An educational sin

Surprisingly the Gemara praises one of the greatest sins perpetrated by the People of Israel, the sin of the golden calf.

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol ,

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol
Rabbi Shlomo Sobol
INN: Daniel Malichi

The Book of Shemot is a very organized book with all its parshiot divided into pairs. The Parshiot of Shemot and Vaera deal with the enslavement in Egypt, Parshiot Bo and Beshalach with the Exodus, Yitro and Mishpatim with the receiving of the Torah, Teruma and Tetzave with the commandment of the construction of the Mishkan, while Parshiot Vayakhel and Pekudei deal with the actual construction of the Mishkan.

Only one parsha remains lonely and with no pair, this week’s parsha: Parshat Ki Tisa. This is because the central theme in this week’s parsha is the sin of the golden calf, and every sin - and certainly such a great sin like the sin of the golden calf - is a departure from the natural and correct course of every Jew and the nation of Israel.

The sin of the calf is a sin that the people of Israel bear to this day, not only as a terrible historical story, but as Rashi says of the verse "and on the day that I remembered, I will remember”: "G-d says ‘…when I remember your sins I will always remember this sin above all other sins.’ And there is no disaster that comes upon Israel that does not contain some of the disaster of the sin of the golden calf. " Rashi means that throughout our history any time that disaster befalls the people of Israel, G-d forbid, that calamity is also a punishment for the sin of the golden calf.

On the other hand, surprisingly, the Gemara praises the sin of the golden calf. "Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: ‘Israel did not make the calf but to givea chance to Ba'alei Teshuva (penitents) ’” Rashi comments on the Gemara: “The people of Israel were strong-willed and controlled their evil inclination and it was not rational that their evil inclination was able to overpower them. But it was a Divine decree that the evil inclination should rule over them in order to give a chance to Baalei Teshuva. If a sinner would say ‘I can’t repent, G-d won’t accept my repentance’ we say to him ‘go and learn from the incident of the golden calf - they repented and G-d accepted their repentance.”

How do we know that the people of Israel were stronger than their evil inclination? testifies to their fear of G-d by saying “and their hearts should fear Me all of their days (like they feared Me in the desert)’ and Rashi comments there: “…they were strong and fortified in their hearts with the fear of G-d.” Strangely enough, it seems from the Gemara that the sin of the golden calf is first and foremost an educational act intended to be a model of repentance for future generations. How can this be understood?

Of course, every sin, including the sin of the golden calf, is a negative thing committed with the free will of the sinner. Therefore there is punishment for a sin. And the people of Israel are punished for generations for the sin of the golden calf. But at the same time a sin is also a means of clarifying the nature of the connection between the sinner and the person or entity towards which he is sinning. For example, if a person sins and behaves badly towards his spouse, then there are two possibilities of what can occur: either the actions will cause the relationship to dissolve and cause divorce, G-d forbid, or if the relationship between the couple is strong enough, they may be able to move past the action, and even be built up from it.

This is exactly the clarification that occurred after the sin of the golden calf. The people of Israel committed a grave sin against G-d. This puts to the test the connection between the people of Israel and G-d. One possibility is that G-d can decide, G-d forbid, to sever the connection between Himself and the people of Israel. But a second possibility, which is what actually happened, is that the people of Israel - despite the sin of the golden calf - continued to be G-d's beloved children and through the sin of the golden calf it was revealed that the bond between G-d and the people of Israel is strong and cannot be separated. It is so strong that even when the people of Israel sin, it does not actually harm the relationship.

This important clarification accompanies the people of Israel for generations. The connection between us and G-d is a divine connection, which no human act can sever, so there is always the possibility of repentance and return to the same great love between us and our Father in heaven.

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol is the Dean of the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics and Community Development and the rabbi of the Shaarei Yonah Menachem community in Modi'in.