Remembering the Golden Calf
INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
Remembering the Golden Calf
By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley
One of the challenges that we face while reading Sefer Devarim is understanding how the various subjects connect to one another. As Moshe Rabbeinu speaks in a stream of consciousness, he does not present his rebukes and warnings in chronological order, but rather in an associative manner. R. David Z. Hoffman, in his survey of chapters 9:1-11:25, suggests the following connections for the opening of Sefer Devarim:
A) The first part of the general commandments, chapter 6:4 - chapter 7:11 - The portion opens in a festive manner, "Hear O Israel," and addresses the entire nation in the singular.
B) The second part of the general commandments, chapter 7:12 - chapter 8:20.
C) The third part of the general commandments, chapter 9:1 - chapter 11:25.
Like the first part, the third opens with "Hear O Israel," and it, too, is comprised of five parts, each of which is either an open or closed portion, excluding the first which is written in the Torah as two portions, apparently because of the length of the historic story contained in it. This historic narration begins in chapter 9:7 and continues until 10:11, which is the end of the first chapter. The second chapter, which exhorts greatly for the love of God and the fear of God, is also quite lengthy, but it is not written in the Torah as one portion.
In our weekly study, we will investigate how Moshe presented the sin of the Golden Calf to the new generation. Indeed, one question that we should ask is why anyone would think that the people would in fact revert to the sin of the Golden Calf. Surely, the generation that lived with Divine Providence for forty years could be trusted not to repeat the sins of their fathers, fresh out of slavery and still attached to their sinful ways! R. Moshe Alshich explains what message Moshe wished to convey with this reference:
here we wrote that Moshe told them be not certain of yourselves that you will
inherit the land for eternity without interruption, since you are a stubborn
nation. Through this quality, there
is no impediment to your being destined to transgress in a way that the land
will be taken from you. You may
say, what did I see in you that I said that your righteousness cannot be
trusted? Was it not [stated] "Remember, do not forget, that you provoked, etc.,
from the day you came out of [
may say, that they [who left
From the words of the Alshich, we see that the fear that provokes Moshes warning is not that the people will revert to idolatry, but that the inner characteristics that caused them to sin still remain. The Abrabanel uses this idea to explain the apparently random mention in verse 22 of other places where the Jewish people angered Hashem in the desert:
at Taveerah, and at Massah, and at Kibrot Ha-Taavah, you angered Hashem (9:22): Here, they said after this (verse 22), "And at Tav'erah and at Massah " This was to say to them: If you have doubt in the matter and you say that Aharon caused you the transgression and that [it did not come from] you, here you have for witness and proof that you were the transgressors as were your leaders in the other places. Behold, in Tav'erah you were complaining. The first time was in Massah when you attempted [to know] if God is in your midst or not, and also in Kivrot Ha-Ta'avah. In all of these places, you were provoking God. Not only that, but also when God sent you from Kadesh Barnea saying, "Go up and inherit the land that God has given you," you disobeyed God's word and did not believe in Him. You did not listen to his voice and set for yourselves generations of weeping - Did Aharon cause you all of this?? If so, it should appear that you, yourselves, without any instigator, were contrary with God. It is not fitting to attribute corruption to anyone but the corrupt!
It is possible that he recalled their transgressions in Massah and in Tav'erah and in the other places in order to say that with everything they saw and that was done unto them [because of] the sin of the Golden Calf, they did not learn rectitude. [On the contrary], they immediately continued to transgress in all of the places that he recalled.
The sin of the Golden Calf, according to Moshe, is not the idolatry involved, but that it reflects an inner stubbornness that remained latent within the Jewish people. That mistakes were made is acceptable, failure to internalize the lessons represents the grave danger.
