“They have swerved quickly from the way that I charged them. They have made them a molten calf and bowed down to it …”
Midrash Rabbah Shemot 43:7
Moses arose to appease God: he said, “Master of the universe! They intended only to have made an assistant for You, and You are angry at them as if they intended idolatry? Why, they meant that this Calf that they made will assist You … The Holy One, blessed is He, replied, “Moses, you, too, are going astray like them?! There is obviously no substance to [this Calf]!” [Moses] then rejoined to Him, “If so, why are You angry at Your children?”
Why is God angry? What is wrong with having something you can see and touch to mediate between your experience and a transcendent God?
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz
The sin of the golden calf is one of the most puzzling events in Jewish history. … [despite previous downfalls in the Torah] it is still difficult to understand the possibility of the sin itself at such a juncture in Israel’s history. Israel had just witnessed the tremendous miracles in Egypt, and had been redeemed from the confines of Egyptian bondage. They had ‘seen God’ so openly at the sea that they could point a finger … Israel witnessed the greatest of revelations known to man: the Divine Revelation at Sinai ….The answer is that revelations and unique events on their own do not create prophets. A person may experience a lofty awareness, a lucid perception of the Divine, yet remain the same person. His knowledge and awareness will not necessarily effect any change in his personality whatsoever.
Rabbi Shmulevitz argues that Divine Revelation is ineffective “for the unprepared.” Do you agree? Why do you think that’s the case?
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz
The principle is borne out time and again. As overwhelming and convincing as a Divine Revelation may be, it will often effect no change whatsoever in the beholder. Only through the laborious process of self improvement and character development does a person become Godly [holy?]. And only if the development is the result of toil and labor on one’s part, rather than a heavenly gift, can he retain his achievements.
This is an important Mussar statement, and one that is different from the perspective of Chassidut (chassidic thought). For Chassidut, deep connection to God is enough and is transformative. Thinking about your own experiences, which perspective do you lean towards?
Before we jump to the next idea, note that Rabbi Shmulevitz or the translator refers to being “Godly.” (It is common in the Mussar literature to refer to the goal as being holy.) What does that mean? What is the difference between “being Godly” and knowing God? How might that provide insight into the Sinai revelation, and how might it be different from the Cult of Apis?
The fall represented by the Golden Calf also leads us to look at what causes sin and how do we guard against sin. [Note that Satan and yetzer hara (evil inclination) are used interchangebly in the Mussar and traditional Jewish literature. Satan is not an external entity or force, but something that is part of our mental construction. It is the combination of our animal drives and the harnessing of our imagination and cognitive ability to those drives.]
So too the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Israel, My children I created an evil inclination, which is the wound, and I created Torah as its antidote [or spice in other translations]. … One who engages in Torah study lifts himself above the evil inclination. And if you do not engage in Torah study, you are given over to its power … Moreover, all of the evil inclination’s deliberations will be concerning you …
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler
The Satan is an angel. This means he is a power created by God to serve God’s purposes in the world. … great sins tend to commence with small failures. How did the sin of the Golden Calf begin? … Each stage of the test is more intensive than the previous one. … [the Golden Calf episode] is a classic example of how we ourselves strengthen the hands of the Satan and enable him to increase the severity of our tests step by step.
Rabbi Dessler derives the following steps from our Parshah:
- A feeling of unease (not counteracted by reason or faith)
- Imagining the worst
- Deducing a scenario that justifies the imagination
- Making the scenario more vivid (emotional) in our minds through imaginative elaboration
- Acting on the false scenario
This model is very similar to the approach taken in cognitive-behavioral therapy. The idea in therapy is to counteract the steps prior to them becoming converted to behavior. (see Albert Ellis). Some Mussar practices turn this sequence into a method of positive change:
- Have a regret or be aware of a negative pattern in your life.
- Learn about an alternative pattern of thought and action
- Contemplate what that would be like in your personal situations
- Visualize that alternative scenario and make it more vivid (emotional) in our minds through imaginative elaboration
- Use chanting to reinforce the new pattern
- Act on the new pattern in similar situations
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
Chazal mention numerous methods to battling the yetzer hara: get angry at him, overcome him, subjugate him, and belittle him. All of these methods involve a direct confrontation with the yetzer hara. The study of Torah, on the other hand, functions in an entirely different manner. As Rashi explains, it elevates a person above his yetzer hara. A child might ride on a stick and claim that it is his horse, but as he grows older he will comprehend that a stick is not a horse. He does not have to fight with himself or convince himself not to ride on the stick; his new understanding is a function of maturity. The Torah works in a similar fashion. Once a person delves into the Torah, he matures to a level where he is simply not interested in what the yetzer hara previously offered him. In our battle with the yetzer hara the optimal approach is not to fight him head-on, but to rise above him and make him irrelevant …
How do you understand the methods attributed to Chazal? What do you think is the alternative being offered by Rabbi Wolbe? Why might that be a superior method? How does one become more mature and rise above?
By the way, the Talmud section cited by Rabbi Dessler and Wolbe also advises marriage to a good woman and learning a trade as protecting someone from the yetzer hara. What is the other dimension that the Sages in the Talmud are adding?
The baraita (29a) teaches that a father is commanded to marry his son to a woman. the Gemara asks: From where do we derive this matter? As it is written: “Take wives and bear sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to men” (Jeremiah 29:6) … The baraita further states that a father is commanded to teach his son a trade. The Gemara asks: From where do we derive this? Hizkiyya said: As the verse states: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love” (Ecclesiastes 9:9). If this verse is interpreted literally, and it is referring to an actual woman, then one can derive as follows: Just as a father is obligated to marry his son to a woman, so too, he is obligated to teach him a trade, as indicated by the term: Life. And if the wife mentioned in this verse is allegorical, and it is the Torah, then one should explain the verse in the following manner: Just as he is obligated to teach him Torah, so too, he is obligated to teach him a trade. … Rabbi Yehuda says: Any father who does not teach his son a trade teaches him banditry.