Last week we began our analysis of our recovery from the Cheit HaEigel. We noted the importance of this endeavor in light of Chazal’s teaching that Moshe Rabbeinu descended with the second Luchot on Yom Kippur, the climax of the process of repentance and recovery from Cheit HaEigel. Yom Kippur is therefore selected as the culmination of the process of Teshuva begun on Rosh Chodesh Elul. Accordingly, we noted that if one wishes to fully appreciate the significance of Yom Kippur and the recitation of the thirteen attributes of Rachamim, he must carefully examine the events leading up to the very first Yom Kippur.
Stage Two – Moshe Rabbeinu Gets Tough with Bnei Yisrael
We also noted last week that our relationship with Hashem was not restored immediately after the Cheit HaEigel. Rather, a process of Teshuva and Tefilla restored the connection in stages. Last week we outlined stage one (32:11-14), in which Moshe Rabbeinu convinced Hashem not to destroy Am Yisrael. In the second stage (32:15-29), Moshe Rabbeinu takes dramatic and strong action to communicate to Bnei Yisrael the severity of their transgression (see Shemot 32:30). This will hopefully prompt Bnei Yisrael into Hakarat Hacheit, recognition of their sin, which is an essential component of the Teshuva experience (see chapter one of the Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuva and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s Al HaTeshuva, pp. 37-65).
Breaking the Luchot
The first dramatic action is Moshe Rabbeinu’s shattering of the Luchot. Rashi (citing Shabbat 87a) writes that the message of the breaking of the Luchot is simply that after the Cheit HaEigel we do not deserve to have the Luchot. I recall hearing an explanation (I think in the name of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik) that the Luchot were a sort of “ring” to create Kiddushin, the metaphorical wedding between Hashem and Am Yisrael, and Moshe Rabbeinu was the Shadchan, the broker between Hashem and Am Yisrael. (The relationship between Hashem and Am Yisrael is often compared to a marriage; see Hoshea chapter one, Shabbat 88b, and Rashi’s commentary to Shir Hashirim.) Accordingly, a Kallah (bride) who strays from her Chatan (groom) is hardly deserving of her ring of betrothal from her beloved (for further discussion of the varied approaches to the breaking of the Luchot, see Nechama Leibowitz, Iyunim Chadashim BeSefer Shemot pp.425-435).
It is important to emphasize that Moshe Rabbeinu acts with reason and does not shatter the Luchot in rage (see Nechama Leibowitz’s aforementioned discussion of the breaking of the Luchot). We may support this point by carefully examining 32:19. The Pasuk records that as Moshe Rabbeinu draws close to the camp, he sees the Eigel and the dancing and he becomes enraged. The Pasuk then concludes that he casts the Luchot and brakes them at the bottom of the mountain. It seems clear from the Pasuk that although Moshe Rabbeinu becomes enraged when he draws near the camp, he nonetheless waits to break the Luchot until he is at the bottom of the mountain. Thus, we see that Moshe Rabbeinu controls his emotions and does not break the Luchot immediately upon seeing the Eigel HaZahav. Perhaps the reason Moshe Rabbeinu waits until he is at the bottom of the mountain before breaking the Luchot is that he wants all of Bnei Yisrael to see him break the Luchot, as he intends to dramatically highlight the severity of their sin. Indeed, in the recounting of the Cheit HaEigel in Sefer Devarim (9:17), Moshe Rabbeinu emphasizes that he broke the Luchot “Le’Eineichem”, in view of everyone.
Destroying and Disposing of the Eigel HaZahav
Next, Moshe Rabbeinu speeds into action and burns the Eigel (32:20). Moreover, he grinds the Eigel into a powder and sprinkles it on the water (there was a spring at Har Sinai; see Shemot 17:6 and Devarim 9:21) and then makes Bnei Yisrael drink from this water. Of course, this sounds very much like the procedure for testing a Sotah to determine whether she was unfaithful (as described in Bemidbar chapter five). Indeed, Rashi, citing Chazal, writes that Moshe Rabbeinu tests them like a Sotah. The Sotah comparison is quite apt, as the straying from Hashem is comparable to a wife straying from her husband as we stated earlier. Once again we see that Moshe Rabbeinu takes highly unusual action to emphasize the severity of Bnei Yisrael’s actions.
Interestingly, my student Chaim Tauber noted (in TABC’s 5764 Y4 Chumash Shiur) that Bnei Yisrael do not object to or offer any resistance to Moshe Rabbeinu. This presents a ray of hope for Bnei Yisrael, as it seems that they are beginning to grasp the severity of their sin. The lack of resistance is especially noteworthy in light of the resistance offered by some to Moshe Rabbeinu at the Korach rebellion (Bemidbar 17:6) and the Cheit of Baal Peor (Bemidbar 25:6).
Punishing the Leaders of the Cheit HaEigel
Finally, Moshe Rabbeinu punishes those who constituted the core leadership of Cheit HaEigel (see Rashi 32:20 s.v. Vayashk; also see the Kuzari cited in last week’s essay, Ramban to 32:27, and Chizkuni to 32:28). This is another opportunity for Hashem to treat us leniently. He deals harshly with the leadership of a sinning community but is more lenient with the followers, as the latter may be deemed to be acting BeShogeg (negligently but not deliberately), since the followers were led astray by misguided leaders.
