Rabbi YY Jacobson
Rabbi YY JacobsonIsrael National News

It was one of our lowest points in history, the nadir of the Jewish people.

Forty days earlier, they heard the voice of G-d; they vowed to become His people. Now they were dancing around a golden calf and yelling “this is your god, Israel, who has brought you up from Egypt!”

Forty days earlier, they stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and experienced the greatest moment in history: The only time G-d revealed Himself to an entire nation, giving them a blueprint to heal and sanctify the world. Now, five weeks later, the very same people are enthralled by a golden calf. They are laughing, sacrificing animals, bowing down to it, engaging in adultery all around their new god crafted of the jewelry in their ears.

G-d is “furious,” as it were. He tells Moses:[1] “Now leave Me alone, and My anger will be kindled against them so that I will annihilate them, and I will make you into a great nation."

Listen to the words: “Leave Me alone.” Moses got the message. If He does not leave G-d alone, all would end up well. So Moses does not leave G-d alone. He pleads, prays, and begs for forgiveness. The people repent. G-d forgives the people. We are still here.

Always Remember

Yet during the conversation, G-d says something shocking.

כי תשא לב, לד: וְעַתָּה לֵךְ נְחֵה אֶת הָעָם אֶל אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ הִנֵּה מַלְאָכִי יֵלֵךְ לְפָנֶיךָ וּבְיוֹם פָּקְדִי וּפָקַדְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם חַטָּאתָם

And now go, lead the people to [the place] of which I have spoken to you. Behold My angel will go before you. But on the day I make an accounting, I will bring their sin to account against them.

G-d, it seems, is telling Moses that He will never forget this sin. Whenever He is going to make an accounting of their sins, this sin will be included in the “package.”

Rashi seems to say so clearly:

וביום פקדי וגו': עתה שמעתי אליך מלכלותם יחד, ותמיד תמיד כשאפקוד עליהם עונותיהם ופקדתי עליהם מעט מן העון הזה עם שאר העונות, ואין פורענות באה על ישראל שאין בה קצת מפרעון עון העגל:

Now I have listened to you not to destroy them all at once, but always, always, when I take an accounting of their sins, I will also account a little of this sin with the other sins. No punishment befalls Israel in which there is not part of the punishment for the sin of the [golden] calf.[2]

This is deeply enigmatic. It is one of the foundations of Judaism that Teshuvah, repentance, atones for all sins and wipes them away. Every Yom Kippur we conclude the central Amidah blessing with these words: “G-d removes our sins every year again.” No matter how many times we commit a sin, if we repent, we are forgiven.[3]

Three times a day, we say in the prayers, “Forgive us father because we have sinned… blessed are you G-d, the gracious one who forgives excessively.” Think about it. I sinned in the morning, I asked forgiveness, G-d says, no problem. A few hours later, I sin again, I apologize again, and G-d says: You got it, my son. A few hours later I sin again, and again, G-d accepts my apology. All is good.

This goes on for decades or more. Three times a day I apologize, even though my last apology was just a few hours or a few minutes earlier. If this would be you apologizing to your wife, at some point she would say: Don’t be a ‘nudnik!’ Stop sinning so much against me so you will not have to apologize. But G-d patiently offers forgiveness, three times a day, for 120 years![4]

And yet here, suddenly, we discover a very different G-d. “On the day I make an accounting, I will bring their sin to account against them.” Or in Rashi’s words: “When I take an accounting of their sins, I will also account a little of this sin with the other sins.” G-d will never let go of this sin. The Jews repented, but He can’t let go. Why?

I Will Forget!

What is more, the Talmud[5] offers a very opposite perspective.[6]

The Talmud quotes a verse from the prophet Isaiah (49:15): “Shall a woman forget her sucking child, from having mercy on the child of her womb? These too shall forget, but I will not forget you.”

Says the Talmud: “These too shall forget,” represents the story of the Golden Calf. G-d “forgets” that story. “But I will not forget you,” refers to the events at Mt. Sinai, where the Jews embraced the Torah and entered into a covenant with G-d. That I will never forget.

Yet here in biblical verse in Ki Sisa, G-d says clearly to Moses that He will always remember the story of the Golden Calf?!

What is more, the Talmudic interpretation seems to distort the verse. The verse says that at times a mother can forget her child, yet G-d will not forget you. In the Talmud’s commentary, G-d also “forgets.” He forgets the Golden Calf!

The Lover of Israel

The most marvelous answer to these questions was presented by the famed hassidic master and one of the greatest lovers of Israel,[7] Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov (1740-1809).[8]

In a daring interpretation, classic to the hassidic approach toward Judaism, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak becomes the great “advocate” for the Jewish people, as he always was.

Here is what he suggests.

Two Natures

Some people seem to be naturally good, while others are forever struggling with negative character traits and ominous perversions. Some individuals have a serene inner landscape, while others are filled with trauma and toxicity. One individual is raised in a warm and loving home and, from earliest infancy, is impressed by educators and role-models exemplifying integrity, compassion, and idealism, while his fellow has only dysfunction and corruption to emulate.[9]

While the first person’s noble behavior is praiseworthy, he is emulating his parents and grandparents. Credit he deserves, for every person has free choice, but nonetheless, this person remains in his comfort zone. To apply business language: this man never started a new business; he took over a successful business from his father and continued to maintain it. He was born into success.

