The Sin Behind the Sin

Clinging To Bad Ideas

By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax Fl.

Weeping uncontrollably a distraught mother one day called on a Chassidic Rebbe. “Rebbe,” she exclaimed, “It’s my son; he’s acting really strange; I think he needs a psychiatrist!”

“What’s the matter,” asked the Rebbe, visibly concerned.  

“The matter?” cried the woman, “he’s behaving like a lowlife! He was observed dancing with gentile women and dining on swine! I’m telling you, he went Mishuga.

The Rebbe pondered the crisis for a quiet moment. “My dear lady,” he then declared: The good news is that your son is far from Mishuga.”

“You see, if your son were dancing with pigs and dining on women, I’d say that he is indeed insane, but that’s not what you describe. The characteristics you present are that of ‘sinfulness’ not ‘insanity.’”

“No, no; your son is not crazy. He has rather become a crude and lascivious young man, and there’s nothing crazy about it. ”


Yankel appeared in Shul one day with both his ears heavily bandaged. “I was ironing a shirt when the phone rang,” he sheepishly explained. “That explains one ear,” blurted a fellow congregant, “But what about the other?” “My luck,” came the reply, “the guy decided to call back.”


“It happened as [Moshe] drew near the camp - he saw the calf and the dances that Moshe’s anger flared up. He threw down the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.” (Exodus 12:19-20)

The afternoon of the day that the Torah was given, Moshe ascended Mount Sinai for forty days of solitude. He spent his time in absolute spiritual immersion; studying the newly received code with its Divine author. Waiting impatiently at the foot of the mountain, the Jewish nation mistakenly anticipated Moshe’s arrival on the thirty ninth day.

According to their miscalculation, Moshe had tarried in his return from the mountaintop. His absence led them to conclude that he was no longer alive and that they would never see him again. Certain that they were left abandoned and leaderless in the desert, the Israelites, edged-on by the “mixed multitude” (the Egyptian converts who joined the Jewish nation at the time of the exodus), panicked and completely lost their footing.    

The people proceeded to press Aharon, who was left holding the bag, demanding that he produce for them “a G‑d that will go before us.” Sensing the rebellious atmosphere and volatile circumstances, Aharon attempted to stave off an outbreak of anarchy and idol worship by stalling for time. He requested that they donate their most prized possessions; the gold and silver garnered from the Egyptians, which now adorned their women and children.

Yet, instead of the anticipated reluctance and procrastination, there was no time wasted. In a most unexpected response to Aharon’s appeal, the men gave of their own highly cherished gold; the gold that represented their first taste of freedom in 210 years. They did not even bother with their spouses; they used their very own stash.  And gave they did; generously and passionately.

Aharon took the gold and heaved it into a large fire, with the unsolicited help of a few sorcerers, a Golden Calf emerged. Aharon set-out to build an altar before it. Hoping to buy some more time, he declared “A celebration for G‑d tomorrow.” Perhaps by then Moshe will have returned.

But once again the people wasted no time. They arose early in the morning, brought sacrifices and began to celebrate. They danced around their newly created deity(s) and shouted, “These are your gods which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:8)

And so came about the most precipitous fall from grace and splendor in the history of mankind. From the zenith of holiness and purity slipped a nation into the pit of godlessness and sin – from the ultimate Divine embrace to the depth of spiritual dearth and abyss. This, no doubt, was the epitome of human plummet and decline.

Yet, grave as it might be, sin is after all human and often explicable. There can, for example, be many causes for the dramatic downfall of the Jewish nation after their remarkable rise.

It may well be argued that after experiencing the highest level of Divine revelation and ecstasy during the giving of the Torah, the nation, having been forced back so drastically to a more mundane reality – made to wait 40 days without setting eyes on their revered leader and prophet – found themselves particularly susceptible and overwhelmed.

Their desire to draw close to G‑d was exceedingly powerful and Moshe had become the facilitator of this passion. One can imagine that every moment waiting for Moshe was like eternity. Another moment was just too long.

Additionally, they were subjected to the mixed multitude factor. Great people as they were, moved to follow the Jewish Nation into the wilderness to an unknown destination and fate; these fellows were exceptionally vulnerable when faced with the trying experience at hand.

Having lived in relative comfort in Egypt; always under the hegemony and protection of a so called god, they fared the worst. They quickly lapsed into their old habits and wavered in their commitment.

It can hence be understood how the Children of Israel would fall prey to the provocations of this internal influence. Given the above, why was this sin considered so insidious? And what is it about sin in general that is so despised in the eyes of G‑d? Considering our human vulnerabilities, sin seems somewhat natural, perhaps even inevitable?

The answer is that while sin is often times born out of simple weakness of character or error of judgment, such weakness and misjudgment quickly loses its alleged innocence and inadvertence. Sooner or later it becomes an obvious wrong. At that point, the perpetuation of the sin is no longer excusable. At that juncture it becomes a far more sinister act of conscious, wanton rebellion and willful indulgence.    

This phenomenon is precisely what is described in this week’s Parsha, Ki Sisa: "On the next day,” states the verse, “They arose early, offered up burnt offerings . . . And the people sat down to eat and to drink, and they arose to ‘make-merry’.” Rashi notes that the word “Make-merry,” connotes sexual immorality as well as bloodshed. (A brave and righteous man named Chur, who attempted to rebuke the people, was slain at the hands of the incited mob).

In the above light their conduct has clearly spiraled to something far different from where it may have all begun. As is typical with sin, what may have started in explicable error and delusion, has soon deteriorated into blatant rebellion, including the most cardinal transgressions; adultery, idol worship, and bloodshed. At this point-in-time-there were no excuses. It was more than obvious that what was happening was wayward and rebellious.

It’s not what initiated the sin of the Golden Calf that constitutes its gravest offense and transgression; it was rather the fact that they proceeded to clutch to this bad idea well after it’s malevolence and defiance was apparent as day.

How familiar is this pattern, how little has mankind learned from its own history. Much as with the prototype of transgression, the sin of the Golden Calf, Communism, various destructive forms of Socialism and secular Zionism, as well as some forms of modern Judaism may have all been conceived in purity or innocence – or at the very least weakness and confusion – but have soon proven to be very bad and destructive ideas.

It is not their original inspiration that has made them so harmful, it is not their initial motivation for which their admirers are forever culpable; it is rather because they have continued to cling to them well after their ruinous and harmful nature has become exposed and clear as the light of day.  

Although weakness, or ignorance, cannot be condoned, especially when it results in the violation of moral and Torah law, still, one who admits he has sinned at least has the opportunity to correct his behavior and minimize the harm. This is not possible when one defiantly rationalizes, justifies and otherwise cleaves to his blatantly erroneous ways.

If only we had learned the simple lessons from the prototype of transgression – the sin of “The Golden Calf” – how different the course of history may have been.

It’s not too late!

May G‑d awaken us with an inspiration from above and open our hearts and minds to the truth of his ways and to complete repentance. This will certainly hasten the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.

The author welcomes your input and feedback: [email protected]