Torah Portion of the Week – Kisisa – No Guts No Glory -Appreciation and the sin of the Golden Calf – A Great Story about Rav Simcha Zisseli – Talmudic Logic – Learning to think about Thinking – and Peace in Your Home – Never Give Up
The Torah Podcast Transcript
005 The Torah Podcast – No Guts No Glory – Appreciation and the Sin of the Golden Calf
Torah Portion – Ki Sisa
This week’s Torah portion is Ki Sisa, and it’s speaking about the sin of the Golden Calf. Now, this sin was egged on by the people who connected themselves to us as we left Mitzrayim, as we left Egypt, called the erev rav. Those were the people that were not Jewish. They connected to us and they caused the sin. They started the sin rolling and we hooked into it. I just want to talk about the sin of the Golden Calf now.
The Jewish people miscalculated when Moshe Rabbeinu was supposed to come back from being up there for 40 days with God. They miscalculated, and they started to get nervous. So, they went running to Aharon and they said, “Please make for us an Elokim that will go before us, because we don’t know what happened to Moshe and we need somebody to lead us.” The Ramban explains that they didn’t actually do idol worship. They didn’t want to put an idol in front of them. They just wanted to put somebody in place of Moshe, Moses. If that’s true that they didn’t do idol worship, why does it come out that the sin of the Golden Calf is the biggest sin in the Torah? We know that there’s a Rashi later on in the Parsha that quotes the Gemara Sanhedrin 102 which says that every punishment that the Jewish people receive is partially because of the sin of the Golden Calf.” I mean, that is major. We are talking about one of the biggest sins in the Torah and we’re still paying for it. If the Jewish people didn’t do idol worship, what exactly did they do wrong? You can answer me simply. What they did is, they wanted to put something between them and God. They couldn’t handle the fact that Moshe was gone, so they had to put something in between. It was too much for them to have a direct relationship with God. If that’s true, what’s the difference between putting Moshe and putting something else between them and God, as long as God is going to direct this thing, whatever it is, and direct them in the right direction. What’s the difference in having Moshe lead them or having a bull lead them? And even though we know they were reprimanded for that, for not listening to all the 10 commandments and they put Moshe in between and Rashi explains there that Moshe said to them later in Parshas Vayeschanan that, “You should have listened directly to God and not to me.” Even though that’s true, but we don’t see that the Jewish people were punished in every generation and everything that happens and every suffering that we have is a portion of that sin (the sin of putting Moshe in between). So, this sin is obviously much, much greater. What’s so much greater about it?
Fortunately I had the opportunity to ask Rav Moshe Shapiro, one of the gedolim, great men of our generation, this question. I daven, pray by him and I asked him in shul, synagogue, “What’s the difference between having Moshe or something else?” He answered me that Moshe is a tzellem Elokim, he’s in the image of God. But the calf, whatever came out in this situation, was not a tzellem Elokim, not in the image of God. I was thinking about his answer and I came up with this. When we have a tzellem Elokim, a human being, lead us, at least there’s din vecheshbon, in other words there’s a back and forth. There was a relationship between us and that leader, where if we are not behaving in a certain way he could reprimand us. We can ask him questions back and forth. But when it’s something else that’s going to lead us and there’s no relationship at all to it, it’s just like a figurehead of a type, so there’s really no relationship at all and we can do whatever we want. We’ve completely freed ourselves from our relationship with God. And this is exactly the sin that they fell into. They didn’t want to be close because when you’re close there’s intimacy, and you have to be responsible for everything you do and everything you say. They didn’t want that responsibility.
Somebody else told me that the Chazon Ish wrote that this started way before. The erev rav did not want to have a relationship with Moshe, these outside forces in our society, the fringe forces did not want to have a relationship with Moshe Rabbeinu at all. They didn’t want Moshe Rabbeinu to be the leader. They wanted to get rid of him. We know that later they were tested like a sota with the mei sota. In other words, if God-forbid a man’s wife cheats on him, she drinks this water that has written inside of it a petek, a piece of paper with the name of God. If she cheated then she dies from this drink that she has, and if not she has a son. But what was going on here was a complete rebellion, a complete disconnection from God. I spoke to Rav Baruch Ber Liebowitz, the great grandson of the Birchat Shmuel in the Mir. He said, “What even makes it worse is that God came down to us. God was relating to us, and we didn’t want to relate to Him.” To me, it’s a very interesting idea that people do not want to relate to God. What does that mean, and where does it come from? I have a formula. The formula is like this. The more you appreciate, the more responsible you become. In other words, what’s called hakores hatov, recognizing the good. The more we recognize the good that God gives us, the more in debt we become to God, the more we need to serve Him and to do the right thing. If a person is close with his father and his father is constantly giving him good, so he always has to be on his toes to do the right thing towards his father. What’s happening is, people would rather ignore the good that they’re getting from God and a way to escape that relationship. So, why did they choose a calf in order to break the relationship with God?
