The days from the Seventeenth of Tammuz through the Ninth of Av comprise a somewhat oppressive and stifling period. Not because it falls during the summer months, but because it exists in what would appear to be a spiritual wasteland – a devastated landscape created by the fall out from several cataclysmic events the first of which, the breaking of the luchos, was precipitated by the worship of the golden calf , the cheit ha’egel. The cheit ha’egel continues to travel with us down the corridor of time, no less virulent today than at its inception some thirty three hundred years ago. Today, as in previous generations, we are compelled to insulate ourselves against its toxic effects, but to do that we must first recognize its virulent potential.
In these spiritually barren times, when science is preoccupied with things that can be measured and recorded, we assume that we no longer need be concerned with the attraction that avoda zara, literally, strange worship, may have. That is, unfortunately not true. There is a resurgence of interest among the non-religious – perhaps as a reaction to the very spiritual barrenness we alluded to – in the pseudo-mystical and magical. It has also most recently insinuated itself into our lives by calamitously tainting the sheitels that are sold in our communities. Understanding the spiritual underpinnings of this phenomenon can serve as our strongest defense against it.
Three Dimensional Sin
So, it is with this goal in mind that we turn our attention to the cheit ha’egel. Of all the cases of idol worship, the sin of the golden calf was the most spiritually destructive. It produced seeds that continue to sprout in every generation up to and including our own. That is because this sin was the result of three grave spiritual errors which affected all three of the dimensions in which we live our lives and thus created spiritual blemishes which implicated every aspect of life.
The first mistake that prompted Klal Yisrael to make the egel was their miscalculation of the time of Moshe Rabbeinu’s expected return to the camp after his sojourn on the mountain. The yetzer hara used the confusion engendered by this error to mislead us with the illusion of Moshe’s passing and Klal Yisrael believed that Moshe Rabbeinu, who faithfully served as an intermediary between Hashem and the nation, had died. This miscalculation caused the mixed multitude to clamor for a substitute and accept the egel when it emerged from the flames.
The miscalculation which precipitated these events may well have been quite innocent and certainly could have been corrected. However, prompted by the eirev rav, Klal Yisrael was willing to place too much reliance upon their own calculations rather then to await Moshe’s arrival with calm faith and sincere belief. This was culpable.
Then as now, we had access to two separate systems for the measurement of time, which unfortunately are not always synchronized. The first is the Creator’s timetable that metes out the minutes, days and years of our lives in accordance with His plan for the world. The second is our sense of time and of urgency, which causes us to set our clocks in accordance with our idiosyncratic desires. The difference between them is the measure of our impatience which in the case of the egel precipitated this most serious aveira.
This aspect of our worship of the golden calf, was not only a sin of action but of time, of choosing a replacement for Moshe at a time when no replacement was necessary. By way of contrast, when a new intermediary, a successor to Moshe Rabbeinu was actually required, Hashem chose the time and guided the selection. Under those circumstances, the yetzer hara was not able to gain any compass.
Choosing a Leader
Thinking their leader was dead, Klal Yisrael reasoned that if even a person as extraordinary as Moshe Rabbeinu could not survive such intense contact with the Creator, certainly, no other human being could successfully replace him. They, therefore, were willing to consider a different, more durable, intermediary between themselves and Hashem.
Chazal tell us that in their search for a suitable replacement for Moshe, the people looked to the symbolic images Hashem had designated for the four legs of His throne (see Ramban Shemos 32:1). They understood that those prototypes represented spiritual forces of extraordinary power: The (ari) lion, the (nesher) eagle, the (shor) ox and the face of a person – Yaakov Avinu.
It is not easy for us to conceive of an animal serving as a conduit for spiritual revelation, but we must keep in mind that we are referring to a metaphysical concept and not a physical reality. The four symbols the Creator has chosen to represent the four legs of His throne are metaphors with profound spiritual implications. To deepen our understanding, we can think of these symbols as functioning, so to speak, like a computer. The computer is actually an inanimate network of circuits and wires. Nonetheless, when it is turned on, it seems to come alive with an intelligence all its own. In truth, it is merely a highly sophisticated tool that channels the inventor’s talents into a software program that animates it so that it is able to serve the user’s purposes. The Creator, whose control over reality is absolute, can certainly “program” anything He chooses in order to implement His will, be it human, animal, vegetable or mineral.
After Klal Yisrael excluded a human intermediary, they then eliminated the conduit represented by the lion, recognizing that its positive attributes of strength and courage were apt to be bound with arrogance – a highly undesirable and dangerous trait. Similarly, they rejected the eagle although it represents the attributes of inspiration and renewal because of its very independent nature which is unsuitable for Heavenly service. Ultimately, they concluded that the shor, ox, the domesticated beast of labor, which exhibits the attribute of powerful work channeled into developing Hashem’s world, and displays neither arrogance nor obstinacy was the safest and most enduring conduit between themselves and the Creator.
