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Wednesday
Feb242016

PLEASURE FROM T’SHUVA

THE GOLDEN CALF ENIGMA

One of the most troubling and enigmatic episodes recorded in the Torah is the saga of the Golden Calf.

Moshe is away for only 40 days after ascending Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. A segment of the nation (according to our Sages it was just the Eirev Rav, the mixture of a multitude of nations that Moshe accepted without G-d’s approval, who instigated this transgression) decided that Moshe was no longer going to return and there was therefore a need to create a substitute for him. Ultimately this degenerated into the creation of the Golden Calf and the worshipping of it as a pagan g-d.

G-d reported the crime to Moshe when he was still on the mountain and made an ominous threat:

“… I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. And now, desist from Me. Let My anger flare up against them and I shall annihilate them; and I shall make you a great nation.”

Rashi asks the question, why did G-d say, “desist from Me,” when Moshe had not yet responded to G-d’s indictment of Israel. From what was he to desist?

Rashi’s answer is that G-d was implying to Moshe that the fate of the Jewish people rested in his hands. And if he would pray for them they would be spared.

WHY THE HINT?

One could ask, why did G-d have to hint to Moshe to pray for the nation? Wouldn’t Moshe the “faithful shepherd” of Israel have prayed for them without G-d hinting it to him? Didn’t Avraham even pray for the wicked Sodomites? Why would Moshe not follow in Avraham’s footsteps? And if Moshe was concerned that interceding on their behalf could have been interpreted by G-d as an act of sacrilegious chutzpah, why wasn’t Avraham so concerned?

On a simple level one could suggest that while Moshe was certainly prepared to pray for the Jewish people, he might have thought that the moment G-d was threatening to annihilate them was not an opportune time to intercede on their behalf. Our Sages (Ethics of the Fathers 4:18) instruct us: “Do not placate your fellow in the moment of his anger.” The rationale for that is that attempts at assuaging anger when one is still enraged will only backfire. It can even unleash an even more stridently negative response. Moreover, Moshe’s intervention could have ignited G-d’s anger at Moshe himself. Moshe, therefore, may have reasoned that it would be preferable to wait for G-d’s wrath to subside somewhat and to find a more opportune time to defend his people.

G-d therefore intimated to him that, on the contrary, it was indeed an opportune time to start the process of intervention immediately. Moshe got the hint, seized the opportunity and prayed for and saved the Jewish nation.

WHY ONLY A HINT?

However, this raises another question: if G-d wanted him to get involved, why did He merely hint this to him? Why couldn’t G-d have openly said to Moshe, “Pray to Me if you want Me to withdraw My threat against them?”

The simple answer is that if G-d had told him outright to pray for the Jewish people, it would have diminished Moshe’s merit. By simply hinting it rather than stating it outright, it may have left a lingering doubt in Moshe’s mind if that was indeed G-d’s intention. And, if he erred, he might have brought misfortune on himself.

Thus, G-d provided Moshe with an opportunity to take this risk and demonstrate that although G-d’s intentions were not clear, Moshe nevertheless erred on the side of speaking out on their behalf despite the risk to his own life.

THE DEFINITION OF A CHASID

The immediate lesson is that when we have a question whether we should get involved to assist a fellow Jew, we should err on the side of action.

This indeed is the Talmudic definition of a Chasid. The term Chasid is used to describe a person who takes a personal risk in order to prevent possible harm to another.

ERR ON THE SIDE OF GEULA

There is an added message for our generation in particular.

In the past, when Moshiach’s arrival was remote, Mitzvah observance did not compare to the Mitzvos we observe as we now stand on the threshold of the Final Redemption.

Even one Mitzvah performed in the present era can effectively change the entire world in unprecedented ways because it can be the final straw that will break the proverbial back of exile. Never before was the power of one Mitzvah so great. And, in retrospect, never before did a solitary Mitzvah possess the power to help as many people in the most extraordinary way as it can be today whereby even one Mitzvah can bring Redemption to the entire world, and thereby eliminate war, hatred, rivalry, hunger, and poverty from all of society.