But the second fellow—ah, he owns everything he achieves. Every spiritual state he achieves he or she had to battle for. Nothing was given to him on a golden platter or any platter at all. He must reinvent himself.

Which category do the Jews fit into? Due to the holy ancestors of the Jewish people and their great leaders, it seemed like the acceptance of the Torah by Jews was as natural as water to a fish, a match made in heaven. The Jewish soul is a “Fragment of G-d,”[10] and the Jewish DNA was sculptured by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Torah for them is as organic as the piano to Mozart, the paintbrush to Van Gogh.

But then came the Golden Calf. Suddenly, a new story emerged. There were hidden demons and skeletons in the Jewish psyche that still needed purging. The Torah was far from organic. Merely 40 days after Sinai, they exploded. All the pressure of the new covenant with G-d “platzt” in their face and they ran to the other extreme. They chose temporary insanity. The rules got to them and they decided that for one day they will go back into the sandbox and rebel against everything. They simply wanted to hear of no yoke, no G-d, no destiny, no meaning, no purpose. What they wanted was unbridled anarchy, promiscuity, and endless frivolousness.[11]

What was now revealed was the brokenness of the Jewish people—the depth of their struggles. They had a long journey ahead of them. They were not the perfect dreamy spouse, where love, at first sight, translates into a lifelong romance. No! 40 days after their marriage they already had an “affair.” That’s pretty ugly. Some people, we know, are unfaithful in their marriage, but even in our morally depraved society, we are surprised to hear about a betrayal that took place merely five weeks after the wedding, in the middle of the honeymoon. Yet here, merely forty days after the grand marriage between G-d and the Jewish people, they have betrayed Him and engaged in idolatry.

Ah! What this brought out more than anything else is how much we ought to appreciate their initial commitment to G-d at Sinai. Seeing how low they fell only demonstrated the tremendous courage and faith the Jewish people professed previously as they said “we will do” and “we will hear” and embraced their destiny as the ambassadors of G-d in this world.

Gaining Perspective

This, says the Berditchover, is the meaning of the verse: On the day I make an accounting, I will bring their sin to account against them.

Throughout all of history, G-d promises, whenever I think of the Jewish people, I will recall the story of the Golden Calf—simply to give Me perspective. It will remind Me not to take them for granted! Not to just assume that Torah comes easy to them. That living a life of nobility, morality, justice, and ethical depth is a no-brainer. No! I will always remember how deeply they fell at that fateful moment and it will remind Me how much to appreciate all of their sacrifices, commitments, mitzvos, and their entire existence as My people.[12]

When they are doing something good, it will remind Me how much I ought to celebrate it and reward them for it, that I should never take their goodness for granted and assume that they could have not chosen any other path.[13]

And when they are failing, it will remind me how expected that is too.

It is a lesson for each of us. Next time you fail, instead of beating yourself up for it, cut yourself some slack. Let your very failure remind you to give yourself credit for all your good days and all your positive accomplishments.

World’s Worst Skier

The Washington Post ran this headline on Feb 22, 2017: “He may be ‘World’s Worst Skier,’ but this Venezuelan isn’t letting that stop him.”

Adrian Solano looked every bit a skier when he lined up for a cross-country race at the Nordic World Ski Championships in Finland, in February 2017.

But then he started moving.

Dressed head to toe in orange, the 22-year-old Venezuelan nearly fell as he tried to exit the starting gate. He wobbled again after he finally got going, only to topple over when he rounded one of the course’s first curves. This would happen repeatedly for the next 38 minutes till Solano’s time was up. Too far behind the leader, Croatia’s Kresimir Crnkovic, who finished the entire 10-kilometer ski course in 26:21.5, Solano’s race ended at the 3.5-kilometer mark.

I watched the video of this poor guy skiing. I have to tell you, it reminded me of myself. And that’s bad news! The guy kept on falling. And if you ever tried falling on the slopes again and again and again you know what a pain it is to simply lift yourself up and continue. Yet this guy continued the race, only to fall again.

And yet I saw something amazing: Judging from the width of the smile that stretched across Solano’s face as he slid to his finish, you’d have thought he won.

And in a way, maybe he did.

Since his lousy performance, a few years ago, Solano has shot to internet fame. While at first, he made the rounds on Twitter for being what many labeled “the world’s worst skier,” Solano has since become an inspirational tale. His videos and posts became an international tale of encouragement.

“Maybe I have fallen many times but what really counts is that I will always continue to rise,” Solano wrote, defending his performance, which by the way, was his first on snow.

“This motivates my desire to continue fulfilling my dreams and making my goals real,” he said in response to one of his Instagram followers cheering him on. “Let constancy and sacrifice move mountains.”

The Struggler

This man inspired so many because he is not a professional skier. He is actually clueless on the slopes. But he is working hard to develop the skill and it seems like he will get there one day.

