שבת טעם החיים כי תשא תשע”א
Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Ki Sisa 5771
וינחם ה’ על הרעה אשר דבר לעשות לעמו, HaShem reconsidered regarding the evil that He declared He would do to His people. (Shemos 32:14)
In this week’s parasha the Torah records how the Jewish People, upon despairing of Moshe returning from his ascent on the mountain to receive the Luchos, coerced Aharon to fashion for them a Golden Calf that they could worship during Moshe’s absence. When Moshe returned and saw the Jewish People dancing before the Golden Calf, he was incensed and he broke the Luchos at the foot of the mountain. Moshe then proceeded to punish the wrong-doers and he then beseeched HaShem to grant the people atonement. Ultimately HaShem forgave the Jewish People on Yom Kippur, and until today we celebrate Yom Kippur as a day of joy. One question that begs an answer is what the sin of the Jewish People was by fashioning the Golden Calf. The Kuzari and the Ramban write that worshipping the Golden Calf was a violation of the negative prohibition of fashioning and worshipping an idol. Nonetheless, one must forfeit his life rather than worship idols. Furthermore, HaShem was so angered by the Jewish People’s actions that He threatened Moshe to annihilate the Jewish People and replace them with Moshe. Referring to the sin as merely a violation of a negative prohibition would not seem to warrant such a harsh punishment. We also must understand the Gemara (Shabbos 88a) that states that the entire world was in suspense until the Jewish People received the Torah. This implies that the acceptance of the Torah is what allows the world to exist. The Gemara (Ibid) also states that HaShem held the mountain over the head of the Jewish People and informed them that if they would not accept the Torah, they would die instantaneously. The Medrash states that the tribe of Levi did not worship the Golden Calf, and the women and children were also not involved. A casual reading of Scripture indicates that only three thousand Jewish men actually worshipped the Golden Calf. What, then, was the reason that HaShem was so angry at the Jewish People?
To answer these questions, it is worthwhile to mention a Gemara that offers an entirely different perspective of the incident with the Golden Calf. (My thanks to Rabbi Simcha Klein, Shlita, Rav of Ahavas Olam in Oak Park, MI for bringing to my attention this Gemara). The Gemara (Gittin 36b) refers to the sin of the Golden Calf as akin to a bride who violates herself at the time of the wedding ceremony. This idea is actually alluded to in the Torah itself. It is said (Devarim 9:15) ואפן וארד מן ההר וההר בער באש ושני לחות הברית על שתי ידי, so I turned and descended from the mountain as the mountain was burning in fire, and the two Tablets of the covenant were ein my two hands. The Sforno cites the verse quoted in the above-mentioned Gemara, which states (Shir HaShirim 1:12) עד שהמלך במסבו נרדי נתן ריחו, while the King was yet at Sinai my malodorous deed gave forth its scent as my Golden Calf defiled the covenant. The Sforno implies that the sin of fashioning the Golden Calf was that it was committed against the backdrop of receiving the Torah amidst the heavenly fire. Let us explore this idea further. It is said (Devarim 1:2) אחד עשר יום מחרב דרך הר שעיר עד קדש ברנע, eleven days from Chorev, by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea. The Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 42:7) interprets this verse as follows: eleven days subsequent to the Receiving of the Torah, the Jewish People were headed towards Seir, i.e. idolatry. This Medrash states clearly that already while at the mountain, the Jewish People were already contemplating fashioning an idol. Yet, despite all these Medrashim, there is a Gemara that seems to conflict with the idea that the Jewish People were intentional sinners. The Gemara (Avodah Zara 4b-5a) states that the Jewish People only worshipped the Golden Calf in order to instruct future generations regarding repentance. Rashi (Ibid) explains that the Jewish People were able to control their desires, but HaShem decreed that they should succumb to sin in order to leave room for those seeking to repent. If a sinner were to say, “Why should I bother repenting if my repentance will not be accepted”, the response to him is “learn from those who worshipped the Golden Calf and they were forgiven for their sin”. If the Jewish People were not intentional in sinning, and, in fact, they succumbed to sin against their will, then why were they punished so severely? The answer to this question is that the Mishnah is Avos states, if one is engaged in Torah study and pauses to remark, “how beautiful is this tree,” his soul is liable. What is the meaning of this cryptic statement? When one is engaged in Torah study, he should be oblivious to his surroundings. One who interrupts his study to remark about the beauty of the world has clearly lost focus from his current obligation. Similarly, the Jewish People witnessed the heavens and the earth open up and they saw that there is nothing else besides HaShem. Yet, the Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 42:5) states that simultaneously, the ox that was positioned on the Heavenly Chariot moved out of its station and the Jewish People focused on that, which was the catalyst for them to make a calf down in this world. This was a loss of focus and almost resulted in catastrophic consequences.
