Shmuel Reichman
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From Flying to Falling: The Raging Battle Within Us All (Parshat Ki Tisa)

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פורסם על ידי ‏‎Shmuel Reichman Inspiration: Think-Feel-Grow‎‏ ב- יום רביעי, 20 בפברואר 2019

He had been controlling himself for so long, had come so far, but he just couldn’t control himself anymore. Everyone else was asleep, so no one else would even know. Internally, he was struggling, being 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 On the other hand, there was a quieter and more withdrawn voice attempting to use reason and judgment.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 convincing and confident voice pipes up again, this time sounding even more sure 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 one final expression of will, 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 this fool to stop this insanity. But he has become blinded by desire, lured into the trappings of instant gratification, and has fallen prey to his lower self. A moment later, he awakens from this intellectual slumber, regains awareness, and, as his higher self predicted, he 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 aren’t so 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 game of inches. This being the case, we need to take a deeper look at the events in this week’s parsha.

  1. Chet Ha’Egel

The 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. Yet, what is so striking about this sin is not only the act itself as much as the timing. The Jewish people had just experienced the miracles of yetzias Mitzrayim, leaving Egypt, the wonders of kriyas yam suf, the splitting of 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 shechinah. As Rashi quotes (Shemos 15:2), even a maidservant, at kriyat yam suf received prophecy and had a higher level of understanding of Hashem than Yechezkel- who saw an image of Hashem Himself. If so, then 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, the very place where we married Hashem! Chazal compare this to a kallah, a bride, who betrays her husband right under the chupah itself! As the passuk says (Shemos 32:8), they strayed “quickly”. How could Klal Yisrael fall so rapidly and drastically right after Matan Torah?

  1. Idolatry

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, anyone with even a small ounce of intellect can see that a piece of wood or stone carved out by man himself could not possibly hold any power. The deeper understanding behind the worship of idolatry, as the Rambam (Mishnah Torah- Avodah Zarah- 1st chapter), Ramchal (Derech Hashem), and many others explain, is the worshipping of intermediaries, instead of sourcing yourself 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, and then manifest it into the world. 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 people “worship” are merely tangible representations of the higher forces they are serving.

  1. Serving Yourself

What is the purpose of this idol worship? What compels a person to commune with the intermediaries rather than going to 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 ease and freedom. This 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 $1500 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? 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 lo ta’aseh, negative commandment, in the aseres hadibros. As many commentaries explain, it is the very 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. The sin of the golden calf was the worshiping 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 which states that spiritual falls occur slowly, in small steps. How did this happen?

  1. Downplaying the Chet Ha’Egel

Some commentaries, such as the Ramban and Rav Yehuda Ha’Levi in sefer Ha’Kuzari, suggest that the Jewish people didn’t commit true 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. 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 do it, it was inappropriate. [This connects to the deep topic of gadol ha’mitzuveh vi’oseh, 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.] The point, however, is clear. The Ramban and Rav Yehuda Ha’levi clearly downplay the severity of the Chet Ha’Egel.

  1. Actual Idolatry?!

However, many commentaries, including Rashi, believe that the Chet Ha’Egel was genuine idolatry, that immediately following Matan Torah the Jewish People fell prey to the worst sin imaginable, avodah zarah. They failed to source themselves back to Hashem, the very essence of idolatry. 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 and tremendous fall? Spiritual falls tend to occur slowly, in small steps. In this case, however, the Jewish people went straight from top to bottom, from high to low, from angelic to broken. How did this happen?

  1. Nekudas Ha’Bechirah: The Normal Process of Life

In Michtav Mei’Eliyahu, Rav Eliyahu Dessler analyzes one of the foundational underlying concepts of human experience. He explains that while human beings have free will, the locus of free will [the nekudas ha’bechirah,] exists only at specific points, 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 level where we attempt 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 angelic and transcendent planes. Most of humanity falls somewhere in the middle. 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, and with these, 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 brutal battle for spiritual ground, a battle of will, a battle for eternity. If we push hard enough at one of these fronts, they will eventually become second nature, and what was once a struggle will become a constant victory. But if we lose the battle, we move back a step or two.