After opening his speech warning the Jewish people against over-confidence and a sense of entitlement to the land of Israel due to an innate sense of righteousness, Moshe begins to recount the failure at Har Sinai (Chorev) as follows:
Remember, forget not, how you made Hashem your God wroth in the
wilderness; from the day that you went forth out of the
Interestingly, Moshe feels the need to mention twice within the space of two verses that Hashem gave him the tablets. Here is how the Abrabanel phrases the question:
The eighth doubt in his statement (verse 11), "And it came to pass at the end of forty days that Hashem gave me the two tablets of stone " This verse is obviously repeated. It has already said above (verse 10), "And Hashem gave me two tablets of stone " Why, therefore, does it return and repeat itself saying, "and it came to pass at the end of forty days Hashem gave me"?
R. Yehuda Tzvi Mecklenberg, in his book Ha-Ketav Ve-Ha-Kabbala, notes that the tablets in verse 11 are called "the two tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant," whereas in verse 10 they are simply referred to as "two tablets of stone." As such, he suggests the following reason for the change:
It appears to me that the teachings in these two givings [of the tablets] are not identical in their instruction: the second one is material - something that is given from hand to hand, and this was after forty days, [when] He gave Moshe the tablets. The first giving [of the tablets] is spiritual, this is [representing] study. One who teaches another a concept which [the latter] could not have understood himself is a teacher, giving and influencing. The Torah is therefore called a "doctrine" (LikKHi, from the Hebrew root LaKaH, meaning to take) (Devarim 32:2): "My doctrine shall drop as the rain" - "For I give you good doctrine, forsake not my Torah (Mishlei 4:2). Behold, after he had said, "then I abode in the mountain forty days and forty nights," he came here to announce the intended purpose of his having been on the mountain for that time. He said, "And the Lord gave me two tablets of stone " That is to say that during this time the Holy One was teaching me the true intention of the writing on the tablets. Within these ten precepts, the 613 mitzvot are included. This that is what Moshe learned from the mouth of the Almighty during the forty days. This then is what they [the Sages] said (Shemot Rabba, parsha 47, verse 5): "He did not eat bread" - but he ate the bread of Torah, "and he did not drink water" - but he drank the water of Torah
In other words - At the time when Moshe was engaged in studying the Torah and had not yet completed his studies, the tablets were mere stone tablets. When he completed his studies, the stone tablets became the tablets of the covenant.
R. David Hoffman settles the Abarbanel's difficulty in a different manner. Based on the Ibn Ezras comment to Shemot 12:51, R. Hoffman argues that verse 11 notes the time when Hashem said the things written in verse 12 and after. The Abrabanel states similarly:
it came to pass at the end of forty days
," is connected to, "And God said to
me, Arise, get thee down." He said that at the end of the forty days when
To conclude, we see the following division in Moshes speech regarding the sin of the Golden Calf:
9: 7-8 = introduction "you provoked God from today until this place.
9:9-10 = the first tablets.
9:11-17 = the sin of the Golden Calf and the breaking of the tablets.
9:18-21 = the supplication and the atonement.
9:22-24 = recollection of additional transgressions.
9:25-10:5 = prayer and the second tablets.
In the speech, Moshe allows for no excuses for the generation that sinned they cannot claim that the transgression of the Golden Calf occurred as the result of Moshe's absence or the intervention of Aharon, since these "above-mentioned excuses" did not exist at other times when they transgressed. Instead, the people have to recognize that they too are liable to repeat the errors of the past and they stand on the edge of the Land not due to any inherent goodness but because God did not want to see His name profaned, and the purpose of their existence, to know God, believe in Him, and be a light unto the nations would not be achieved.
 Ibn Ezra explained on Shemot 12:51: "And it came to pass on that selfsame day:" In my opinion, this verse is connected with the verse that comes after it, wherein God tells Moshe to sanctify the firstborn. In the middle of the night, the plague of the [slaughter of the] firstborn struck. With Israel's leaving of Egypt in the day, God immediately commanded the sanctification of Israel's firstborn and the firstborn of their cattle.