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Don’t be a bystander

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil  is that good men (and women) do nothing (authorship uncertain.)

A Second Honeymoon

This week’s sidra opens with Moses assembling the whole nation.  According to all our major commentators, it occurred on what we now know as 11th Tishri, the day after Yom Kippur. I still recall Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovitz zl quipping, at a rabbinic conference, that any rabbi can summon his flock on Yom Kippur but only a Moses can assemble three million people the day after!

The previous day, Moses had successfully brought down from Sinai the second Luchot (tablets of stone). Eighty days earlier, when he had descended with the first set, he had witnessed his people out of control, magnetised by a golden calf. As a result, he shattered the tablets, graphically enacting the breach of the covenant between G-D and Israel.  However, G-D gives second chances.  Thanks to Moses’ impassioned prayer and the nation’s remorse, the covenant was repaired. This time when Moses came down, there was no golden calf.  Rambam writes that teshuva is effected when the same conditions and the same temptation presents itself as previously, but now sin is resisted. The people had atoned for their sin. And so, 10th Tishri became Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for all time!

A huge question however remains.  What exactly was the nature of the cheit ha-eigel, the sin of the golden calf?  Did 600,000 men (we know from the Midrash that the valiant womenfolk had no part in the sin), including sterling characters like Nachshon, Caleb, Uri, Bezalel and Aholiav, really dance around the image of a cow?  If so, how is it that only “about three thousand men” (Ex. 32:28) died as a punishment?  These were mainly the eruv rav, the opportunistic rabble of Egyptian hangers-on who joined the Israelite exodus.

For what were the rest of the people atoning? For what wrongdoing did G-D threaten initially to annihilate the entire nation? (32:10)?

G-D holds Tsadikim to Higher Standards.

Throughout Tanach, we see that G-D demands more of the righteous. Indeed, because He holds tsadikim to higher standards, the Torah will often exaggerate their transgressions.

A clear example of this is the unsavoury incident in Sefer Bereshit involving Reuven. We are told (35:22) that he “went and slept with Bilha, his father’s concubine, and Israel (Jacob) heard all about it”. Yet  the very same verse (albeit separated by a gap, symbolising perhaps a suspensive dot-dot-dot) continues “But the sons of Jacob remained twelve”. Had Reuven actually slept with his stepmother – an act forbidden even for Noachides – he would assuredly have been disowned by his father who would now have reckoned his sons as only eleven. What Reuven did was to audaciously move his father’s bed from Bilha’s tent to his mother Leah’s as a gesture of filial loyalty to his mother. This was a presumptuous act, but nowhere near on the level of adultery. Yet such is the hyperbolic manner in which the Torah depicts it!

Let’s look at Moses and Aaron!  In Numbers 20:12, Moses is accused by G-D of not believing in Him! Had Moshe Rabeinu become an atheist all of a sudden? Obviously not! But he disobeyed G-D by striking a rock instead of speaking to it and, on his exalted level, it was regarded as though he had denied Him.  And returning to the episode which is the core of our study. Aaron is portrayed as though he made the calf (Ex. 32:4). If he had done so, it is inconceivable he would have been “rewarded” by being appointed the Kohen Gadol!  Indeed, the truth is revealed in Aaron’s own account (32:24). He just “threw it [the gold] into the fire and the calf emerged [through the sorcery of the Egyptian mixed-multitude]” But tsadikim are judged to a hairsbreadth, and the sin of actually making the calf is imputed by the Torah to Aaron!

To resume our main theme: following the Revelation at Sinai and the declaration of na’aseh ve-nishma, Am Yisrael were a nation of tsadikim. How is it conceivable that they could have fallen so low just forty days later as to worship an idol?

The answer is that they didn’t. Only 3,000 were executed while a small additional number died in a plague. These were the ones guilty of idolatry.  Yet originally, before Moses’ desperate plea, G-D accuses the entire nation of idol-worship and threatens to annihilate it totally (Ex. 32:8-10). What was the nature of their transgression that it was equated with idolatry itself?

They Stood On The Sidelines And Did Nothing

In Sefer Toda’a, R’ Eliahu Kitov (1912-1976) draws on Midrashim based on the verse “the people let loose into an undisciplined rabble” (32:25) to show that, apart from the small number – mainly the eruv rav as we said – who had lapsed into actual idolatry, there were different factions within the people. One group refused to take part but were tolerant of the spectacle and maybe even embraced it. Another group “sat on the fence”, as it were, and declined to take a stand.  A third group were ideologically opposed what was happening but said “there’s no point in trying to stop them, they’re too far gone!” All the groups had one thing in common: They wouldn’t get involved. When Moses asked for unequivocal support, only the Levites flocked to his banner! (Ex. 32:26).

In short, the vast majority of Am Yisrael became a nation of bystanders.  And it seems that it was this that infuriated G-D and caused Him to threaten their annihilation, prevented only by Moses’ impassioned pleas and the people’s teshuva. (See Sforno on Ex. 32:27).

The Face At The Window

Elie Wiesel famously said “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference …We must always take sides …[and] sometimes we must intervene”. In his masterpiece of a novel The Town Beyond The Wall, he speaks of “the face at the window across the way …indifferent. [I]t’s not my fault, is it now!  I didn’t make the decision …It was no concern of his … A spectator, that’s what he was!”

Wiesel was, of course, speaking as arguably the most eloquent survivor of the Nazi Holocaust.  But the principle pertains generally.  Indifference to murder, to persecution, to genocide, to abuse and, yes, to immorality and depravity is akin to perpetration of these evils.  No human would dare say so but for the fact that the Torah does!

And We?

We live in a confused and brutal age.  We are confronted everywhere with the spectre of conflict and abuse – international, intra-national, political, technological, intra-familial and intra-communal. We are witnessing a level of anti-Jewish hatred in certain circles which even five years ago would have been unthinkable. How is it possible that a body such as Amnesty International, a so-called human rights organisation, can spew such risible malicious and slanderous hatred against one small democratic Jewish state nestled among 22 Arab states many of which deny Jews residency or equality? How have the hard Left succeeded in hoodwinking the many into believing that bad is good and vice-versa? How have they so grievously triumphed in undermining the family unit, gender differentiation, individual freedom and autonomy, morality, everything on which the bedrock of Judeo-Christian ethics rested.

But worst of all, how is it that the many have been browbeaten into silence? Into apathy and indifference? Into believing we as individuals cannot make a difference?  How is it that we as a Jewish nation can remain silent in the face of international hate-ridden defamation of Israel?  How can we stand on the sidelines and just watch the moral fabric of society, as we used to know it being torn apart?  Just like those who stood by at the chet ha-egel and said “there’s no point in protesting” or, worse, “it’s not my concern” or, worse still, “we need to be tolerant” or, yet worse, “let’s embrace it!”

G-D expects more from us!  We are His chosen nation. Chosen not for any privilege or prestige but rather to serve as His ambassadors in a faithless world.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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