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Chet Ha'Egel: From Flying to Falling (Parshas Ki Sisa)

parsha sefer shemos Mar 03, 2021


He had been controlling himself for so long, had come so far, but he just couldn't hold himself back anymore. Everyone else was asleep, so no one else would even have to know. Internally, he was struggling, pulled in every direction, unable to make a decision. On the one hand, there was a convincing and confident voice persuading him to do it, to give in to the urge. "If you eat it, it will feel so good"! On the other hand, there was a quieter, more subtle voice attempting to use reason and judgment. "But this is ridiculous. It's wrong, destructive, childish, just foolish. You've done this before, and hated yourself afterwards; you felt disgusted, ashamed. You know that you'll feel the very same way in about five minutes if you do it again. This has never ended well for you." As a bead of sweat drips down the side of his cheek and he stares at the chocolate cake, he tries to weigh his options.

Before he can really get a handle on the situation, the confident voice pipes up again, this time sounding even more convincing than the first time. "Just think about how good it will feel. You only live once. Who really cares about the consequences? How can you not do this?!" Suddenly, the second voice stops giving good answers. (Or maybe he's just not listening anymore.) Now, he only sees one side of the equation. He lets desire cloud his judgement. With a feeling of resignation, he gives in to temptation. If he had been watching someone else do this same act, he would have been screaming at the top of his lungs for them to stop this insanity. But he has become blinded by desire, lured into the trap of instant gratification, and has fallen prey to his lower self. A moment later, he awakens from his intellectual slumber, regains awareness, and, as his higher self predicted, looks in the mirror with total disgust and revulsion, promising himself it won't happen again. He can't bear the hypocrisy, the two-faced-ness. For a moment, he does not look at himself from within, but from without, as an onlooker, an observer, and he does not like what he sees.

Maybe he has some chocolate cake on his mouth after breaking his diet, or maybe it was something else. The details are not important. This is the story of life: struggle, sometimes with small defeats, and other times small victories. Most of life is fighting for inches. We take a step forward, then two steps back; three steps forward, another one back. Life tends not to be about giant leaps or falls, but rather a question of inches. This being the case, we need to take a deeper look at the events in Parshas Ki Sisa.


Chet Ha'Egel


Chet Ha'Egel, the sin of the golden calf, is perhaps the most infamous event in the Torah, a sin compared to the original sin of Adam Ha'Rishon and one that has repercussions throughout Jewish history. Yet what is most striking about this sin is not the act itself, but its timing. The Jewish People had just experienced the fantastic miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim (the exodus from Egypt), the earth-shattering wonders of Kriyas Yam Suf (splitting of the Red Sea), and had just received the Torah from Hashem Himself. They were elevated to the angelic state of Adam Ha'Rishon before he ate from the eitz ha'da'as, and were therefore able to eat the angelic food of manna, which the Ramban explains was crystalized, condensed shechinah. As Rashi quotes[1], even the maidservants at Kriyas Yam Suf received prophecy, and had a higher level of understanding of Hashem than Yechezkel - who saw an image of Hashem Himself. If so, how could the Jewish People commit such a terrible sin at this moment? Even worse, they not only committed this sin immediately following Matan Torah, but in the very same spot, Har Sinai, the very place where we “married” Hashem! Chazal compare this to a kallah (bride) who betrays her husband under the chupah! As the pasuk[2] says, they strayed “quickly". How could Klal Yisrael fall so rapidly and drastically right after Matan Torah?




While this requires a much lengthier discussion, let us briefly explain the sin of idolatry. Many think of idolatry as the worship of statues and inanimate objects. However, any intelligent person can see that a piece of wood or stone carved out by a human being could not possibly hold any power over him. The deeper understanding behind the worship of idolatry, as the Rambam[3], Ramchal[4], and many others explain, is the worshiping of intermediaries instead of sourcing oneself back to Hashem Himself. Hashem created the world in such a way that there are levels of reality. Hashem is the ultimate Source, and the intermediaries receive energy from Him, which they then manifest into the world.[5] Avodah zarah is when you don't recognize Hashem as the source, but rather trace things back only as far as the intermediaries. The statues that idolaters "worship" are merely tangible representations of the higher forces they serve.[6]


Serving Yourself


What is the purpose of idol worship? What compels a person to commune with the intermediaries rather than seeking the ultimate root, Hashem Himself? The answer is simple. Why go back to the source when you can get everything you need from a middle man, especially if the middle man demands so little in return? True service of Hashem means a life of obligation, whereas idolatry is one of entitlement and freedom from obligation[7].

