From the Egel to the Second Luchot

  • Rav Yair Kahn

 

1.  Let Me Be and I will Destroy Them

 

Cheit ha-egel (the sin of the Golden Calf) is one of the darker moments in the Torah. The fact that the entire nation worshiped a golden image is serious enough; the severity of the offense is compounded by the context - a mere forty days after hearing "you shall have no other gods" directly from Hashem. The gravity of the sin is expressed by a divine threat: "And for now, let Me be and my countenance shall be angry with them and I will destroy them and I shall make of you a great nation" (32:10).  Yet Yisrael was forgiven.  How was this achieved?

 

The Torah tells us of the punishment of the main perpetrators: 

 

And he [Moshe] said to them: “So says Hashem, Lord of Yisrael, every person shall place his sword on his hip and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp and man should kill his brother and man his friend and man his relative.  And the descendants of Levi did as Moshe commanded and three thousand of the nation fell on that day. (32:27-28)

 

The punishment continued the following day: "And Hashem struck the nation for making the calf that was made by Aharon" (32:35).  We are also informed of the remorse of those remaining:

 

“And I shall send my messenger before you … for I will not appear in your midst for you are hard necked, lest I destroy you along the way.” And the nation heard this terrible thing and they mourned and no person placed his crown upon him. (33:2-4)

 

However, most of the emphasis is placed on Moshe. Before descending the mountain, he argues with Hashem not to destroy the people. What gave Moshe the right to argue with Hashem? 

 

As noted above, Hashem said, "And for now, let Me be … I will destroy them." According to the gemara (Berakhot 32a), by saying, "Now let Me be," Hashem hinted to Moshe that he could prevent the destruction of the people by not letting Hashem be. The gemara quotes the parallel verse in Parashat Eikev (Devarim 9:14):

 

"Leave Me alone and I will destroy them and erase their name and I shall make you a greater and more powerful nation than them," commenting: "Since He said, 'Leave Me alone and I will destroy them,' Moshe said, 'It is dependent upon me.' He immediately stood up and prayed fervently and requested mercy. [Consider the] parable of a king who was angry at his son and began to hit him fiercely, and his friend was sitting nearby afraid to speak. The king said, 'If not for my friend sitting nearby, I would kill you.'  He [the friend] said, “It is up to me.” He immediately got up to save him. 

 

2.  The Difference Between the Egel and the Meraglim

 

A similar situation occurred after the cheit ha-meraglim, the sin of the spies. Hashem said: "I will strike them with pestilence and destroy them and make from you a greater and more powerful nation." Moshe responded: "… And the nations that heard of You will say: ‘From the inability of Hashem to bring this nation to the land promised to them He slaughtered them in the wilderness’ … Please forgive the iniquity of this nation like the greatness of your grace and like you carried this nation from Mitzrayim until here." Hashem answered: "I have forgiven as you have said" (Bamidbar 14:12-20).

 

Both in cheit ha-egel as well as cheit ha-meraglim, the nation is faced with destruction and Moshe intervenes to ensure their survival. This is the extent of the similarity, however. In the egel episode, Moshe’s initial prayer is followed by additional pleas to achieve a more complete forgiveness, and his pleas eventually lead to a renewal of the covenant severed by the egel worship. We find no parallel pleas after cheit ha-meraglim.  After the egel and the breaking of the luchot, Yisrael receives the second luchot, whereas after cheit ha-meraglim, Hashem takes an oath that the generation that came out of Mitzrayim would be destroyed in the wilderness. 

 

Why didn’t Moshe plea for a more complete forgiveness after the meraglim? Why did he suffice with merely preventing the total annihilation of Yisrael? In short, what is the difference between the cheit ha-egel and the cheit ha-meraglim?

 

The most obvious answer is that the sin of the egel occurred at the very beginning of Yisrael’s journey. Only a few months earlier, the people were still enslaved; they were unprepared for freedom and didn’t know how to deal with responsibility. Hashem’s patience, as it were, with Yisrael is therefore understandable. The meraglim incident, on the other hand, occurred over a year later. Perhaps at that point Hashem expected more from Yisrael. This may be the meaning of the verse, “For all the people having seen my glory and my signs that I made in Mitzrayim and in the wilderness and have challenged Me these ten times, and all My blasphemers will not see her [the Land of Israel]” (Bamidbar 14:22). We are no longer dealing with a newborn nation, but rather a nation that has disappointed time and again. 

