The Sin Behind the Sin

Clinging To Bad Ideas

By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax Fl.

A distraught mother came running to a Chassidic Rebbe one day, weeping uncontrollably. “Rebbe,” she cried, “It’s my son; he went Meshuga. I think he needs a psychiatrist!” He’s really acting strange.”

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

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

The Rebbe pondered the crisis for a quiet moment. “My dear lady,” he then exclaimed, “If your son were dancing with pigs and dining on women, I’d say that he is in fact insane, but that’s not what you describe. The characteristics you present are that of ‘sin’ not ‘insanity.’

“I believe that your son has become a rather crude and lascivious young man and there is 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 explained in an awkward tone. “That explains one ear,” declared 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 a forty day hiatus. 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. Certain that they would never see Moshe again and 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 danger of the volatile atmosphere, Aharon attempted to stave off an outbreak of violence 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 highly cherished gold; the gold that represented their first taste of freedom in 210 years. And give they did – generously and passionately. They did not even bother with their spouses, they used their very own stash.

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 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 in the history of mankind. From the zenith of spiritual triumph slipped a nation into the pit of godlessness and sin – from the ultimate Divine embrace to the depth of Divine absence and shame. This was no doubt the epitome of human decline.

Yet, grave as it might be, sin is after all human and often explicable. There can, for example, be many causes for the downfall of the Jewish nation after their dramatic 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 trusted leader and prophet – was far too overwhelmed.

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

Then there was the mixed multitude factor. Great people as they were, moved to follow the Jewish Nation into the wilderness to an unknown destination and fate; they were particularly vulnerable when put through the trying experience.

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 may often times start-out as an error of judgment or simple weakness of character, at some point it becomes far more sinister. The weakness and misjudgment quickly loses its alleged innocence and inadvertence. Sooner or later it will become an obvious wrong. At that point, the perpetuation of the sin is no longer excusable. At that point it becomes an act of conscious 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 “merry,” connotes sexual immorality as well as bloodshed. (A brave and righteous man named Chur, who attempted to rebuke the people, was slain at that time).

In the above light their conduct has clearly evolved to something far different from where it may have all begun. As is typical with sin, what may have started in innocence or self-delusion, has soon spiraled into blatant idol worship, bloodshed, and sexual depravity. At this juncture there were no excuses. It was more than obvious that what was happening was mischief and rebellion at its worst.

It’s not what initiated the sin of the Golden Calf that constituted the true offense and transgression; it was rather the fact that they proceeded to clutch to this bad idea well after it’s evil and destructiveness was apparent as day.

How familiar is this pattern, how little has mankind learned from its own history. Much as with 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 original inspiration for which their followers are so culpable, it is rather because they have continued to cling to them well after their true harmful nature has been exposed.

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 defensively rationalizes and justifies his 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!