Today’s Sin of the Golden Calf and the Spies

The Sin of the Golden Calf and the Sin of the Spies, which occurred during the Three Weeks, are the prototype of all other sins.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed ,

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
PR photo

The Fast of the 17th of Tammuz was set because on that day the walls of Jerusalem were breached. The fighting continued in Jerusalem for three weeks, and at the end, on Tisha B’Av, the Temple Mount was conquered, the Second Temple burned, and the long exile began. Our Sages said in the Mishna (Taanit 26): “Five tragic events befell our forefathers on the seventeenth of Tammuz: the Tablets containing the Ten Commandments were broken, the continuous daily offering (Tamid) was terminated [during the siege] the city of Jerusalem was breached, Apostomus burnt a Torah scroll, and an idol was erected in the Holy Temple.”

The Meaning of the Mishna and the Sin of the Golden Calf

Taking a look at the Mishna, we see there is an inner connection between the five events that occurred on t 17th of Tammuz. All of them express a crisis that harms spiritual roots, fractures the wall of faith, and causes severe damage that if not rapidly rectified, will subsequently, on Tisha B’Av, cause complete destruction.

The source of all the calamities of the 17th of Tammuz is rooted in the Sin of the Golden Calf. After the revelation on Mount Sinai, Moshe Rabbeinu was called to stay on the mountain forty days and forty nights to receive the Torah from God. On the day the people thought was the fortieth day – they waited for him to descend, and when he did not, they demanded Aaron HaKohen make a statue representing the God that had taken them out of Egypt. Aaron held them off, and asked them to bring the women’s jewelry to make a statue from it, in the hope they would refuse. However, many of them brought their wives’ golden jewelry.

Aaron made a golden calf, but postponed the slaughtering of a sacrifice to it till the following day, hoping that in the meantime, Moshe would come down from the mountain. However, Moshe had not yet descended, but the people had already begun slaughtering sacrifices to the calf, and were making a feast. At that moment, a great prosecution in Heaven transpired, and God sought to consume the entire nation and rebuild it through Moshe Rabbeinu’s offspring.

In the meantime, Moshe Rabbeinu came down from the mountain with the Tablets in his hands, and upon seeing the Golden Calf was angered, threw down the Tablets, shattered them, and punished the sinners. He then commenced an act of teshuva (repentance) and tikun (rectification), giving over his soul in prayer for Am Yisrael, until God agreed to forgive the people, and not destroy them.

The Two Great Sins – The Golden Calf and the Spies

The two fundamental sins noted in the Torah are the sin of the Golden Calf on the 17th of Tammuz, and the sin of the Spies on Tisha B’Av. In the sin of the Golden Calf the people still believed in God, however, they thought that intermediary powers were needed. However, since they desecrated the purity of emunah (faith) and the Torah – a year later, on Tisha B’Av, they lacked the strength to confront the Spies who dissuaded them from entering Eretz Yisrael, despised it, betrayed the word of God and the purpose of the Torah, and were punished in that the entire generation that had left Egypt, died in the wilderness.

Because they did not correct the sin, the punishment continued for several generations, as our Sages said of the sin of the Spies that occurred on Tisha B’Av: “God said to them: You cried for naught, and I will decree that you cry for generations” [Taanit 29a], for on Tisha B’Av the First and Second Temples were destroyed. In other words, the sin of the Golden Calf extends to the destruction of the Holy Temple.

It is no coincidence that these were the two most severe sins, because essentially, they are the prototype of all sins. The sin of the Golden Calf harms the principles of emunah and Torah, and if not rectified, it reaches the sin of the Spies, which impairs the Torah and Israel’s fulfillment of its purpose – the revelation of the Shekhina (Holy Presence) in Eretz Yisrael.

And in every generation we have to guard ourselves from committing these sins, because every flaw in the purity of emunah and Torah has its source in the sin of the Golden Calf, and every flaw in yishuv ha’aretz (settling the Land of Israel) has its source in the sin of the Spies. If we achieve completeness in our emunah and Torah, striving to fulfill them in Eretz Yisrael, the blessing will be boundless. But if, God forbid, we are lacking in our emunah and its fulfillment, the price to be paid is unbearable.

As our Sages said: “No retribution whatsoever comes upon the world which does not contain a slight fraction of the sin of the Golden Calf, as it is written (Exodus 32:34): ‘Nevertheless in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them’ (Sanhedrin 102a). And if we do not correct the sin of the Spies, we will continue paying for it in the prolonged destruction of the Temple and the Land, as our Sages said: “Any generation during whose days the Temple is not rebuilt is regarded as if it had destroyed it” (Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 1:1).

The Sin of the Golden Calf in Every Generation

In every generation the Jewish nation is compelled to deal with a challenge that is liable to lead to the sin of the Golden Calf. This is because the world changes from year to year, and at every stage, for a moment, it seems as if Moshe Rabbeinu is delayed; no one knows what happened to him, and there is no one to illuminate our path. And instead of strengthening our emunah and to the best of our ability, continue growing in Torah and mitzvot, there is a tendency to seek ‘golden calves’ to mediate between pure emunah, and contemporary life.