The Kli Yakar explains that the calf or the bull was Taurus. It was the month that the Jewish people went out from Mitzrayim, Egypt. When the Jewish people came out of Mitzrayim they came with all the money of Mitzrayim. Now, before the Jews came out of Egypt Moshe took out the bones of Yosef from the Nile. What he did, he said “Alei shor,” rise shor, because we know that Yosef was the symbol of the bull. Also we know that Yosef is the one who collected up all the money of the entire world and that’s why all the money in the world was in Egypt, and that’s what the Jews went out with. So, they figured out it would be a good thing to use the bull as a symbol. As a side point, Micha who was the one that Moshe Rabbeinu saved – they were going to put him into a wall and he saved him, he took that petek when Moshe had a piece of paper with the name of God on it, he threw it into the water and said, “The bull should rise,” so the bones of Yosef came up through the Nile. He grabbed that petek, that piece of paper and later when Aaron was mixing up the gold to make the Golden Calf, he threw that paper into the gold and out came the Golden Calf from the name of God on the piece of paper. But they figured if they had a lot of money they wouldn’t have to relate to God, and we see that’s a reality. We know from Rav Simcha Zissel who explains that a person who has a bad character is one of two types. Either he’s like a rich person or he’s like a poor person. A poor person who has bad character he’s like he’s sick but there’s a doctor in the house. Why? Because even though he has bad character he’s constantly being reminded that he’d better shape up because he can’t do exactly what he wants to do. But a person who has a bad character and he’s rich, he is like a sick person without a doctor in the house. Why? He’s got a big mouth he can do whatever he wants. He has power. People listen to him. But he’s not healthy. So, you see the money gives the ability. It frees the person up from not having to relate to any kind of spirituality. Money also frees the person from working on himself. He doesn’t need to work on himself, he has everything. It’s all set up. Life is set up for him. So, they figured if they want to disconnect themselves to God they’re going to have to have money. That’s why the mixed multitudes shows the calf as the symbol.
The question that I still have is, why doesn’t a person want to relate directly to God? Does that make any sense? Maybe I can explain it with an example. You have a guy, he doesn’t want to be the boss of the company and he doesn’t even want to be the assistant boss of the company. He just wants to be a clerk. He wants to go to the job nine to five. What do they talk about in a nine to five job? They talk about, “Did you send the paper,” or, “You didn’t send the paper?” “You got the email?” “You didn’t get the email?” Nothing too big, nothing small. He doesn’t make such a big salary, but he’s happy with that. Why does he need all this responsibility?
On the other hand someone who’s striving to be close to the CEO of the company, it’s a different conversation. What’s going on with the company, what direction are we taking? Big, wide questions and he makes a lot of money. But that money means a lot of responsibility. If he’s always close to the CEO so then he’ll say, “What did you do? Why were you late today? What’s going on with this project,” and, “What’s going on with that project?” It’s a constant back and forth as to whether or not he’s living up to his responsibilities. Not everybody wants such pressure. So, my answer to that, that’s okay in business, you know? You don’t have to be rich. Nobody says you have to be rich. If you can make a nice living, you can have a nice little life. But in terms of spirituality, how can a person say this is what he’s here for, this is what his life’s about. This is what he why he was created. You can’t say, “Oh, I’ll take a little job, I’ll just do a little thing on the side.” Spirituality means no guts, no glory. And if a person thinks he’s not close to God, he’s fooling himself. Why? Because God gives him life. God gives him water. God gives him air, God gives him a house. God gives him a car. Every moment of our lives, God is close to us whether we like it or not. So, to say we’re not close to God, we’re just faking it, it’s not real…so you want to ignore, a person wants to ignore that so he doesn’t have to come on to being responsible for getting all these goodies. But the fact is, you are getting the goodies. Life is great. There are so many great things. It’s so beautiful. Look at the sunrise. Look at the sunset, the mountains, the oceans, the stars, everything. How can we ignore the fact that we’re close to God? Look at everything God has given us. The problem is, if you allow your mind to open up to the reality that puts you in a place of responsibility, and a place of in a certain sense, poverty, and in a place of need, and in a place of recognizing that you owe God something.
