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; three steps forward, another one back. Life tends not to be about giant leaps or falls, but rather a game of inches. This being the case, we need to take a deeper look at the Chet Ha’Egel and how it connects to this week’s parsha, Vayakhel.
The Chet Ha’Egel, the sin of the golden calf, is perhaps the most infamous event in the Torah, a sin compared to the original sin of Adam Ha’Rishon. Yet, what is so striking about this sin is not only the act itself as much as the timing. The Jewish people had just experienced the miracles of yetzias Mitzrayim, leaving Egypt, the wonders of kriyas yam suf, the splitting of sea, and had just received the Torah from Hashem Himself. They were elevated to the angelic state of Adam Ha’rishon before he ate from the eitz ha’da’as (the tree of knowledge), and were, therefore, able to eat the angelic food of manna, which the Ramban explains was crystalized shechinah. As Rashi quotes (Shemos 15:2), even a maidservant, at kriyat yam suf received prophecy and had a higher level of understanding of Hashem than Yechezkel- who saw an image of Hashem Himself. If so, then 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 (the giving of the Torah), but in the very same spot, the very place where we married Hashem! Chazal compare this to a kallah, a bride, who betrays her husband under the chupah itself! As the passuk says (Shemos 32:8), they strayed “quickly”- their abandonment was immediate. How could Klal Yisrael fall so rapidly and drastically right after Matan Torah? This completely contradicts our starting principle which states that spiritual falls occur slowly, in small steps. How did this happen?
Vayakhel and the Aron: Downplaying the Chet Ha’Egel
Some commentaries, such as the Ramban and Rav Yehuda Ha’Levi in sefer Ha’Kuzari, suggest that the Jewish people didn’t commit true 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, the golden calf. This idea itself is not inherently wrong, as we see in this week’s parsha, Vayakhel, that the Jews are told to build an Aron, a physical vessel, to serve as a connection between them and Hashem. The Aron had two keruvim, cherubs, on top of them, and the Torah states explicitly that Hashem spoke to Moshe through the keruvim. The Ramban and Rav Yehuda Ha’levi therefore explain that the problem was not the motive, but the method of achieving their goal. Because Hashem did not command them to do it, it was inappropriate. The Ramban and Rav Yehuda Ha’levi clearly downplay the severity of the Chet Ha’Egel.
However, many commentaries, including Rashi, believe that the Chet Ha’Egel was genuine idolatry, that immediately following Matan Torah the Jewish People fell prey to the worst sin imaginable, avodah zarah. They failed to source themselves back to Hashem, the very essence of idolatry. 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 and tremendous fall?
Nekudas Ha’Bechirah: The Normal Process of Life
In Michtav Mei’Eliyahu, Rav Eliyahu Dessler analyzes one of the foundational underlying concepts of human experience. He explains that while human beings have free will, the locus of free will (nekudas ha’bechirah) exists only at specific points, unique to each of us. The average person does not struggle with the desire to push down an old lady on the street and steal her purse. Similarly, most of us do not feel an overwhelming compulsion to murder. We do not live at such a base level, and we have no desire to.
At the same time, most of us are not yet at a level where we attempt to have complete control over every thought that enters our minds or to refrain from speaking a single unnecessary word. We simply do not live on such angelic and transcendent planes. Most of humanity falls somewhere in the middle. Our point of free will is located in the decision sphere of whether or not to gossip, to hit snooze, to give charity, to smile, to eat right. These are the battles of inches, and with these, sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. Each time that we confront one of these challenges, we engage in this internal battle. On the outside, we may give nothing away, but within each of our minds exists a brutal battle for spiritual ground, a battle of will, a battle for eternity. If we push hard enough at one of these fronts, they will eventually become second nature, and what was once a struggle will become a constant victory. But if we lose the battle, we move back a step or two.
