He had been controlling himself for so long, had come so far, but he just couldn’t hold himself back anymore. Everyone else was asleep, so no one else would even have to know. Internally, he was struggling, pulled in every direction, unable to make a decision. On the one hand, there was a convincing and confident voice persuading him to do it, to give in to the urge: “If you eat it, it will feel so good!” On the other hand, there was a quieter, more subtle voice attempting to use reason and judgment. “But this is ridiculous. It’s wrong, destructive, childish, just foolish. You’ve done this before, and hated yourself afterwards; you felt disgusted, ashamed. You know that you’ll feel the very same way in about five minutes if you do it again. This has never ended well for you.” As a bead of sweat drips down the side of his cheek and he stares at the chocolate cake, he tries to weigh his options.
Before he can really get a handle on the situation, the confident voice pipes up again, this time sounding even more convincing than the first time. “Just think about how good it will feel. You only live once. Who really cares about the consequences? How can you not do this?!” Suddenly, the second voice stops giving good answers (or maybe he’s just not listening anymore). Now, he only sees one side of the equation. He lets desire cloud his judgment. With a feeling of resignation, he gives in to temptation. If he had been watching someone else do this same act, he would have been screaming at the top of his lungs for him to stop this insanity. But he has become blinded by desire, lured into the trap of instant gratification, and has fallen prey to his lower self. A moment later, he awakens from his intellectual slumber, regains awareness, and, as his higher self predicted, he looks in the mirror with total disgust and revulsion, promising himself it won’t happen again. He can’t bear the hypocrisy, the two-faced-ness. For a moment, he does not look at himself from within, but from without, as an onlooker, an observer, and he does not like what he sees.
Maybe he has some chocolate cake on his mouth after breaking his diet, or maybe it was something else. The details are not important. This is the story of life: struggle, sometimes with small defeats, and other times small victories. Most of life is fighting for inches. We take a step forward, then two steps back; then three steps forward, another one back. Life tends not to be about giant leaps or falls, but rather a question of inches. This being the case, we need to take a deeper look at the Cheit HaEigel.
The Cheit HaEigel, the Sin of the Golden Calf, is perhaps the most infamous event in the Torah, a sin compared to the original sin of Adam HaRishon and one that has repercussions throughout Jewish history. Yet, what is most striking about this sin is not the act itself but its timing.
The Jewish People had just experienced the fantastic miracles of Y’tzias Mitzrayim, the earth-shattering wonders of K’rias Yam Suf, and had just received the Torah from Hashem Himself. They were elevated to the angelic state of Adam HaRishon before he ate from the Eitz HaDaas, and they were therefore able to eat the angelic food of manna, which the Ramban explains was crystalized, condensed Shechinah. As Rashi quotes, even the maidservants at K’rias Yam Suf received prophecy and had a higher level of understanding of Hashem than Yechezkel – who saw an image of Hashem Himself (Rashi, Sh’mos 15:2). If so, how could the Jewish People commit such a terrible sin at this moment? Even worse, they not only committed this sin immediately following Matan Torah, but they did so in the very same spot, Har Sinai, the very place where we “married” Hashem! Chazal compare this to a kallah (bride) betraying her husband under the chupah! As the pasuk says, they strayed “quickly” (Sh’mos 32:8). How could klal Yisrael fall so rapidly and drastically right after Matan Torah?
While this requires a much lengthier discussion, let us briefly explain the sin of idolatry. Many think of idolatry as the worship of statues and inanimate objects. However, any intelligent person can see that a piece of wood or stone carved out by a human being could not possibly hold any power over him. The deeper understanding behind the worship of idolatry, as the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Avodah Zarah, perek 1), Ramchal (Derech Hashem), and many others explain, is the worshiping of intermediaries instead of sourcing oneself back to Hashem Himself. Hashem created the world in such a way that there are levels of reality. Hashem is the ultimate Source, and the intermediaries receive energy from Him, which they then manifest into the world. Avodah zarah (idolatry) is when you don’t recognize Hashem as the source but rather trace things back only as far as the intermediaries. The statues that idolaters “worship” are merely tangible representations of the higher forces they serve.
