Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            The Jews in the desert were a tough group.  We are told that they tested God ten times.  Although there are arguments (Nu, you expected differently?) about how to count these ten challenges to God and the Divine authority, everyone agrees that the two biggies were the Sin of the Golden Calf and the Sin of the Spies.  That second one, of course, appears in this week's Torah reading.  These two transgressions are far and away the most dominant pieces of the Israelites backslidings.  I believe that it behooves us to analyze those two incidents to understand the nature of the failure, and try to see when our behavior mimics that of our misguided ancestors.  Even though our world is always progressing scientifically and technologically, the one constant is human nature, so understanding their behavior should hold clues to ours.

            These two sins were so horrendous that in these two cases, and them alone, God threatens to erase the Jewish people.  After the Golden Calf it says: Now leave me alone so my fierce anger can blaze against them, and I will destroy them. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation (exodus 32:10).  In this week's parsha, after the sin of the spies it again says:  How long will these people treat me with contempt? Will they never believe me, even after all the miraculous signs I have done among them? I will disown them and destroy them with a plague. Then I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they are (Numbers 14:11-12).  And since the ramifications of these offenses continued to reverberate throughout the ages, King David wrote about them centuries later:  The people made a calf at Mount Sinai; they bowed before an image made of gold.

They traded their glorious God for a statue of a grass-eating bull… So He declared that He would destroy them.  But Moses, His chosen one, stepped between the Lord and the people.  He begged Him to turn from His anger and not destroy them. The people refused to enter the pleasant land, for they wouldn't believe His promise to care for them. Instead, they grumbled in their tents and refused to obey the Lord.  Therefore, He solemnly swore that He would kill them in the wilderness, that He would scatter their descendants among the nations, exiling them to distant lands (Psalms 106:19-20, 23-27).  King David, not only explains the nature of each crime, but also observes that the future exiles and tribulations of the nation were a consequence of the original refusal to go into Israel.

            Both of these horrendous events are followed by a strenuous defense of the nation by the faithful shepherd, Moshe.  These pleas on behalf of our ancestors are accepted in majestic proclamations by God which become famous refrains during the High Holiday season.  After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe declares:  For You have forgiven our iniquities and transgressions; now take us Your own (Exodus 34:9).  And in this week's parsha God proclaims:  I forgive them, honoring your words (Numbers 14:20).

            Now here is my question:  what is there about these two incidents which demand this triple scenario of terrifying threat, abject supplication and then splendid clemency?  Even though the sins seem to be very different, there are striking parallels within them.  After all the sin of idolatry doesn't seem to have much in common with the sin of not moving to Israel.  Most of us don't even consider failure to make Aliyah a sin at all.  However, the circumstances surrounding these incidents do have common threads.

            First of all, both of these disappointing scenarios involved big time failures of leadership.  Aharon did lend his expertise to the fashioning of the Golden Calf.  And, even though we believe that his participation was reluctant, we would like to think that his leadership could have been expressed more positively.  In this week's story the entire disaster was precipitated by ten of the twelve tribal leaders strongly advising the nation to spurn the Promised Land.  Not much leadership there.

            But I think that the crucial point of commonality between these two stories has to do with timing.  Both sins occurred on the threshold of greatness.  There were the Jews at the foot of Mount Sinai rolling back generations of depravity, ready to usher in a new era of spirituality and human cooperation with God.  The Jews at that moment were compared to Adam and Eve before the taint of primordial fall.  And it was a brief moment before we, too, failed this test of greatness.  In this week's Torah reading, again the Jews were poised to initiate a new era in government and politics.  That Ninth of Av could have become the anniversary of the inauguration of the Messianic Period.  Instead it's become the date of disappointment, doom, and destruction.  What an historic let down and failure!   We judge leaders and even athletes by how they perform at crunch time.  True excellence is often judged by how one responded in the clutch.  Did he hit the buzzer beater?  How did he pitch, hit or field in the bottom of the ninth (Here I mean the inning, not the month of Av, but I believe they do have this in common.)?

            This helps to explain why these sins have captured the imagination of the nation for all these centuries and why King David many generations later continued to feel their impact.  And, indeed, these sins continue to inform our calendar and psyche.  We still fast on the anniversaries of these sins (Seventeenth of Tammuz and Ninth of Av).  While the other eight transgressions of the desert are without date or modern commemoration.

            So, what can learn from all this?  Of course, don't worship idols or denigrate the Land of Israel.  But, more fundamentally, be your best when the chips are down.  That's true of all human endeavor, but is even more critical when the issue involves the destiny of the Jewish people.               

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