If this was their intention, what then was their error and what was their sin?
It is of course understood that the Torah itself prohibits the creation of a graven image. However, Aharon’s involvement in creating the egel means that it obviously was not an outright idol.
An answer to this question perhaps lies in the fact that the Torah warns us not to do less than it commands or more then it requires. When Moshe Rabbeinu, the most humble of all men, served as the intermediary between Hashem and Klal Yisrael, his ego-less service neither increased nor decreased the permissible connection between Hashem and Klal Yisrael. Moshe Rabbeinu, who possessed no egoistic traits that could interfere with his service of Hashem, was able to communicate with Hashem through a clear vision. Accordingly, under Moshe’s direction, there was no hindrance in the communication of Hashem’s commands to us. Nor was there any diminution of Klal Yisrael’s capacity to proclaim Hashem’s unity and Absolute sovereignty since Moshe Rabbeinu, representive of the human symbol on Hashem’s throne, was inclusive of all the other spiritual forces represented there.
When the golden calf was substituted in Moshe’s stead, its service impermissibly subtracted from our required service of Hashem because it represented only some, but not all of the positive traits reflected by the symbols on Hashem’s throne. Thus it provided too narrow a conduit to accommodate our wholehearted devotion to Hashem.
One of the holy names of the Creator is HaMakom, meaning “The Place.” “The Holy One Blessed be He, is the location of the world, but His world is not His location” (Bereishis Rabba 68:4) meaning that Hashem’s Infinite Reality cannot be comprehended or confined in any way by our finite minds in our finite world. In creating the egel, an object that took up space, the eirev rav, in an act of presumptuous egoism, attempted to exchange the Infinite for the finite and limit Hashem’s presence to one fixed place. That was great error. This choice was Hashem’s to make, not theirs.
Here, as in the choice of a successor for Moshe Rabbeinu, when Hashem deemed the time and the circumstances to be right, Hashem created a place for His Shechina to rest by commanding us to build the Mishkan. In creating the egel, the eirev rav attempted to usurp that prerogative and in so doing committed a grievous sin.
Rectifying the Cheit Ha’egel
The sin of avoda zara is one of the rare instances where thought alone, even without action, is punishable on High. The sin is thus one of thought as much as of action and its rectification lies in our attitude. The cheit ha’egel was committed because Klal Yisrael, through the instigation of the eirev rav had too much confidence in their own calculations and too little confidence in Hashem. Confidence in Hashem translates into self esteem because those who have faith in Hashem and understand that they are tzelem Elokim feel secure and achieved. Yet, since they realize that their achievements are a gift from Hashem, they have self esteem, but not arrogance. Those who think that it is they who run the world and not Hashem, are at once frightened and insecure, even as they build idols of gold and silver in a desperate attempt to create order and control their destinies.
In order to insulate ourselves against all forms of “idol worship,” we are best served by acquiring an attitude that is both self assured and secure yet humble. This is not as difficult as it may appear. The distinguished professor and the wealthy entrepreneur do not worry about having to prove themselves. They do not need to flaunt their wealth or their knowledge to increase their self esteem, because they feel achieved. Though we understand that egotistical self esteem is hollow and false, we can adopt their attitude by allowing ourselves to appreciate the fact that Hashem created us betzelem Elokim, in His Image and as a reflection of His will.
The tzelem Elokim within us allows us to renew our battle each day against our selfish and negative attitudes using the eagle’s qualities of inspiration and renewal, the lion’s strength and courage and the shor’s submissive work. Using these spiritual tools we can learn to accept Hashem’s time frame and see His will in this world and thus fulfill our role in creation.
In order to realize the incredible potential that lies within ourselves, as tzelem Elokim, we can think of the word tzelem as an acronym: The letter tzaddik of tzelem represents the tzaddik, a symbolic reminder of our pure and righteousness souls. This is Person. The tzaddik with his great and ego-less soul is in opposition to the narrowness of the egel. The lamed of tzelem represents luach, the calendar of the Creator. This is Time. The clock and calendar of the Creator teach patience, instructing us to make our needs for gratification subservient to Hashem’s time frame. The mem of tzelem is makom, Place, and is there to help us dissolve the illusion of nature and see the presence of HaMakom in every aspect of this world. If we are able to keep in mind at every turn that we are indeed, tzelem Elokim, we will have learned an approach that will help to heal the spiritual wound caused by the cheit ha’egel.
With the rectification of our consciousness in, person, time and place, we can truly be prepared for the advent of the final redemption, may it be soon in our days.