In a certain sense, we’re giving up our happiness in order to be free, because imagine how happy you would be if you really recognized all these great things that God is giving us constantly. If you were aware of them 24/7 you’d be flying. But most people think, “I want to do what I want, therefore I don’t want to look at the fact that I’m so in debt.” You may ask yourself, “What’s the big sin about that? What’s the problem?” The answer is, you’re breaking the relationship with God. Imagine instead of actually talking to your father, so you send him messages. Or you send somebody else to talk to him. And at Thanksgiving instead of going over there you send somebody else. “Oh, your son sent me.” It sounds ridiculous. Imagine how your father would feel. That’s the sin of the Golden Calf. And that’s why we’re punished. Every time we get punished we have to fix up that mess that we made. The problem is, the world has become so crazy nobody wants to relate to anybody. Instead of having kids, people have a dog. Instead of having a normal marriage where you have to relate to the differences of your wife or your husband, people become homosexuals as a way to escape the conflict of dealing with the other sex. It’s true that real relationships have conflicts and there are differences, and it means change. But it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
I was thinking a little bit deeper about this. Why are people going in that direction? I believe the answer is, they feel they can’t live up to their relationships. How can it be close to God if I can’t live up to His demand? How can I be close to another human being if I can’t live up to what they want from me? We know there’s a saying that’s called, “ikar yetzer hara yeiush, the essential evil inclination is giving up, to be despondent, to feel you can’t make the grade. That’s the worst thing that could happen to a person. But it’s not true. Why is it not true? Because God created us with our good and with our bad, and He loves us unconditionally. And we can relate to Him, and we can be close with Him. Just the opposite, once we decide yes, I want to be close. Yes, I want to recognize the good. Yes, I want to see the world that God created for me, we start to build ourselves because we open ourselves up to all the wonderful things that God is doing for us – the mountains and the oceans and the seas are all for us. Our house, our car, our family and our lives, and everything we have is all for us. Don’t we see that God loves us? Once we start to understand that God loves us, of course we want to be close to Him. Of course we want to try to make the grade, together with the understanding that God’s accepting us for who we are.
The Midrash says that when a father scares his little kid and the little kid doesn’t know where to run. Where does he run? To the father. Don’t run away from God, run towards God. And the more we run towards God, the more empowered we become. Instead of doing the sin of the Golden Calf, we have to do the opposite. We have to come close to God. In order to fix it we have to want a direct relationship with God, which is the greatest thing that we could possibly have in our lives.
Great Stories – Rav Simcha Zissel
Okay, I want to tell a great story about a great Rabbi, Rav Simcha Zissel, the tzaddik from Kelm. Look what it says here. Even in the most terrifying moment, no trace of confusion or fear was seen on him. He always retained his composure, his clarity of thought, his presence of mind. So great was his control over his thoughts that in the evening he was able to review all of his thoughts of the day in order to analyze and criticize. He was talking about a person, an individual who had tremendous what’s called “menuchas hanefesh,” calmness of spirit. In Judaism, calmness of spirit is something which is very, very highly valued. When you think about it, why should a person give up his peace of mind? There’s no reason for it. It’s so valuable to have peace of mind no matter what the situation is – for your health, for your mental health. It’s essential to a good character, not to give up your peace of mind under any circumstances.
So in Kelm which he was the Rosh Yeshiva of, there are stories of how he led the students to reach these levels of a calmness of spirit. I’m just going to read to you some of the things that were going on in the Yeshiva there. It says, “Pause before acting. Make sure the door is fully closed. Check the bench before sitting down. Do nothing without a clearly defined purpose in mind. Pause before speaking. When asked for advice, never answer immediately. Before sharing a new idea, think about it for at least a quarter of an hour.” In other words, you have to be in control, not in a terse way, in a relaxed way. Menuchas haNefesh means being totally relaxed, and through the relaxation you’re focused, you’re able to think straight. It says like this. “Avoid anything that could lead to confusion.” Rav Simcha Zissel wanted to say, “The reason why Yom Kippur is in the time of the year when they harvest is to contrast the idea where there’s so much stuff going on outside, internally a person has to be focused.” In Kelm the talmidim learned to account for every single action. In particular, they trained themselves never to turn their heads and thus diverse their intention when learning or davening. In the terminology of Kelm, this system was called “fixing one’s head on one’s shoulders.” What are you looking around for? What’s it your business? Do what you have to do.
It says that one time Reb Eliyahu Lopian was waiting for a bus and he was waiting there. Then he turned his head to see if it was coming and he thought to himself, “Oy, I would have received a strong rebuke for that in Kelm, since turning my head cannot make the bus come any sooner. I should just have menuchas hanefesh and sit there and do what I’m doing, read. Why am I looking around for?” So now, this is a famous story of what happened in the town of Kelm. Kelm was actually run by one Russian nobleman. One day, after a day of feasting and drinking the nobleman boasted to his friends of the remarkable educational institution within his domain. He was talking about the unbelievable Yeshiva. So, what happened? They said, “Let’s go down there and see what’s going on over there.” So, they all decided to go visit. Meanwhile, they were all drunk. The drunken party pulled into the courtyard with the carriages with tremendous noise. The horses were making noise, and they were drunk and screaming and yelling. Listen to this – not one of the boys – and some of them were 12 or 13 years old, even lifted his head to see what was happening outside. In other words, the Yeshiva was so well trained to focus on what you’re doing and not be distracted and not be involved in things that have nothing to do with you, even though these drunk guys were outside the Yeshiva making all kinds of noise with their horses 12 and 13 year-old boys did not look up from their books. Being totally present and focused is a sign of a very high level of spirituality. So, we can learn from this how much work we need to do in order to focus on what we’re supposed to be doing, and not to have our minds scattered all over the place.