What is the purpose of idol worship? What compels a person to commune with the intermediaries rather than seeking the ultimate root, Hashem Himself? The answer is simple. Why go back to the source when you can get everything you need from a middleman, especially if the middleman demands so little in return? True service of Hashem means a life of obligation, whereas idolatry is one of entitlement and freedom from obligation.
Similarly, the psychological draw to nihilism is freedom from obligation. A religious life is one of obligation (to the truth), where everything in one’s life has meaning. A life of nihilism is one of no obligation, but nothing in one’s life has meaning. The trade-off for freedom from obligation is a life of slavery to emptiness. Only one who is a slave to the truth, i.e., who embraces meaningful obligation, is truly free.
The mechanism of avodah zarah can be compared to a man who walks into a large store and sees an expensive item he desperately desires. However, he isn’t willing to pay its $1,500 price tag, so he walks over to the cashier and makes him a proposition: “I’ll slip you $150, and you can quietly pass over the goods.” In other words, this man wants the goods, but he isn’t willing to pay for them! Instead, he tries to cut a deal with the middleman. So, too, idolatry was man’s way of receiving “the goods” without paying for them. Why go all the way to Hashem to ask for rain, health, and prosperity when that would demand a life of obligation in return? [While it is true that idolatry did require some form of obligation, as they were still required to appease the intermediaries, this required much less responsibility than a life devoted to Hashem, a life devoted to the truth.]
However, avoiding Hashem in this way, avoiding the truth, is the absolute worst sin in the entire Torah. The prohibition against avodah zarah is the first mitzvas lo saaseh (negative commandment) in the Aseres HaDibros (Ten Commandments). As many commentators explain, avodah zarah is the root of all the other negative commandments. All other sins are merely a subcategory of idolatry, whereby you serve your own selfish needs and desires instead of sourcing yourself back to Hashem. The Sin of the Golden Calf was the worshipping of idolatry, which means that the Jewish People went from the highest of heights to the lowest of lows in mere moments. This completely contradicts our starting principle from the introduction, namely, that spiritual falls occur slowly, in small steps. How did this happen?
Minimizing the Sin
Some commentators, such as the Ramban and Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (Sefer HaKuzari), suggest that the Jewish People did not commit genuine idolatry. Rather, after Moshe Rabbeinu failed to descend from Har Sinai, the Jewish People believed that their leader, who served as the medium of connection between them and Hashem, was gone forever. In desperation, they attempted to create a new physical medium of connection, i.e., the golden calf. This idea itself is not inherently wrong, as we see that the Jewish People are told to build an aron, a physical vessel, to serve as a connection between them and Hashem.
The Aron (Holy Ark) had two Keruvim (cherubs) on top of it, and the Torah states explicitly that Hashem spoke to Moshe through the Keruvim (Sh’mos 25:22). The Ramban and Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi therefore explain that the problem was not the motive but the method of achieving their goal. Because Hashem did not command them to create a physical medium of connection, it was inappropriate for them to do so. [This connects to the deep topic of “Gadol ha’metzuveh v’oseh mi’mi she’eino metzuveh v’oseh – Greater is one who is commanded [and does something] than someone who is not commanded [and does it of his own volition].” Sometimes, taking the initiative into your own hands reflects ego and self-assertion, as opposed to selfless devotion. It is clear, though, that the Ramban and Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi downplay the severity of the Cheit HaEigel and do not view it as a transgression of the prohibition of avodah zarah.
However, many commentators, including Rashi, believe that the Cheit HaEigel was genuine idolatry. This means that immediately following Matan Torah, the Jewish People fell prey to the worst sin imaginable, i.e., avodah zarah, failing to source themselves back to Hashem. According to this line of thinking, we are back to our original problem: How did the Jewish People, who had achieved such great spiritual heights, undergo such a rapid, astounding fall? Spiritual falls tend to occur slowly, in small steps. In this case, however, the Jewish People went straight from the highest of heights to the lowest of lows, from angelic to broken. How did this happen? In our next article, we will delve deeper into this fascinating topic and try to explain Rashi’s unique approach.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.