orpah saw that she had failed her challenge, she felt so depressed and had such a low self-esteem that she totally lost her moral bearing. This amazing insight can help us when we sometimes see people suddenly doing things that are totally unacceptable. We can never agree with their conduct; however, our understanding of how it came about gives us the ability to assist them to return to being a productive member of society.
Immigrants to America
In the beginning of the 20th century, when there was a massive immigration of Eastern European Jews to America, many people could not stand the challenge of difficulties in the New World. Families who for generations had been Torah observant suddenly turned their back on the faith of their fathers and adapted to the melting pot of America. They were not prepared for the sudden change and were easy prey for their evil inclination to throw everything overboard.
We find other examples of such situations of tremendous challenge. After the Holocaust, many thousands of Jews lost their faith due to the suffering they had just experienced. Everything was in turmoil and the war brought about a tremendous sense of insecurity for the future. There was no way they could understand why G'd had brought such a calamity upon the Jewish people, and they were totally unprepared for this challenge.
Sephardic Jews cave in
A totally different situation, yet with a similar outcome, occurred when the Sephardic Jews came from North Africa to Israel soon after the proclamation of the new state. Many of them stopped observing the commandments of the Torah and began a secular life with all its pitfalls. They were not ready for the major pressure from the secular establishment and the vast majority of them could not cope with it and caved in.
Analyze the pattern
We sense that these occurrences are all part of Satan's ability to challenge us in many forms and variations. And as we analyze the pattern we see that this is nothing new. However, in every group there are individuals who, like the tribe of Levy, at the time of the golden calf, show the strength to stand up and answer the call, "Who is to G'd, come to me" (see Shemos 32:26). As the years go by, more and more people join the ranks of these individuals realizing that the intensification of these challenges is a sign that we are nearing the end of our dark and bitter exile. The Satan is well aware that his days are coming to and end and he is trying to play his final tricks on the Jewish people before we will merit to see the light with the coming of Mashiach.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network