Talmudic Logic – Learning to think about Thinking
Okay, I’m going to say over now a little bit of Talmudic logic. This is again Rav Yitzkah Confantone, one of the Rishonim. First, study and understand the Gemara as best as you can, and only then look at the commentator. A lot of people ask this question when they first start to learn Talmud, “Should I read the Gemara with Rashi or without Rashi?” So, according to him who was a Rishon, a very big person, he claims you’re supposed to read the Gemara without Rashi. First, you have to read the text and understand the text on your own. Obviously in depth, thinking about the real meaning of the words, but try to get your own understanding. You’ll find if you do that, then the commentaries you do read will have a lot more meaning because you’ll see that you’ve entered into their problems and you understand what they’re doing. I’ll talk about that in a minute.
The second thing he says is, you always have to determine which text the commentator is commentating on. In other words, he’ll quote a small piece of text and on that he’ll speak. He’s not speaking on somewhere else. A lot of people get confused when they learn Talmud where Rashi says this, but he doesn’t understand where Rashi is saying that for example, or Tosefos. What texts are they speaking on? In other words, my Rebbe used to explain it as a text on a text on a text. You have for example, the Gemara on that text. You can have a Rashi. On the Rashi you can have a Ritva, and it goes further and further as the generations go. So, you always have to be very, very clear which exact text is the commentator speaking on.
Now, the last thing I want to speak about is he brings down five reasons why a commentator would speak at all. What do you need to write? What are you writing about? We need you? If we understand the original text, we don’t need another text on top of that text. So, I’m going to bring two of them now and then next week we’ll speak about some more.
Two of the reasons a commentator may speak. 1. For example, adjusting the language. You read it, I don’t understand what those words mean. So, sometimes the commentator has to come along and give you the dictionary definition of the word. 2. The second reason is, explaining the subject matter or background information. You can read the words, you just don’t understand what the subject is. You’re misinformed. So, sometimes the commentator has to come and fill in that piece of information. There are another three reasons why a commentator may speak, and I’ll discuss that in next week’s podcast.
Peace in Your Home
Now I’m going to give another little piece of advice, how to get peace in your home. I call this
“burn your boats.” What do I mean by that? One of the number one reasons marriages fall apart is a lack of commitment. Partners by definition need to change and compromise, and that ain’t happening without true dedication. In other words, you have to be totally committed to your marriage in order to get it to work. If on the other hand one of the spouses or both spouses even, have in the back of their mind, “I can always leave,” or, “When are they leaving?” “When am I going to leave, when are they going to leave?” so there won’t be enough pressure to create a healthy, growing relationship. In other words, the bottom line is that two different people with two different backgrounds coming from two different houses and two different customers, and two different ways of looking at things. And you want to put them together in one house. How is that going to happen? The only way that they’re going to be able to compromise with each other is to be locked in. If you’re locked in and you realize, “This is it. This is the person I married. I am not leaving.” That attitude will create a much, much better relationship. Your marriage has to be an emergency. It’s either do or die, you have to fix it. In other words, you’re stuck. You are stuck in your marriage, it’s a reality. You can’t leave. That’s the Jewish way of looking at things.
Of course, after many, many years if it doesn’t work out, I know people that for 30 years had problems and they stuck it out. In the end, they had tremendous relationships because they worked it out, because they didn’t give up. Never give up on your marriage. Don’t give up. I agree there’s this thing called divorce in the Torah, but it says that the Altar, the Mizbeach cries when people get divorced. People who are married together, there’s a reason why they’re married.
I’m going to bring you the Gemara Sota, it says like this. “Rav said that 40 days before an embryo is formed a heavenly voice calls out, ‘This particular man is going to marry that particular woman.’” That’s what it says. It means that God gave you that spouse. God put you together to be together forever and forever. How can we make it work? That should be the question. How am I going to make this work? And having to succeed is the greatest formula for success. So, burn your boats and realize that you’re not going to leave.
Okay, that’s it for this week’s Torah Podcast. Please share it with your friends. If it helps you it can help them.
Rabbi Eliyahu Mitterhoff