This is especially true during times of crisis and significant changes in lifestyle; then, the absence of the guidance of Moshe Rabbeinu seems more pronounced, and at that time, even glorified souls like Aaron HaKohen are liable to be enticed by the public, and have no choice but to agree to some type of ‘golden calf’ to act as an intermediary (see Kuzari 1:97).

The Sin of the Spies in Every Generation

Similarly, in every generation we are compelled to face difficulties in fulfilling the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz, for the settlement of the Land always presents challenges – whether it be external enemies rising up against us, or internal difficulties. In other words, in order to settle the Land properly, all ideas and mitzvot must be “settled” in everyday life, with all its difficulties.

Claims then arise that the ideas are too lofty, obscure, and impractical. For instance, Shabbat observance, setting times for Torah study, and prayer will impede upon work and science; the values ​​of truth and morality – will hinder entrepreneurship. But just as difficult questions in the Gemara are ‘settled’ and resolved, so too, the Land’s difficult questions must be ‘settled’ according to the Torah’s guidance, and show how it is precisely walking in God’s way that settles the Land with additional blessing.

The Enormous Challenge of Recent Generations

In recent generations, the Jewish people have faced a new struggle, spiritually difficult than previous challenges. Out of philosophical and scientific development, accelerated social, economic and demographic development began, unparalleled to the past. Numerous questions began piling up on religious tradition as a result of all the scientific discoveries, and before one of them could be answered – seven new questions arose, which increasingly grew and intensified. Attempts were made to deal with questions from the exact sciences, and in the meantime, questions from the field of history arose. In the process, severe attacks on religious frameworks began to emerge from the values ​​of human freedom and rights.

And, most difficult of all, worldviews opposing religion developed, such as liberalism, communism, rationalism, capitalism, which offered realistic solutions to the world’s advancement, and to some extent, even its redemption, claiming that, at best, when religion restricts itself to the private domain, it can be tolerated; and at worst, when it attempts to influence society – it interferes with tikun olam (fixing the wrongs in the world).

The Sin of the Golden Calf Today

The great challenge of the sin of the Golden Calf reappeared in modern times in full force. Moshe Rabbeinu remained in the fog and mist of Mount Sinai, and we should have adhered to pure emunah, and delve into the Torah which teaches us that the essence of its fulfillment is in Eretz Yisrael, in the joining of heaven and earth, guiding us to see in galut (exile) a temporary state of punishment and illness, and asserting that all the observance of Torah and mitzvot in the Diaspora is intended that once possible, we immigrate to Israel and fulfill the Torah and mitzvot there; and by doing so, we also return the Shekhina from its exile, once again to dwell among Am Yisrael and in Eretz Yisrael. This was the way many of the great Sages instructed, including the Gaon from Vilna, the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, and after them, Rabbi Kalisher and Rabbi Alkalai, and other precursors of Zionism.

However, it was very difficult to stand the test. Jewish identity was attacked on all sides. The nation began to drown in questions, and there seemed to be a need for a ‘golden calf’ to help mediate. Thus, different conceptions began to develop. Some argued the Torah, or parts of it, should be abandoned in order to join the “golden calves” of the advancement process. On the opposing side, counter to the accountability of the leaders of modernity, there were some rabbis and hassidim who argued in the name of religion that it was forbidden to change anything from the customs of the galut – not to immigrate to Israel, not to work for the betterment of society, not to engage in science. And to preserve the situation, a host of ideas were offered to enthuse peoples’ hearts, which in themselves are, in a sense, a ‘golden calf,’ disrupting the balanced way of Torah and mitzvot.

As a result, when it was possible to immigrate to Israel, there were not enough spiritual and religious resources left to inspire mass immigration to Israel.

The Result of the Sin of the Spies Today

About a hundred and twenty years ago, close to fifty years after Rabbi Alkalai and Rabbi Kalisher had initiated their activities, at the time of the establishment of the Zionist movement, the Jewish people numbered approximately eleven million, while the Arabs who lived in all areas of the Biblical borders, including Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, numbered a little more than five million, with a little more than half a million Arabs living on both sides of the Jordan.

At that point, the Jewish nation had the opportunity to return to the Land of Israel, in which to flourish and multiply. However, the majority of our nation was afraid to uproot themselves from the Diaspora, to immigrate to Israel, and to take their fate in their own hands, as the Torah commands. Indeed, the challenge was immense; immigration to Israel in those days involved many difficulties. However, the refusal to fulfill the mitzvah to immigrate to Israel when it was possible to do so, was in a sense, a modern-day sin of the Spies, and as we were warned in the Torah, the price for it is horrendous.

We suffered the Holocaust, the rule of Communist oppression, and assimilation. And thus today, there are about fifteen million declared Jews in the world, and in Israel, approximately seven million. In contrast, the Arabs in the vicinity of Eretz Yisrael benefited from the fruits of the industrial revolution, the growth of food production, and the improvement of medicine, and grew from five million to more than eighty million.

Still, it is not too late. It is still possible to unite around the national and divine mission, and change the situation. “Get ready! We’re going up to Zion to the Lord our God!” The Lord proclaims: Sing joyfully for the people of Jacob; shout for the leading nation. Raise your voices with praise and call out: “The Lord has saved his people, the remnant of Israel!” (Jeremiah, 31: 5-6).

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.