Nonetheless, there was a redeeming factor to this sin of the Golden Calf. The Jewish People lost focus, but ultimately HaShem granted them atonement. This is what we can learn from their failing. While we may tend to lose focus in Torah study, mitzvah observance and in our relationships with others, we can always come back. Thus, hidden within the travesty of the Golden Calf was a balm for the Jewish People, which will ultimately lead us back to a wholesome relationship with HaShem and His Torah.
Shabbos with the Sfas Emes and the Rebbes of Ger
It is said (Shemos 31:16) ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת, the Children of Israel shall observe the Shabbos. The Sfas Emes writes that this verse is a promise that the Jewish people will observe the Shabbos. The Zohar states that on Shabbos, Moshe returns the crowns of נעשה ונשמע that the Jewish People had forfeited when they worshipped the Golden Calf. The Sfas Emes writes that this statement implies that the Jewish People did not affect the Shabbos through their sin, and for this reason Shabbos is a semblance of the World to Come. Similarly, Adam HaRishon repented from his sin on Shabbos. The reason that this was effective is because his sin did not affect Shabbos. Shabbos is in a secret location, as the Gemara (Shabbos 10b) states that Hashem said that He has a good present in His treasure house which is Shabbos. Due to the fact that Shabbos is hidden, the effects of the sin did not reach Shabbos.
The Greatest Artist of All
The good with which God surrounds us every day is too often taken for granted. From the blossoms on the tree, to the rising and the setting of the sun, we accept the beauty of nature with casual indifference. Even in our personal lives, we fail to pause and consider the miracles of our daily existence. Only when these “daily miracles” are taken away do we realize the magnitude of the gift that we had all along, but failed to appreciate.
How often have we heard a person on crutches say, “Now I appreciate the value of a healthy body”; or an older person say, “If only I had taken advantage of youth when I had it.”
The Chassan Sofer (1835-1883) once used the following parable to portray man’s inattentiveness to the “natural” things in life:
A world-renowned sculptor was commissioned to design a statue that would be placed in the city square. After much thought he decided on a work that would pay tribute to the animal that had given civilization its mobility and versatility – the horse.
For months he worked meticulously, paying attention to every detail, sculpting every sinew and muscle of his bronze stallion, so that it would be a lifelike replica of God’s miracle.
After two years of painstaking effort, the statue was complete. The artist presented it to the city officials who agreed unanimously that it was truly magnificent. They promptly placed the bronze stallion in the city square, where people – much to the shock of the sculptor – completely ignored it.
He could not believe it. Each day he would walk by his masterpiece to see if anyone would stop to admire his work, and every day he would return home dejected. No one had given his horse a second glance.
In despair, he confided to his friend, “I cannot believe that people are so insensitive,” he began. “I worked on the project for two years, and today it stands in the square ignored. Everyone passes it by without even giving it a second glance.”
“My dear friend, the problem is that your horse is too perfect,” his friend answered. “People think it is a real horse – and who is going to stop to look at a horse!”
“So what should I do?” exclaimed the exasperated sculptor.
“I will tell you,” replied his friend. “Make a crack in it, and then people will realize that it is not a real horse, but a grand piece of art.”