Consequently, when we have a question as to whether we should get involved in the performance of a Mitzvah, helping another and, particularly, efforts that are designed to hasten the Redemption, we must always err on the side of action and not on the side of caution. [Of course, there can be halachic questions with respect to certain activities and they should be addressed to a rabbi for guidance according to clear directives of Torah.]

A DEEPER DIMENSION

The above provides for a simple understanding of the exchange between G-d and Moshe. However, there is a deeper understanding of this verse provided by the Chassidic master, Rabbi Yisroel of Kozhnitz (known as the Kozhnitzer Maggid, a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch, and colleague of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the author of the Tanya, known as the Alter Rebbe). This deeper understanding is based on his reinterpretation of what really transpired in the exchange between G-d and Moshe.

This novel explanation requires a retranslation of the text, which is common in Midrashic and Chassidic literature. In Hebrew, which is the Holy Tongue, every word can have multiple translations that correspond to multiple layers of meaning.

The words “desist from Me” in Hebrew are hanicha li. The word hanicha is cognate to the word nachas-pleasure. Hence instead of “desist from Me” these words can be rendered, “give me nachas-satisfaction and pleasure.”

The following words, “Let My anger flare up against them,” can also be translated as: “May My anger cause them to be distressed [for their behavior, which will impel them to do T’shuva, repent and return to G-d].”

One may add that the opening word of this verse is, “V’Ata-And now,” is an allusion to T’shuva, in accordance with a Midrashic statement that whenever this term is used it refers to T’shuva. Hence, G-d was in effect stating that when the Jewish people will do T’shuva it will [not just erase their sin, it will also] give Him pleasure.

The continuation of the verse, “Va’achalem-and I shall annihilate them,” can also be interpreted, “and I shall love them, with an all-consuming love.”

One may add an alternative interpretation to these final words: “And I will cause them [the Jewish people, who sinned with the Golden Calf] to love Me, with an all-consuming love.”

T’SHUVA OUT OF LOVE

There are two levels of T’shuva: One is out of fear and the other out of love. At first, G-d says that they will do T’shuva because they will be distressed when they realize G-d’s displeasure with them. However, once they do T’shuva out of distress, they will reach the higher level of doing T’shuva out of love.

According to this novel interpretation, G-d’s words were a “double-edged sword.” On the one hand, if we take the verse at face value, there was a clear threat to their existence if they would not do T’shuva for the creation of the Golden Calf. On the other hand, if they did do T’shuva, it would elevate their status in G-d’s eyes. Rather than just following G-d’s clear dictates, which elicits a measured reaction of pleasure for G-d, it would generate an unlimited flow of Divine pleasure.

G-d, in His strongest displeasure from the Jewish people in their lowest moment in history “craves” the pleasure they can give Him.

Of course, G-d does not need our efforts and does not need to have pleasure from them. G-d, however, chose to want and therefore need our Mitzvos and derive pleasure from them.

The Kozhnitzer Maggid’s novel interpretation is supported by the Talmud (Avoda Zara 4b): “Israel made the Golden Calf only in order to give an ‘opening of the mouth’ (i.e., encouragement) for Baalei T’shuva (returnees to Judaism).” Rashi explains that those people were of strong character, and the commission of this heinous sin was totally out of character for them. They were clearly not capable of sinking so low to worship a Golden Calf; certainly not just 40 days after being told by G-d that they may not have any other g-ds. Rather, this entire episode was “orchestrated” by G-d to demonstrate the power we have as a nation to do T’shuva. Lest one would argue that his return will not be accepted, the story of the Golden Calf demonstrates otherwise.

MOSHE ELEVATED

Let us now return to the conclusion of the verse: “and I shall make you a great nation.” What does this have to do with the pleasure caused by the T’shuva of Israel?

When G-d first informed Moshe of the transgression, He told Moshe to “descend.” Rashi explains this to mean that Moshe was demoted by virtue of the sin of his people. With their initial level of T’shuva (out of distress) Moshe would be restored to his original position of greatness. However, after achieving a heightened level of T’shuva, motivated by an all-consuming love for G-d, Moshe, as their leader, would be elevated to an even higher level of greatness, “I shall make you a great nation.”

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