> Weekly Torah Portion > Beginner > Straight Talk

Communal Influence

Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35 )

by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt

The transgression of the Golden Calf is probably the single greatest mistake in Jewish history. But if we take a closer look, it doesn't seem all that bad. Out of 3 millions Jews, how many would you say perpetrated this awful calamity? Three-quarters? A half? A third?

The Torah says that at the end of it all, when they rounded up the culprits, only 3,000 people were involved. That's 0.1%. And yet, the whole Jewish nation is held responsible. The Golden Calf is regarded as a mistake made by the entire Jewish people made, not just a mistake of 3,000 Jews. Why?

It is understandable that individuals should be held accountable for broad-reaching acts condoned by society - after all, it is individuals who make up a society. But why should a society be held accountable for the acts of a group of individuals within it? Surely, every society has its deviants.

The answer lies in understanding that society is the single greatest influence on our lives and our values. It shapes who we are more than any other single force. If society has the power to shape the values of individuals, then it must also be held accountable if it fails to do so. The fact that individuals could build an idol meant that they lived in a society that was not sufficiently abhorred by such an idea. Had building an idol been considered totally and utterly outrageous, they would never have contemplated doing it.

The fact that slavery is considered such an evil in the West means that it does not exist. If drugs were looked upon as a similar evil, they would be much less commonplace. But we are equivocal about drugs. They are certainly harmful, but are they evil in the way that slavery is considered to be? Absolutely not. Racism is distasteful, maybe even bad, but it is not abhorred and so it remains a part of our lives.

Adultery is considered by many as the betrayal of a sacred oath. It's one of the Ten Commandments. So why is adultery so common, even rampant?

Because for most people, it is regarded as "not a good idea" - perhaps even "wrong" - but not massively high on the scale of wrongs. And when society lacks the commitment to condemn an action, it leaves people much bolder to do as they please.

Society shapes the values of individuals within it and, as such, Judaism holds a society responsible for the acts of those individuals. It seems that we're still paying for the Golden Calf today.


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