 

There may be a deeper reason as well. Cheit ha-egel, in spite of the seriousness of the offense, was not a rejection of Hashem. In the vacuum created by Moshe’s disappearance, Yisrael, who were left without leadership, felt the need for a concrete expression of Hashem. They worshiped the egel by proclaiming, “These are your gods Yisrael, that have taken you out of the land of Egypt” (Shemot 32:4). Despite going astray by establishing a physical representation of Hashem, they continued to view yetziat Mitzrayim as their defining moment. This is in sharp contrast to the meraglim episode, when the people proclaimed, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Mitzrayim” (Bamidbar 14:4). They openly rejected all that Hashem did for them and attempted to appoint a leader not to represent Hashem, but rather to rebel against Him. (See Ibn Ezra Shemot 14:13 for a novel and bold explanation for the punishment following the meraglim episode.)

 

Whatever the reason, after the egel and destruction of the first luchot, Yisrael are forgiven and receive second luchot. However, following the meraglim, Hashem decrees that the entire generation should perish in the wilderness and the promise of the Land of Israel will be fulfilled only through their children after forty years of wandering. This difference between the egel and the meraglim is expressed in the divergent halakhot of Shiva Asar Be-Tamuz  and Tisha Be-Av

 

3.  The Difference Between Tisha Be-Av and Shiva Asar Be-Tamuz

 

We learn in the mishna (Ta’anit 26a): “The luchot were shattered on Shiva Asar Be-Tamuz … the decree that our fathers would not enter the Land of Israel was on Tisha Be-Av.” The historical origin of Tisha Be-Av is cheit ha-meraglim, while Shiva Asar Be-Tamuz is rooted in cheit ha-egel. Although both are fast days, that is the extent of their similarity. 

 

In order to illustrate the difference, let us take a look at the institution of fast days. The communal fast days that we observe are historical, insofar as they commemorate certain tragic events that occurred at some point in Jewish history.  However, the primary institution of a ta’anit (fast) is a response to calamities (heaven forbid) of the present. The Rambam explains (Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 1:4) that the observance of a ta’anit is a rabbinic expression of the Biblical mitzva to blow the trumpets and cry out to Hashem in times of national distress. Apart from the mitzva to pray every day, there is a special commandment to pray in times of national calamity. According to the Rambam, the verse, "And if war should come upon your land, the enemy who troubles you, you shall blow on the trumpets" (Bamidbar 10:9), is not a commandment simply to blow the trumpets, but rather includes prayer and petition. Even the Ramban, who rules (in opposition to the Rambam) that daily prayer is only a rabbinic commandment, admits that there is a biblical commandment to pray in times of calamity. (See Ramban's glosses to Sefer Ha-mitzvot, positive mitzva 5).

 

The Rambam notes that the foundation for the obligation to cry out to God in times of calamity is rooted in the obligation of teshuva. In other words, there is a special obligation of teshuva in times of calamity, as it is written, "When you are in distress and all these things befall you...  you shall return to the Lord your God" (Devarim 4:30; see also "Kol Dodi Dofek" by R. Soloveitchik, note 3). The Rambam explains:

 

At a time when calamity strikes and they cry out and they blow on the trumpets, all will know that calamity has come upon them because of their evil deeds...  and this is what will cause the calamity to be lifted from upon them.  But if they do not cry out and do not blow [trumpets] but rather say, “This has happened to us since this is the way of the world, and this calamity is coincidental,” this is the way of gross insensitivity, and will cause them to hold fast to their evil deeds, and other calamities will be added.

