How Could They Fall So Low?

This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Ki Tisa, relates the sin of the Golden Calf. While Moshe (Moses) was absent from the camp of the Jews, the Jews gave up on him returning, and turned to idol worship. The verse says (Shemot 32:8), “They quickly strayed from the way which I commanded them; they made a calf of metal.”

This episode took place just a short while after receiving the Torah, a most lofty experience. How did it happen that they fell so quickly from such a high level of spirituality, down to one of the worst sins? Moreover, asks Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, we usually find that the tactic of the Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) is to lead a person slowly down a slippery slope to sin. The Yetzer Hara knows he has no way of causing someone to commit a sin which is out of a person’s realm to consider. How did the Yetzer Hara succeed here in causing them to sin on a level which seems completely out of bounds for people of such high spiritual status?

When Confusion Reigns, the Yetzer Hara Strikes

Rabbi Shumelevitz offers the following explanation (in Sichot Mussar): Our Sages (Shabbat, 89a) tell us that a great confusion took place at that time. Moshe had told the nation that he would return after forty days. The Jews had miscalculated the days, and were wondering why Moshe hadn’t come yet. The Satan (the angel who provokes man to sin) came to the Jews and asked them, “Where is Moshe your Rabbi?” They answered him, “He went up to Heaven [to study Torah].” The Satan replied, “The time has come already!” but they did not pay attention to him. Next, the Satan said, “Moshe died!” But they continued to ignore him. Then, the Satan showed them a vision of Moshe lying dead on a bed. That is when they broke, which led to the sin of the Golden Calf.

When a person is confused and overwhelmed, explains Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, the Yetzer Hara can overpower him and drag him down very quickly. While generally speaking, a person doesn’t plunge quickly to low levels of sin, there is an exception. If the Yetzer Hara succeeds in getting a person into a state of confusion in which he feels overwhelmed and unsure of himself, a person is liable to commit sins he never would have considered doing otherwise. A person must be extra vigilant about keeping his values at times when he feels unsettled and overcome with emotion. When a person experiences confusion, he must remain on guard to avoid letting the Yetzer Hara take control over him.

The Almost-Missed Train

In the turmoil of World War II, the Brisker Rav had fled from his town of Brisk, in Poland, to Vilna, Lithuania. But, soon after, Vilna was taken under Russian control, and the communist government was making it very difficult to practice Judaism. Through much effort, he succeeded in securing visas to allow him and the children he had with him to travel to the land of Israel. These visas were valid for only a short window of time. A Jew in town, Moshe Prager, offered the Rabbi to take his luggage to the train station on the designated day of departure. The man came and took their luggage, and the family made their way to the train station.

While they were on their way, they were stopped by some people who informed them that Moshe was in trouble. The Russian police had stopped him and suspected him of smuggling illegal merchandise, based on the fact that he had so many packages on his wagon. The only way they would free him is if the Brisker Rav would go and attest to the truth that he was bringing their belongings for their journey. This was not simple. If they missed the train, the whole escape would be canceled. Despite the urgency to make the train, the Brisker Rav knew that he owed it to Moshe to get him out of trouble, and he went to testify. The family was waiting anxiously by the train which was about to leave without them. At the last second, he returned to the station.

Be On Guard!

This principle can be very challenging to put into practice. When people are hit with unexpected circumstances, they tend to lose their equilibrium and react in ways they would never do otherwise. They get upset, causing them to lash out and act cruelly. Experiencing disappointment, they tend to feel excused in pursuing their desires in improper ways, to make up for their disappointment. When a person feels his respect or views are challenged, his ego can push him to react with an attitude which blinds him of all logic and consideration of reality.

But even when a person becomes overwhelmed with emotion, he must still be on guard of his behavior. It is precisely in these situations that the Yetzer Hara is out to drag us down beneath our morals. We must remember that in every situation, we must still take control of ourselves, and act to the best of our ability according to the will of God.

By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber

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