Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Modern Day Calves

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week, in Parshas Ki Sisa, we read of the tragic downfall of the Bnei Yisroel in the incident with the Golden Calf. Moshe Rabbeinu went up to Har Sinai to receive the Torah and when he failed to return at the expected time, the people were ready to embrace the worship of a molten calf crafted from their wives’ jewelry.

These were the people of the Dor De’ah, the generation that stood at the foot of Har Sinai and declared “Na’aseh v’nishmah.” How could they have relinquished their loyalty to Moshe for a little getchkeh?

How was it possible for this noble people to fall so far, so fast? What caused them to be led astray? Had they decided to seek the authority of an exalted individual such as Aharon Hakohein after losing a leader of Moshe’s stature, we could understand. But that they were willing to elevate an inanimate object to the lofty position of G-d’s emissary seems totally irrational and incomprehensible.

Rashi (32:1) explains that Moshe told them that he would be back in forty days and they erred in their calculation. Rashi quotes the Gemara in Shabbos (89a) which explains that the Soton “confused the natural order,” creating a mirage of Moshe’s body being carried in heaven as if in a casket.

Can we really blame the Bnei Yisroel? How were they supposed to know that what their eyes were seeing wasn’t real?

Their mistake, it appears, was precisely the failure to question those images. They should have probed for the truth behind the mirage; they should have contemplated the possibility that their calculations were in error. Instead of jumping to the conclusion that Moshe would never return, they should have trusted his promise and restrained the impulse to invent an immediate substitute. The urge to give an instantaneous response is one of the Soton’s tools.

On a personal note, I have made it a policy that whenever someone offers me something or discusses something and needs an immediate answer, my answer is always no. I prefer not to be rushed into conclusions. I believe it is prudent not to get involved in anything without clearly thinking it through.

Don’t act without consulting people who are smarter and greater than you. Don’t think that you see the whole picture and have it all figured out, because generally you don’t.

Aharon sought to delay the Bnei Yisroel. He urged them to wait until the next day, promising that “We will celebrate before G-d tomorrow.” But by the next morning, they had degenerated to such a sorry state that they were engaged in idolatry and promiscuous conduct. Aharon’s plan went up in a cloud of smoke.

The slope from holiness to depravity is indeed so slippery that in a few short hours, they slid from the apex of spiritual achievement to the lowest rung possible. Such is human frailty.

Moshe returned and called for those who were loyal to G-d to come to his side. Only the tribe of Levi rallied to him. The shevet which dedicated itself to the study of Torah and was free from Egyptian enslavement was the only one that grasped that the need of the hour was to cast their lot with Moshe. The others were too far gone.

They left the fold because they were convinced that Moshe wouldn’t return. And when he did return, they failed to heed his call.

Life often throws challenges of this sort our way. Things appeal to our senses, tempting us against our better judgment. We find ourselves being seduced by outward appearances and scenes that the Soton paints for us. We disobey our teachings, traditions and common sense because we are dazzled or enraptured with something we can’t resist pursuing. We convince ourselves that there is nothing remiss with our behavior. We resort to all kinds of excuses and rationales to justify our actions.

A person of high standards can work hard and construct an edifice of Torah and gedulah. Unexpectedly, the Soton appears in various guises in an effort to bring the building crashing down. It may be through machlokes or perhaps through the temptations of kinah, taavah and kavod. With his vast arsenal of tools, the Soton attempts to destroy what took decades of painstaking effort to build. Bnei Torah have to see through his attempts to sow mayhem and remain loyal to the cause. They dare not be led astray by false messiahs and snake oil salesmen, charming as they may be. If the message leads to diminished respect for Torah or manhigim, that is a clue that following the pied piper is leading one astray. In every generation, there are false prophets blessed with amazing grace and charisma who feed opium to the masses. No matter how many are smitten by the charm, we must remember that our eyes (and ears) can fool us. We must resist the deceptions of ego-driven people with self-serving agendas. Early Maskilim of the nineteenth century were religious people who sought to tweak some minhagim and halachos here and there, in order to perfect the religion and make it conform to the mores of the day. But Haskalah was a Golden Calf that entrapped so many of our brethren, uprooting their beliefs and estranging untold thousands from their heritage.

Zionism was another eigel. On paper, it had a compelling logic. How many more pogroms could a beleaguered people endure? However, those who bought into the ideology became ensnared in apostasy and ended up rejecting the yesodos of Yiddishkeit and emunah. In each instance, it fell upon the Bnei Levi to rally around the Moshe of the generation and attempt to minimize the casualties. The Soton works in other ways as well. He portrays death and desolation and plants seeds of despondency and despair among the Jewish people. Bnei Levi must not be deterred. They must remain steadfast in their devotion to Torah and its causes despite the apparent bleakness of the situation.

The rov of the Lithuanian city of Ponovezh lost almost everything in the Second World War. Most of his family, talmidim and townspeople, and virtually his entire world, were destroyed. He arrived in Bnei Brak after the war and set about rebuilding what the Nazis had annihilated. People thought his war experiences had robbed him of his sanity. All they saw was death and destruction. It seemed obvious that the world of Torah could never be rebuilt. European Jewish civilization was gone and could never be replicated, they argued.

That’s what smaller people believed and said. Smaller people gave up. They considered the Ponovezher Rov totally out of touch with reality.

Smaller people see the confusion and falsehood spawned by evil forces in this world to confound people and destroy their confidence. Bnei Levi must resist the urge to view reality through despairing lenses, and remain purposefully committed to the greater truth.

The yeshivos of Lakewood, Telz, and others as well as the flourishing Chassidic communities so many others, built in this country by penniless Holocaust refugees, are a testament to the fortitude and persistence of those lofty souls who are the Moshes of the generation and the Bnei Levi who gather around them. Try as he might, the Soton cannot conquer them and lead them down the path of the Golden calf.

So many Jews fled to this country during the first half of the last century, victims of anti-Semitic persecution. Tragically, once they assimilated, they and their children became lost to our glorious chain and heritage. It is not for us to judge them, but apparently they fell prey to the Soton’s sheker that the new country demanded a new lifestyle and that those who clung stubbornly to the old ways would never succeed.

The meraglim also failed because they permitted their eyes to fool them. As a consequence of their refusal to accept the exhortations of Yehoshua and Kaleiv, they ended up revolting against Moshe, Aharon and G-d. They met the same fate as those who danced around the eigel.

How do we save ourselves from drowning in a sea of illusion? How do we remain straight in a topsy-turvy world? How can we distinguish right from wrong when the evil is so enticing? How do we discern truth from fiction in a world awash with seductive falsehoods?

How do we remain loyal to the chain stretching back to Har Sinai?

It is only when we rally around the Torah and those in the generation who bear the mantle of Moshe Rabbeinu that we have the power to save ourselves. We must maintain our bond with them, deepen our study of Torah and mussar, and ignore the blandishments that seek to derail us from the path of the righteous.

If we seek for ourselves the mantle of the Bnei Levi and grasp onto the Torah, we are guaranteed help in keeping our vision pure and uncorrupted and earning Hashem’s blessings. And that is something no one can take away from us.


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