The mechanism of avodah zarah can be compared to a man who walks into a large store and sees an expensive item he desperately desires. He isn’t willing to pay its $1,500 price tag though, so he walks over to the cashier and makes a proposition: "I'll slip you $150, and you can quietly pass over the goods." In other words, this man wants the goods, but he isn't willing to pay for them! Instead, he tries to cut a deal with the middleman. So too, idolatry was man's way of receiving “the goods” without paying for them. Why go all the way to Hashem to ask for rain, health, and prosperity, when that would demand a life of obligation in return? 

However, avoiding Hashem in this way, avoiding the truth, is the absolute worst sin in the entire Torah. The prohibition against avodah zarah is the first mitzvah lo sa'aseh (negative commandment), in the Aseres Hadibros. As many commentators explain, avodah zarah is the root of all the other negative commandments. All other sins are merely a subcategory of idolatry, whereby you serve your own selfish needs and desires instead of sourcing yourself back to Hashem.[8] The sin of the golden calf was the worshipping of idolatry, which means that the Jewish People went from the highest of highs to the lowest of the low in mere moments. This completely contradicts our starting principle,[9] that spiritual falls occur slowly, in small steps. How did this happen?


Minimizing the Sin


Some commentators, such as the Ramban and Rav Yehuda Ha'Levi[10] suggest that the Jewish People did not commit genuine idolatry. Rather, after Moshe Rabbeinu failed to descend from Har Sinai, the Jewish People believed that their leader, who served as the medium of connection between them and Hashem, was gone forever. In desperation, they attempted to create a new physical medium of connection, the golden calf. This idea itself is not inherently wrong, as we see in just a few parshios that the Jews are told to build an aron, a physical vessel, to serve as a connection between them and Hashem. The aron had two keruvim (cherubs) on top of them, and the Torah states explicitly that Hashem spoke to Moshe through the keruvim.[11] The Ramban and Rav Yehuda Ha'levi therefore explain that the problem was not the motive, but the method of achieving their goal. Because Hashem did not command them to create a physical medium of connection, it was inappropriate for them to do so.[12] It is clear, though, that the Ramban and Rav Yehuda Ha'Levi downplay the severity of the Chet Ha'Egel and do not view it as a transgression of the prohibition of avodah zarah.


Genuine Idolatry


However, many commentators, including Rashi, believe that the Chet Ha’Egel was genuine idolatry. This means that immediately following Matan Torah, the Jewish People fell prey to the worst sin imaginable, avodah zarah, failing to source themselves back to Hashem. According to this line of thinking, we are back to our original problem: how did the Jewish People, who had achieved such great spiritual heights, undergo such a rapid, astounding fall? Spiritual falls tend to occur slowly, in small steps. In this case, however, the Jewish People went straight from the highest of heights to the lowest of lows, from angelic to broken. How did this happen?


Nekudas Ha'Bechirah: The Normal Process of Life


In Michtav Mei'Eliyahu, Rav Eliyahu Dessler analyzes one of the foundational concepts of human experience. He explains that while human beings have free will, the locus of free will (the nekudas ha’bechirah) exists at a specific point, unique to each of us. The average person does not struggle with the desire to push down an old lady on the street and steal her purse. Similarly, most of us do not feel an overwhelming compulsion to murder. We do not live at such a base level, and we have no desire to. At the same time, most of us are not yet at the level where we strive for complete control over every thought that enters our minds, or to refrain from speaking a single unnecessary word. We simply do not live on such a transcendent, angelic plane.

Most of humanity lies somewhere along the middle of the spectrum. Our point of free will is located in the decision sphere of whether or not to gossip, to hit snooze, to give charity, to smile, to eat right. These are the battles of inches; sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. Each time that we confront one of these challenges, we engage in this internal battle. On the outside we may give nothing away, but within each of our minds exists a fierce battle for spiritual ground, a battle of will, a battle for eternity. If we push hard enough at one of these fronts, it will eventually become second nature, and what was once a struggle will become a sure victory. But if we lose the battle, we retreat a step or two.

This battle is constant, a series of tiny gains and losses. No single battle has a major impact on our spiritual level, but if we accumulate enough victories, we can maintain steady progress forward. This road is a slow one, but if we continue to push, we slowly grow. The same is true of spiritual falls: they are slow and steady, with inches slowly slipping away.[13] However, there is one exception to this pattern.


The Exception: Loss of Self


When we lose our identity, our sense of self, we can go from great to nothing in an instant. Instead of climbing down the ladder one rung at a time, we plunge off the ladder completely. This is because the battle of will is composed of two forces: our higher self, which raises us up, and our lower self, which drags us down. Normally, each of these two forces push at full force, leading to a constant battle for inches in the journey of growth. Sometimes our higher self gains ground with small achievements, and sometimes our lower self gains ground through minor slip-ups.