 

As we mentioned, the biblical obligation of prayer and teshuva at a time of calamity is extended by our Sages to obligate fasting. In other words, the very obligation to pray and fast at a time of calamity is based on the assumption that by means of sincere and genuine teshuva the calamity will be removed.  Moreover, this idea is what lies at the root of historical fast days as well (see Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 5:1). Therefore, we find that prayer plays a central role in almost all fast days. For instance, we add the tefilla Aneinu to the Shemoneh Esrei., and we recite selichot, a special prayer whose centerpiece is the recitation of the 13 Attributes of Mercy. The Torah portion read on fast days is the section of the 13 Attributes as well. 

 

However, this aspect is almost totally absent from Tisha Be-Av. Instead of selichot, we recite kinot; the Torah portion in the morning is not the 13 Attributes, but a section that deals with destruction and exile. The haftara of Tisha Be-Av also deal with the destruction, while that of a standard ta’anit begins, “Search for Hashem when He is present.” In a word, in sharp contrast to a regular ta’anit, Tisha Be-Av is not a day of prayer, but rather a time of mourning. 

 

This distinction between Tisha Be-Av and the other fasts was already formulated by Rabbenu David (Pesachim 54b): "On Tisha Be-Av, there is no Ne'ila prayer, nor are twenty-four blessings recited, because [this day] is set aside not for prayer, but rather for mourning." (The source for this is in the Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashana 3:4.) Likewise, on Tisha Be-Av the "titkabel" (meaning – “accept [our prayers and petitions]”) clause is not included in the recitation of Kaddish (OC 559:4; see the commentary of the Vilna Gaon), and the sheliach tzibbur (prayer leader) does not recite Aneinu in his repetition of the Amida of Shacharit (Taz, OC 557:2; see commentary of Dagul Me-Revava). 

 

R. Soloveitchik zt"l explained that only on the other fasts does one fulfill the special obligation of prayer at a time of calamity, as explained above. On Tisha Be-Av, "Even though I cry out and call for help, He has blocked my prayer" (Eikha 3:8; see Berakhot 32b).  Thus, even though Tisha Be-av has the status of a fast day, it is entirely different in its nature and purpose from any other public fast.

 

In terms of the other prohibitions of the day, Tisha Be-Av is again different from the other fasts. On the one hand, there are prohibitions which are similar to those of Yom Kippur (see Pesachim 54b, "There is no difference between Tisha Be-Av and Yom Kippur except...").  On the other hand, these prohibitions reflect the mourning of Tisha Be-av, rather than the positive obligations of prayer and teshuva. The gemara states (Ta'anit 30a), "The Rabbis taught: All the laws pertaining to mourning apply on Tisha Be-Av as well; a person is forbidden to … to anoint his body, to wear leather shoes, and to engage in sexual intercourse...."

 

The reason that the fast of Tisha Be-Av is observed in such a unique way is because it does not commemorate a calamity that can be removed through prayer and repentance; it is rooted in historical events that led to a gezeira (decree) that could not be changed. The meraglim episode led to the decree that the generation would perish in the wilderness. Later in history, the Temples were destroyed on Tisha Be-Av. Prayer and repentance could no longer prevent the destruction. It already was too late.  

 

As opposed to calamity, a gezera cannot be removed. It expresses not Divine Providence, but rather the distancing of the Divine Presence and God "hiding His face," as it were. "R. Elazar said: Since the day on which the Temple was destroyed, there is a wall of iron that stands between Yisrael and their Father in Heaven" (Berakhot 32b). The reaction to a gezera is not prayer, but rather mourning and surrender to God's inscrutable will:  "And R. Elazar said: Since the day on which the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer are locked" (ibid.).

 

The seventeenth of Tammuz, despite the five tragic events which took place on that day, is defined as a day of calamity. It is true that on this date the first set of tablets were shattered, but following prayer on the part of Moshe Rabbeinu and teshuva on the part of the nation, we merited to receive the second luchot. On this date, the walls of Jerusalem were indeed breached, and the enemies stood ready to enter, and it was therefore a time of calamity for the Jewish nation, since the destruction had not yet occurred. But on Tisha Be-Av, a tragic decree had already been issued. Despite Moshe's entreaties, the attempts to mitigate the sharpness of the decree, the attempt to repent and continue on to Eretz Yisrael was futile and reached its tragic conclusion at Chorma (Bamidbar 14:45).