This is a personal story for each of us. For some of us, it may be skiing, while for some of us it may be giving up drinking, smoking, gambling, sugar, or carbs. For some of us, it may be letting go of trauma, addiction, and resentments, giving up some immoral behavior. For others, it may be stopping to consume lobster or putting on the TV on Shabbos. For some of us, it may be controlling anger and the urge to insult or denigrate.

Whatever it may be, what inspires me—and what inspires G-d—is not when things just come easy and smooth. But when we fall on the slopes, and yet we rise again. To quote my new friend from Venezuela, “Let constancy and sacrifice move mountains.”

Or as Churchill put it: Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

The Mitzvah Reminds Me of the Sin

This beautifully explains the Talmudic interpretation of the verse: “Shall a woman forget her sucking child, from having mercy on the child of her womb? These too shall forget, but I will not forget you.” Says the Talmud: “These too shall forget,” represents the story of the Golden Calf. G-d “forgets” that story. “But I will not forget you,” refers to the events at Mt. Sinai, where the Jews embraced the Torah and entered into a covenant with G-d. That I will never forget.

G-d is saying that I will forget the Golden Calf. When people repent, I “forget” the sin. It gets completely erased. No future debts held. Yet when I remember Sinai, ah, then I will go back and remember the Golden Calf too! For it is the story of the Golden Calf that will put Sinai into perspective. It is the Golden Calf that will remind Me for all of eternity how much I need to appreciate the daily commitment of every Jew to do what G-d wants him or her to do in this world.


[1] Exodus 32:10

[2] This is from Sanhedrin 102a

[3] See at length Rambam Laws of Teshuvah.

[4] As the Tanys explains (Igeres Hatshuvah chapter 11), if there was even the slightest doubt if G-d forgives, we would not make a “Beracha levatalah,” a blessing in vain, saying “blessed are you G-d who increasing forgives.” It is obvious that His forgiveness is an absolute certainly without even the tiniest of doubts.

[5] Berachos 32b

[6] ברכות לב, ב: אמרה לפניו רבש"ע הואיל ואין שכחה לפני כסא כבודך שמא לא תשכח לי מעשה העגל, אמר לה (ישעי' מט, טו) גם אלה תשכחנה. אמרה לפניו רבש"ע הואיל ויש שכחה לפני כסא כבודך שמא תשכח לי מעשה סיני אמר לה (ישעי' שם) ואנכי לא אשכחך. והיינו דא"ר אלעזר א"ר אושעיא מאי דכתיב גם אלה תשכחנה זה מעשה העגל ואנכי לא אשכחך זה מעשה סיני

[7] See the Maamar of Rosh Hashanah 5741.

[8] Quoted in his name in Avodas Yisroel by the Kozhnitzer Maggid Parshas Balak. The insight is quoted and explained in Divrei Yoel Pashas Ki Sisa. A similar idea and theme were presented by the Rebbe in Sichas Shabbos Parshas Ki Sisa 5751 and Shabbos Parshas Shlach 5770.

[9] In the famed “Eight Chapters” of introduction to his commentary on the Talmud's Ethics of the Fathers, Maimonides describes two types of personalities: the ‘perfectly pious’ and the ‘one who conquers his inclinations.’ The ‘perfectly pious’ individual despises evil and desires only good; since evil does not entice him, his life's work consists only of increasing and enhancing the good in himself and the world. On the other hand, the ‘conqueror’ struggles with the negative in himself and his environment.

[10] Tanya ch. 2

[11] This is one of the deepest explanations in the sin of Golden Calf, presented by the Alter Rebbe (Maamarei Admur Hazaken Eshalech L’ozhnia).

[12] This may be the deeper meaning in Rashi as well. That at every future sin and punishment G-d will recall the story of the Calf to put the sin into perspective and context.

[13] In the Tanya, chapter 15, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, explains this way the strange Talmudic statement (Chagiga 9b), that “he who serves G-d” refers to one who revises his studies 101 times, while “he who serves Him not” refers to one who revises his studies only 100 times. It seems strange that this 101st revision should outweigh all the previous hundred, and should earn the student the designation of “he who serves G-d?” Why?

Says the Tanya, because in those Talmudic days, it was customary to review each lesson one hundred times. Thus, to review one hundred times did not require any unique effort; it was second nature. Only the 101st revision, which required effort beyond the student’s custom, could gain him the appellation of “he who serves G-d.”

The Talmud illustrates this by the analogy of the market of the donkey drivers. The drivers would charge one zuz for ten parsi (Persian miles) but demanded two zuz for driving 11 parsi. This does not make sense. You do not charge 100 dollars for ten miles, and 200 dollars for 11 miles!

The answer is because that one extra mile was outside the comfort zone of the donkey. Therefore, this 101st revision, which is beyond the normal practice to which the student has been accustomed since his childhood, is equivalent to all the previous one hundred revisions combined, in fact, its quality surpasses them in its greater strength and power, so that it is only this one extra revision which entitles the student to be called “he who serves G-d.”