This battle is constant, a series of tiny gains and losses. None of these has a major impact on our spiritual level, but if we garner enough of these successes 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 about spiritual falls: slow and steady. However, there is one exception to this model.

  1. The Exception

When you lose your identity, your sense of self, you can go from great to nothing in an instant. You don’t climb down the rungs of the ladder, one at a time. You skip all the rungs completely and go from top to bottom in a split second. This is because the battle of will includes two forces: your higher self which tries to raise you up, and your lower self which tries to drag you down. Normally, these two are pushing at full force, leading to the constant battle for inches in the journey of growth. Sometimes your higher self gains ground, sometimes your lower self does.

However, in times of panic, moments of emotional or psychological instability, and instants of complete self-doubt, we tend to completely fall apart. In these moments, you completely lose your sense of identity, you lose with it your entire sense of purpose and foundation of self. Your positive force of will disappears, and all that’s left in its wake is the overwhelming drive of the lower self. In this rare instance, your lower self asserts its influence and there is nothing to push back against it. The results are cataclysmic: you will plummet faster than you imagined possible into the very lowest state of existence.

  1. Explaining the Egel

It is true that the Jewish people were on the highest level imaginable. They had just witnessed Hashem Himself and had received the Torah on Har Sinai. Yet, they lost their identity, their sense of self, their very foundation. They thought that Moshe, their leader, had just died. After the Jewish people went through the transcendent experiences of yetzias Mitzrayim and Matan Torah, they truly were on the highest level imaginable. They had just experienced open revelation and had cemented their special bond with Hashem, their Creator. However, immediately following this they underwent a challenge that shook their world, that robbed them of their identity, their sense of self, their very foundation. When Moshe failed to descend the mountain, the Jewish People believed that they had lost their teacher, their leader who had just taken them out of Egypt to receive Hashem’s Torah. Moshe served as their link to these events, and when he disappeared, they felt as though they had been cut off from that which made them great. When they experienced this loss of identity, they experienced a moment of sheer panic, internal chaos, and lost all sense of self. With such a negative force and no positive force pushing back, they fell straight from greatness to the lowest depths and did the unthinkable: they served idolatry, a complete abandon of their entire spiritual ideals.

  1. The Sliding Affect

The worst part of these dramatic falls 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 action of failure as a new identity, a personification of failure. Now, when they look in the mirror, they see failure. This is the brilliant strategy of our yester harah, he hits you while you’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 passuk (Mishlei 24:16), “A tzaddik falls seven times and rises.” We all fall. The key to greatness is not preventing the fall, since it’s all but guaranteed to happen at some point in our lives. The key to greatness is how we respond when we fall. A rasha, a sinner, is someone who falls once, but then never picks himself up. One slip turns into a snowballing cascade, an eternal tumble into increasingly darker states of existence. He therefore continues to endlessly fall deeper and deeper into the abyss of nothingness. A tzaddik, however, catches his fall. He stumbles, fights to find his footing, regains composure, redirects his consciousness, and then begins to climb again. Like a cat who always lands on its feet, a great person always positions himself to bounce back from a fall. He is not great despite having fallen seven times, he’s great because of them. These falls helped him learn more about who he was, trained him to persevere, and brought out aspects of his potential that he never even knew existed.

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 it not the question. The question is whether we’ll get back up or get depressed, whether we’ll learn from it or beat ourselves up, whether we’ll rebuild momentum, or tumble endlessly into nothingness. Let’s choose greatness, let’s assert our willpower, and let’s endlessly strive for more.

 

Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker who has spoken internationally at synagogues, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought. You can find more inspirational shiurim, videos, and articles from Shmuel on Facebook and Yutorah.org. For all questions, thoughts, or bookings, please email shmuelreichman678@gmail.com

About the Author
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker who has lectured internationally at synagogues, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought. He is also the founder and creator of Shmuel Reichman Inspiration: Think. Feel. Grow. You can find more inspirational shiurim, videos, and articles from Shmuel on Facebook and Yutorah.org. For all questions, thoughts, or bookings, please email Shmuel at shmuelreichman678@gmail.com
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