Mordechai Soskil

Golden Calf vs. Garden of Eden

This week I don’t have a rant for you. Just a quick Torah thought. The first time I came across this week’s Torah idea I was in Jerusalem, almost three years ago. I had gone with a group of my talmidim to participate on “Team Shalva” in the Jerusalem Marathon. Shalva is an organization that provides free of charge services for children with special needs and their families. We had all raised money for Shalva, along with a dozen or so other Jewish day schools from around North America and Europe. A couple of hundred teens were together for the day before the race, for either a 10k, half marathon or the full marathon that Friday, and then we were together for a Shabbaton.

It was quite a special Shabbos which included a walk to the Kotel for Shabbos mincha with a group of my students. Towards the end of Shabbos we had slow shira – a time when all the teens sit together and sing holy, Torah songs of inspiration, and hear a story or two from some of those leading the Shabbaton. I was sitting with my kids and thinking, what words on inspiration do they need? What would I say? And I was thinking, what do I need to hear? I would like some inspiration too. A particular rabbi got up, told a story designed to reach our hearts, but I felt like he missed. It felt off a bit. It wasn’t the right message. And I thought, what a waste of an opportunity, and I shrugged and we ended Shabbos disappointed.

Just kidding. I asserted myself and asked for a chance to speak to the teens. Turns out I have a hard time just blending into the crowd and minding my own business.

I had just seen this idea in the writings of Rav Soloveitchik and I knew it was perfect for that moment, speaking to those teens. Each of those kids, a leader of sorts, who had distinguished him or herself by raising the money and running the race.

This week’s Torah reading tells the story of the Sin of the Golden Calf. The Jewish people, who had only weeks before experienced the Great Revelation, ostensibly sin by creating an idol and worshiping it. At least that is the common understanding. When you read the text closely you notice that this episode is sparked by the fear that Moshe was missing or that he died. They feared that without Moshe they no longer had a chance of connecting with G-d. They were on their own with no access to the divine. So they set off to create some new access point, some new way to connect with the Creator. Even though this is a sin, it’s a pretty unusual one.

Rav Soloveitchik contrasts this episode to the sin of the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, Adam and Chava were told not to eat of that particular fruit. They ate out of a sense of arrogance. As if to say, who does G-d think He is telling us what to do! This is our Garden! We’re the bosses here. If we want fruit, we’ll eat it. And we really want that fruit! This is a fairly typical paradigm for why people sin. They have temptation, they rationalize that really it’s not that big a deal any way, and the truth is, they deserve this. (Which is just another way of saying, I’m the boss, not G-d.)

The sin of the Garden was a sin of people thinking too much of themselves. Whereas, the sin of the Golden Calf was the sin of not thinking ENOUGH of themselves. The mistake was thinking that they couldn’t connect with G-d without Moshe. That’s not our faith at all. Our faith is that each person can, is required to, build their own connection to G-d. Our prayer is not to G-d via some intermediary. Our prayer is directly to G-d. The lesson of the Golden Calf is not to under estimate yourself. You are capable of great things.

What I thought the teens needed to hear that Shabbos was to take the tools they built up in themselves and leverage that for other types of service of Hashem. When you train to run you have to learn to push yourself, to just hold out a little longer. That same mental focus can be used in learning Torah. The grit can be used in pushing forward to see a chessed task to completion.

Ultimately, there will always be an aspect of mystery surrounding the sin of the Golden Calf. How could people who just heard G-d say, “Thou Shalt Have No Other gods Before Me,” build an idol 5 weeks later? That said, it is pretty easy to imagine a person not realizing their potential, not seeing their own value. May we all be blessed to seek our own personal connections with the Creator.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children. And a blessedly expanding herd of grandchildren.
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