And so, with a heavy heart, the sculptor did indeed chisel a split across one side of the horse. The result was immediate; people stopped everyday to marvel at the work of art that had been there – taken for granted – all along.
This same scenario occurred when God took the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt. For centuries the world had witnessed the phenomena of nature. Grass grew, cows grazed, brooks flowed and seas surged – and mankind forgot that it was only by the grace of God that nature took its course every day. And so He made a tumultuous split in the Sea of Reeds, which reverberated around the world.
What Goes Around, Comes Around
At the age of 46, in 1928, Mr. Frankel, (a fictitious name) a wealthy labor lawyer in New York City, suffered a massive heart attack. After examining him, the doctors said that if he continued working at his present pace he had five years to live. His heart was too frail to last longer.
He decided to retire and enjoy the remainder of his life in Florida. He purchased annuities that would support him comfortably for the next 40 years, and moved into a beautiful home on Pine Tree Drive in the Miami Beach area. Slowly, he settled into a peaceful routine of piety, giving charity to Jewish causes. His favorite charity was the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel.
Rabbi Berel Wein met him was when Mr. Frankel was 84 years old in 1966. Rabbi Wein recalls: I was a rabbi in a synagogue in Miami Beach and Mr. Frankel was one of my most stalwart congregants. Still spry and marvelously alert, he was a delightful senior who helped set the standards for charitable endeavors in our synagogue. One day he called me in for a visit. His housekeeper ushered me into his dining room where he revealed his life had taken an ominous turn.
“Rabbi, I’m now 85 years old, and a terrible thing has happened to me. I’ve outlived my income. When I was a younger man, the doctors only gave me five years to live, so to be on the safe side I bought 40 years of annuities. Now all my doctors are dead and my annuity has been spent. I’ve lived within my means – but beyond my years.”
Sadly, he reported that he would have to sell his house and let his housekeeper go. “I’ll have to change my whole standard of living. For the last five years I’ve been selling off my assets to meet expenses. The social security checks came in handy, but now it’s not enough. I’ll sell this house and move back to New Jersey.”
Rabbi Wein knew Rabbi Yosef Kahanamen, the dean of the Ponevezh Yeshiva. Rabbi Kahanamen had been the main benefactor of Frankel’s charity over the years. He was coming into town the following week on a fundraising trip. “Mr. Frankel, I have an idea. Don’t sell the house yet. I think we may be able to work this out.”
When Rabbi Kahanamen came into town, Rabbi Wein took him over to Frankel’s home. Rabbi Kahanamen listened to his plight intently. He knew that Frankel had probably given over a million dollars to his yeshiva, both when it was in Europe and now in its reincarnated state in Israel. “This can’t happen,” he said, bewildered, “this can’t be.”
Rabbi Wein, trying to be helpful, began to explain the financial facts of life, but the venerable rabbi was way ahead of him. “Mr. Frankel, for 45 years you supported Torah. Now Torah is going to support you.”
Rabbi Kahanamen made a decision that startled Rabbi Wein. On the spot, he put Mr. Frankel on the payroll of the Ponevezh Yeshiva. For the remaining two years of his life, Mr. Frankel made his living working as a “fundraiser” for the yeshiva he had supported all his life.
As they left his house, Rabbi Kahanamen said to Rabbi Wein, “Tzedakah (charity) is a two-way street. It benefits the giver as well as the receiver. We’ll just redirect some of his money back to him.”
Before his death, Frankel requested that he be buried in a very simple service. In his will, he left the remainder of his estate to the Ponevezh Yeshiva – returning tzedakah money once more to needy Torah scholars. (www.innernet.org.il)
Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Ki Sisa 5771
Is sponsored in honor of Rabbi Sander Babayov, Shlita, Rav of Congregation Ahavas Yisroel in Oak Park, Michigan, and the students of Rabbi Babayov’s Kollel.
להגדיל תורה ולהאדירה
Have a wonderful and delightful Shabbos
Prepared by Rabbi Binyomin Adler
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