This battle is constant, a series of tiny gains and losses. None of these has a major impact on our spiritual level, but if we garner enough of these successes we can maintain steady progress forward. This road is a slow one, but if we continue to push, we slowly grow. The same is true about spiritual falls: slow and steady. However, there is one exception to this model.
When you lose your identity, your sense of self, you can go from great to nothing in an instant. You don’t climb down the rungs of the ladder, one at a time. You skip all the rungs completely and go from top to bottom in a split second. This is because the battle of will includes two forces: your higher self which tries to raise you up, and your lower self which tries to drag you down. Normally, these two are pushing at full force, leading to the constant battle for inches in the journey of growth. Sometimes your higher self gains ground, sometimes your lower self does.
However, in times of panic, moments of emotional or psychological instability, and instants of complete self-doubt, we tend to completely fall apart. In these moments, you completely lose your sense of identity, you lose with it your entire sense of purpose and foundation of self. Your positive force of will disappears, and all that’s left in its wake is the overwhelming drive of the lower self. In this rare instance, your lower self asserts its influence and there is nothing to push back against it. The results are cataclysmic: you will plummet faster than you imagined possible into the very lowest state of existence.
Explaining the Egel
It is true that the Jewish people were at the highest level imaginable. They had just witnessed Hashem Himself and had received the Torah on Har Sinai. Yet, they lost their identity, their sense of self, their very foundation. They thought that Moshe, their leader, had just died. After the Jewish people went through the transcendent experiences of yetzias Mitzrayim and Matan Torah, they truly were on the highest level imaginable. They had just experienced open revelation and had cemented their special bond with Hashem, their Creator. However, immediately following this they underwent a challenge that shook their world, that robbed them of their identity, their sense of self, their very foundation. When Moshe failed to descend the mountain, the Jewish People believed that they had lost their teacher, their leader who had just taken them out of Egypt to receive Hashem’s Torah. Moshe served as their link to these events, and when he disappeared, they felt as though they had been cut off from that which made them great. When they experienced this loss of identity, they experienced a moment of sheer panic, internal chaos, and lost all sense of self. With such a negative force and no positive force pushing back, they fell straight from greatness to the lowest depths and did the unthinkable: They served idolatry, a complete abandon of their entire spiritual ideals.
The Sliding Affect
The worst part of these dramatic falls is that once it begins, it’s very hard, in fact seemingly impossible, to halt its progress. Even after a small failure, many people tend to give up. They fail, but then make the mistake of branding themselves as a failure. They have mistaken their action of failure as a new identity, a personification of failure. Now, when they look in the mirror, they see failure. This is the brilliant strategy of our yester harah, he hits you while you’re already down. Once we slip up, he grabs the opportunity to convince us that we are a failure. This is the explanation of the passuk (Mishlei 24:16), “A tzaddik falls seven times and rises.” We all fall. The key to greatness is not preventing the fall, since it’s all but guaranteed to happen at some point in our lives. The key to greatness is how we respond when we fall. A rasha, a sinner, is someone who falls once, but then never picks himself up. One slip turns into a snowballing cascade, an eternal tumble into increasingly darker states of existence. He, therefore, continues to endlessly fall deeper and deeper into the abyss of nothingness. A tsaddik, however, catches his fall. He stumbles, fights to find his footing, regains composure, redirects his consciousness, and then begins to climb again. Like a cat who always lands on its feet, a great person always positions himself to bounce back from a fall. He is not great despite having fallen seven times, he’s great because of them. These falls helped him learn more about who he was, trained him to persevere, and brought out aspects of his potential that he never even knew existed.
May we all be inspired to push forward in life, to embrace the internal battle of will that exists within each of us, and to rise up every time we fall. We will fall, that is not the question. The question is whether we’ll get back up or get depressed, whether we’ll learn from it or beat ourselves up, whether we’ll rebuild momentum, or tumble endlessly into nothingness. Let’s choose greatness, let’s assert our willpower, and let’s endlessly strive for more.