Indeed, see the Ramban (Bemidbar 15:22) and Rambam (Hilchot Mamrim 3:3) who articulate this principle at some length. Examples of the phenomenon of “punish the leaders and spare the followers” abound in Sefer Bemidbar. These include the Mit’onenim (see Rashi to Bemidbar 11:1 s.v. Biktzeih), Kivrot Hata’avah (see Ramban to 11:20), Cheit HaMeraglim (Bemidbar 14:37), and the Korach rebellion (see Ramban to Bemidbar 16:21). Indeed, it is highly significant that we recite at Kol Nidrei no less than three times the Pasuk “V’nislach L’chol Adat Bnei Yisrael….Ki Lechol HaAm Bishgaga,” which concludes the section of Bemidbar that teaches that Hashem treats followers as acting B’shogeg. It is highly appropriate to invoke this Pasuk on Yom Kippur as its underlying concept was a major factor in Hashem forgiving us on the very first Yom Kippur.
Dealing harshly with sinning leaders is a potent manner on the one hand not to tolerate sin but on the other hand to develop a method by which to judge a community with mercy. Indeed, this approach deals with a fundamental problem inherent in lenient treatment of sinners. On the one hand, there is room for mercy, but on the other hand, there must be accountability for sinning; otherwise people have no motivation not to repeat the mistake. However, treating the leadership of a rebellion more harshly than the followers allows room for mercy yet discourages future sin, as it discourages future leaders of rebellions (and there cannot be rebellions without leaders).
We find very significant hope for the future of Bnei Yisrael in the manner in which the core leadership of the Cheit HaEigel is held accountable for their sins. Moshe Rabbeinu does not act alone. Instead, he asks for volunteers to come forward and serve as a new body of leadership, punishing the core leaders and redirecting Bnei Yisrael in the right path (Shemot 32:26). This serves as a proper response to the leadership of the Cheit HaEigel that also emerged voluntarily and spontaneously.
The response to Moshe Rabbeinu’s call is dramatic, as the entire Sheivet Levi respond to his call. From the depths of the Cheit HaEigel, a new spiritual leadership for Bnei Yisrael emerges (see Rashi to 32:29 s.v. Mil’u). From this point forward, a nation within a nation will function as spiritual role models for the rest of the nation whose mission is to be the Mamlechet Kohanim, the role model nation to the rest of the world (Shemot 19:6; see the comments of the Seforno thereupon).
Moreover, one could view the actions of Bnei Levi in bringing the leaders of the Cheit HaEigel to justice as a Tikkun (correction) for the actions of their ancestor Levi at Shechem, recorded in Bereishit chapter 34. (Tikkun is a Kabbalistic concept that later generations can correct the sins of their ancestors; examples of Tikkun abound in Tanach.) Levi punished the people of Shechem for their egregious treatment of Dinah. Yaakov Avinu, however, was displeased with Levi’s (and his partner Shimon’s) actions, in part because he acted unilaterally without consulting his father (see Breishit 34:30 and 49:5-7, and Ramban to Breishit 34:13 and 49:5-6). Moreover, in Shechem Levi killed not only the leaders of sin but also the entire community that followed in their leaders’ misguided path.
Regarding the Cheit HaEigel, however, Sheivet Levi do not act unilaterally without permission from the leadership. They do not act until Moshe Rabbeinu descends and calls for help in punishing the leading perpetrators of the sin. Moreover, they appear to kill only the leaders of the sin and not the entire community. Thus, Sheivet Levi act as a shining example of Teshuva for the rest of Bnei Yisrael. We should note, though, that this approach assumes that Levi sinned at Shechem, an issue that the commentators to the Chumash vigorously debate (see Rambam Hilchot Melachim 9:14 and Megadim 23:9-28).
Bnei Yisrael do not resist the actions of Sheivet Levi, thereby implicitly expressing their consent to the Leviim’s new role as spiritual role models for the rest of Bnei Yisrael (see Devarim 33:10). Indeed, it is remarkable that Bnei Yisrael never complain about the role of the Leviim and the replacement of the Bechorim as the spiritual leaders of the nation. (I once heard Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik observe that Ibn Ezra’s understanding of the Korach rebellion as essentially a rebellion against the replacement of the Bechorim is entirely disproved by the Ramban to Bemidbar 16:1.)
Accordingly, we see that although the Cheit HaEigel was a grievous sin, Moshe Rabbeinu nevertheless makes all the right moves on the day that he returns from Sinai. Although their relationship with Hashem is far from being repaired, Bnei Yisrael have taken a few significant steps on the road to recovery from their horrific mistake. They do not protest against the harsh actions of Moshe Rabbeinu and do not seek to justify worshipping the Eigel, despite the fact that they could be tempted to excuse themselves by saying that they acted in panic, since they did not expect Moshe Rabbeinu to be absent for so long. They have acknowledged the fact that they sinned and they are ready for improvement and a return to Hashem.
Next week, we shall continue outlining the steps of recovery from the Cheit HaEigel and the manner in which this recovery serves as a model for our Teshuva during the period leading up to Yom Kippur.