Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 23 February 2019 / 18 Adar I 5779

Parshat Ki Tisa

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Historic Betrayal Teaches Timeless Truth

Nearly all commentators struggle to understand how a nation which has just experienced a year-long string of unprecedented miracles, including the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, and the giving of the Torah, could have fallen to the low of declaring a golden calf to be its god. Even before the fire and lightening of the Lawgiving had cooled off, and before the resounding Divinely-uttered command thou shalt not make for yourself an idol had dimmed, the people made for itself a golden image.

Instead of focusing on how this fall was possible, Rav Hirsch notes the critical lesson we can learn from this historic fact. The non sequitur of such blatant betrayal after clear revelation demonstrates that the people were so far removed from the truths and requirements of the Law that it is nigh impossible that the Law emanated from the people. Whereas all other religious codes emanated from the people, as a product of its spirit and the spirit of the time, Torah stands alone as the code that was presented to the people. To a people so distant from its core teachings that it could abandon them in the blink of an eye. Had Torah emanated from the people, such immediate and radical departure from it would have made no sense. That would have been akin to the American founding fathers establishing a tyrannical dictatorship a month after ratification of the Constitution. Clearly, the Law was presented to a resistant people, who had not yet accepted is fundamental teachings.

At the same time, these events show us the Law in its absolute character. At the very start of the Torah’s entry into the world, the unworthiness of the nation that was meant to receive it made it clear that one of the two would have to go: either the Torah or the entire generation of the nation for whom the Torah is destined. The decision was instantaneous: to give up that entire generation, create a new generation descending from Moshe, capable of accepting this Torah. That the nation that had been established in order to receive the Law should be destroyed, while Moshe and the Law would be assured of a future, demonstrated from the outset the absolute character of the destiny of Torah, whose timelessness springs from G-d. If this generation was unworthy, the timeless Torah would wait for another generation, one capable and worthy of its realization.

Torah, with its unalterable ideal requirements, came down to a generation so obviously incapable of fulfilling it, and it so similarly stood as an unalterable ideal throughout the generations. Torah has outlived and outlasted all of those who sought to distort and adapt it to changing times, and stands, as it has always stood, as an ideal to which the people must adapt and strive.

· Sources: Commentary Shemot 32:1

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