From HaGaon Rav Yaakov Sasson Shlit”a, The Head of Halacha Yomit
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
This Shabbat we shall read the painful event of the “sin of the calf”.
At the time when Moshe Rabbeinu was on Mt. Sinai and learnt the Torah in order to hand it to the Bnei Yisrael, they made the “golden calf”. They said, “This, Am Yisrael, is your god” (Shemot 32:4). Then its states, “Hashem declared to Moshe, Go down, for the people whom you brought out of Egypt have become corrupt. They have become quick to leave the way that I ordered them to follow, and they have made themselves a cast-metal calf. They have bowed down and offered sacrifice to it, exclaiming, This, Am Yisrael, is your god, who brought you out of Egypt. Hashem then said to Moshe, I have observed the people, and they are an unbending group. Now do not try and stop Me when I unleash my wrath against them to destroy them. I will then make you into a great nation” (ibid. 7-10).
Many of the great ethicists [who sought to motivate us to transform ourselves] observed that when we examine the pessukim, we see what the reason was that Hashem, chas veshalom, wished to destroy Am Yisrael. Not because of the sin of the calf, for Hashem agreed to forgive them for this and to extend his anger, rather there was one key critical point, “they are an unbending group”, unbending! This almost caused the entire destruction of Am Yisrael.
So we see in the continuation, when Moshe Rabbeinu sought to advocate merit for Am Yisrael it states, “Moshe began to plead before Hashem his G-d. He said, ‘O Hashem, why unleash your wrath against Your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a show of force?’” (ibid. 32:11). Why was it appropriate for Moshe Rabbeinu to mention before Hashem the Exodus from Egypt at such a dire time? Our chachamim explain in the Midrash Rabbah (Shemot 43:1) that Moshe intended to advocate merit for Am Yisrael. Moshe Rabbeinu said, “Ribono shel Olam! From where did you bring them out from? From Egypt where they [the Egyptians] worshiped sheep, and your children learnt from them and they too made a calf!” Therefore Moshe said, “whom you brought out of Egypt”, for You Hashem knows where you brought them out from!
And so we find that even after Am Yisrael merited and witnessed the nine plagues that Hashem smote the Egyptians with, they were still engaged in idol worship, as Rashi mentions in his commentary (Shemot 12:6), that it was necessary to tell them, “Withdraw your hands from idol worship and take for yourselves sheep for a mitzvah, for the korban pesach”. This is being unbending, even though [it could be argued that] the earlier bad deeds of Am Yisrael wasn’t [really] their fault, nevertheless, now they had a responsibility to elevate themselves, to leave this bad path and change their direction!
HaGaon Rav Yaakov Galinski zt”l explains that whilst it is true that whilst Am Yisrael were in Egypt they had sunk into the 49 gates of impurity, yet Hashem testified about them that they only worshiped idols due to the harsh slavery and from having been in a state of utter confusion. This is the greatest way of finding merit in someone.
But the inability to say, “What happened, happened, and from now on let’s start afresh”, [is a great drawback and] this evokes great meticulousness [in judgement].
Each person knows about himself what his failings and shortfalls are in serving Hashem. “The heart knows its own bitterness” (Mishlei 14:10), and at certain times, especially in our generation which is a pampered one, a person is accustomed to blame his failings on others. “My father used to hit me,” “My mother didn’t show me enough affection”, “The school teachers didn’t understand me”, “My friends bulled me”, and there are more acute situations where people had a very difficult upbringing. It may all be true, there are “mitigating circumstances” and there is no doubt that Hashem will consider them on the day of judgement. But all of this doesn’t exempt a person from saying, “Enough! I cannot forever blame others for my situation! I am already mature and independent.” He must move forwards! Strive forwards! Dispose of the past with his dirty feet and to elevate to greater placed which are more beautiful!
There is a very common problem that people encounter with tefillah (prayer). It is related about a person observant in Torah and mitzvot who met his friend and said to him, “I dreamt that I was speaking with Hashem!” His friend replied, “Our chachamim say (Berachot 55b) ‘a person is only shown [in a dream] what he thinks about’, so for sure you thought about Hashem and that is why you dreamt what you did!”
The dreamer responded to him, “What are you saying? When did I ever think about Hashem? When do I have time? In the morning I rush to pray, when praying I certainly don’t think about Him. Afterwards, I eat breakfast, say Birkat HaMazon, I don’t think about him. After, I rush to my studies and pray Minchah then Arvit etc. When do I have any time to think about Hashem?”
This is just an illustrative story but it does have elements of truth in it. A person prays every single day, three times. If he would only think for one moment before his prayer that Hashem is with him and that He hears every word that he utters from his mouth in prayer, then for sure his prayers would adopt a totally different character!