However, in times of panic, moments of emotional or psychological instability, or instances of crippling self-doubt, we often completely fall apart. In these moments, it is possible to completely lose our sense of identity, and with it, our entire foundation of self and sense of purpose. The positive force that propels us forward and lifts us upward disappears, and all that remains in its wake is the overwhelming drive of the lower self. In these rare instances, the lower self asserts its influence with nothing to push back against it. The results are cataclysmic: we will plummet faster than we imagined possible into the very lowest state of existence.


Explaining the Egel


The Jewish People were indeed on the loftiest of levels, in a state we can hardly imagine. They had just witnessed earth-shattering miracles and received the Torah from Hashem Himself on Har Sinai. And yet, they lost their identity, their very sense of self, when they believed that Moshe, their leader, had died. Even after the transcendent experiences of Yetzias Mitzrayim and Matan Torah, this was enough to cripple them. Moshe served as their teacher and leader, their link to these events, and when he failed to descend the mountain, they felt as though they had been cut off from that which made them great. 

Upon experiencing this loss of identity, they felt a moment of sheer panic - of internal chaos - and lost all sense of self. With such a negative drive pushing them down, and no positive force to counter it, they fell straight from greatness to the lowest depths. It was there that they did the unthinkable: they served idolatry, a complete abandonment of their spiritual ideals.


The Sliding Affect


One of the hardest parts of a dramatic fall is that once it begins, it's very hard, in fact seemingly impossible, to halt its progress. Even after a small failure, many people tend to give up. They fail, but then make the mistake of branding themselves as a failure. They mistaken their single act of failure as a new identity, a characterization of failure. Now, when they look in the mirror, they see failure. This is one of the yetzer hara’s (evil inclination’s) brilliant strategies: he hits us when we’re already down. Once we slip up, he grabs the opportunity to convince us that we are a failure.

This is the explanation of the pasuk, "A tzaddik falls seven times and rises”.[14] We all fall. The key to greatness is not about preventing the fall, since it's all but guaranteed that we will fall at some point in our lives. The key to greatness is how we respond when we fall. A rasha (sinner) is someone who falls once, but then never picks himself up. One slip cascades into an eternal tumble, an increasingly darker state of existence, to the point that its almost unstoppable. A tzaddik, however, catches his fall. He stumbles, fights to find his footing, regains composure, redirects his consciousness, and then begins to climb again. Just like a cat always lands on its feet, a great person positions himself to always bounce back from a fall. A tzaddik is not great despite having fallen seven times, he is great because of his falls, because of how he rises from them. These falls help him learn more about who he is, train him to persevere, and bring out aspects of his potential that he never even knew existed.[15]

May we all be inspired to push forward in life, to embrace the internal battle of will that exists within each of us, and to rise up every time we fall. We will fall, that is not the question. The question is whether we'll get back up, whether we'll learn from our mistakes, whether we'll rebuild momentum, and how we’ll use our falls in order to rise even higher. Let's choose greatness, let's assert our willpower, and let's endlessly strive for more.


[1] Shemos 15:2.

[2] Shemos 32:8.

[3] Mishneh Torah- Avodah Zarah- 1st chapter.

[4] Derech Hashem.

[5] For more on this concept, see chapter on Parshas Metzora, section “Oneg: Ideal Flow.”

[6] See chapter on Parshas Matos for a deeper explanation as to why nowadays we no longer have the desire to worship idolatry.

[7] Similarly, the psychological draw to nihilism is freedom from obligation. A religious life is one of obligation (to the truth), and where everything in one’s life has meaning. A life of nihilism is one of no obligation, but where nothing in one’s life has meaning. The trade off for freedom of obligation is a life of slavery to emptiness. One who is a slave to the truth, who embraces obligation, is truly free.

[8] See chapter on Parshas Yisro, section: “Emanation.”

[9] See the end of the introductory story.

[10] Sefer Ha’Kuzari.

[11] Terumah 25:22.

[12] This connects to the deep topic of gadol ha'metzuveh mi’mi she'aino metzuveh, greater is one who is commanded and does something than someone who does it of his own volition. Sometimes, taking the initiative into your own hands reflects ego and self-assertion, as opposed to selfless devotion. For a fuller discussion on this topic, see chapter on Parshas Shemini, section: “Gadol Ha'Metzuveh Mi’Mi She'Aino Metzuveh”.

[13] Life is never static. We are either moving forward or being pushed backward. Essentially, life is like walking up a downwards escalator. If we stand still, we move downwards; if we walk at a steady pace, we tend to stay in the same general location- maybe a few steps up or a few steps down every now and again. Only when we push with all our inner will can we progress forward in a significant way.

[14] Mishlei 24:16.

[15] For more on the purpose of challenges, see chapter on Parshas Vayeshev.


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