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"We don't understand you, Chur," cried Datan. "We all saw Moses' coffin fly to heaven with our own eyes. He never came down on the 40th day as he promised. Hey, how can any human being survive 40 days without food or water, anyway? Do you think he stored food for 40 days before the invention of the microwave? Obviously, Moses is dead!"
"What have you got against our Golden Calf anyway, Chur?" exclaimed Aviram. "We need a tangible reminder of God's presence in our midst. A permanent spot to feel close to the Almighty, now that we lost the connection we had when we were in the presence of Moses. The form of the calf contains deep kabbalistic secrets!"
Chur, however remained unfazed. "We all heard the Almighty speak at Sinai. He said: No graven images. No ifs, ands or buts! No graven images - however good your intentions are."
The people were beside themselves. "A technicality? Of course God didn't mean that such a holy intention should be considered idolatry. We're trying to connect to God's presence and you're obsessed with technicalities?! If you insist, Chur, we will be forced to eliminate you!"
THE FIRST CENSUS
The Parsha begins with the commandment to take a census of the people. The term for counting is: "Lift up the heads of the children of Israel."
Question: Why is being counted considered such an elevated experience? And why did Moses and Aaron, the leaders of the people, have to take the census and not just any clerk?
Answer: According to the Vilna Gaon, in the days of prophecy you'd go to a prophet and he'd look at your face and tell you all your good and bad points, and what your mission in life should be. Can you imagine the experience of standing before Moses and Aaron themselves, and telling of their lineage. It was surely a "lifting up" to be counted as part of the Jewish nation!
THE HALF SHEKEL
Everyone had to give one half-shekel (a weight of silver worth much more than today's Israeli shekels). It is forbidden by Jewish law to count heads, so everyone contributes coins and we count those instead.
The silver was used to build the Tabernacle. To be counted amongst the Jewish people means to contribute to the sanctity of the nation.
The Torah says that the worth of the shekel was 20 "Gaira" (a small coin; hence the term today "agura" for small Israeli coins). Why must we know this? Half of 20 is 10 which is a whole number. Even though we each contribute our maximum effort (an entire 10), it still only makes up one-half, and we need the teamwork of the entire nation to make a whole.
THE GOLDEN CALF: STEP-BY-STEP ACCOUNT
(1) When Moses went up on Mount Sinai, he told the people he would return in 40 days. In Judaism, a day begins at sunset (e.g., as Shabbat begins on Friday evening). Since Moses went up in the morning, the first day didn't count. But the people counted that day, and due to their miscalculation thought he did not come down on time.
(2) The "Satan" (heavenly power that tests man) showed the people a vision of Moses in a coffin flying to heaven.
(3) The people, nervous about his absence, demand that Aaron provide a substitute (obviously for Moses, not for God). Aaron, having witnessed the murder of Chur (who had protested the demand), agreed and began creating the Golden Calf all by himself, in order to stall for time until Moses will ultimately arrive. When Aaron finished, he proclaimed "a holiday to the Lord (not the calf) tomorrow!"
(4) The people woke up early (it's always easier to get up early to have fun). They were negatively influenced by the "mixed multitude" of Egyptian converts who quickly reverted to their idolatrous heritage. "These are your gods (plural) that took you out of the land of Egypt," they said. In other words, this represents your God.
(5) A few Jews worshiped the calf overtly, some covertly, and most condoned those who did because basically they had good intentions. The tribe of Levi (the rabbinic students of that generation) did not worship it at all.
(6) During all this, Moses was up on the mountain receiving the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Then God told him to go down immediately: "Your people have messed up!"
(7) Moses came down with the stone tablets. When confronted with the Golden Calf, he threw them down, shattering them at the base of the mountain.
Question: Why did Moses bring the tablets down in the first place?
Answer: Moses figured that the people made an intellectual mistake, in somehow thinking this calf was a god. "If I take the tablets and show them the truth, we can have an intellectual discussion (a 'Discovery Seminar!'), and I will show them the truth."
However, when Moses saw them dancing in front of the calf, emotionally involved, there was no other way except "shock treatment" to make them come to their senses. When the Jewish people witnessed the smashing of the tablets, they realized they had lost the opportunity to receive God's message "in writing."
THE SIN OF THE GOLDEN CALF
Question: How could a nation who had just witnessed 10 plagues, the splitting of the sea and heard the Almighty at Sinai, suddenly take off their gold jewelry, carve out an idol, and proclaim that this idol had taken them out of Egypt? Were they in their right minds?
Answer: The Jewish people are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who knew God and were in contact with Him. They conveyed to their children the basic concepts of how the Almighty wants humanity to live. They were only missing the details. Until the revelation at Sinai, they would use their genius intellect and determine the will of God in every situation. This method was fine until Sinai. Once they heard Divine revelation, they now had to subordinate their intellect to the higher intelligence of God.
This, in essence, was the sin of the Golden Calf. The Jews knew they needed a tangible representation of the Divine in their midst. This in essence, was the Tabernacle. However there is a difference. When God commands you to build an edifice that He will sanctify with His presence, that is a Tabernacle. When man decides to bring God down to him, that is idolatry. A fine, but important distinction. There can be no "man-made religion." Only when God Himself relates to man is it meaningful.
THE AFTERMATH OF THE GOLDEN CALF
(8) Moses destroyed the Golden Calf. (How did they allow him if they really considered it a god?) He burnt it in fire and crushed it into dust which he mixed with water and made the people drink.
(9) The tribe of Levi was distinct from the masses. When Moses proclaimed: "Whoever is on God's side, come to me!" the entire tribe of Levi presented their credentials. Moses ordered them to consecrate themselves to God by putting to death all overt worshippers of the calf. This included their own relatives who had worshiped the calf.
(10) Those who overtly sinned (3,000, less then one-tenth of one percent) were decapitated by the Levites. Those who sinned covertly (without warning and witnesses) died in the plague (as a result from drinking the "water"). The entire rest of the nation was guilty of "inaction."
THE LESSON OF THE LEVITES
The Chafetz Chaim once asked a Jew if he was a Kohen or Levi. When he replied to the negative, he asked, "Why not?"
"Because my father wasn't."
"And why wasn't he?" the Chafetz Chaim demanded to know.
"Because his father wasn't."
(Sounds like the joke about the Jew who offered to pay the rabbi $10,000 to make him a Kohen, since his father and grandfather were Kohanim, he also wanted to be one!)
The Chafetz Chaim, who was a Kohen, told the man: "The difference between you and I is that many generations ago in the desert, when Moses proclaimed, 'Who is on God's side, come to me,' my ancestor came and yours didn't. That makes the tribe of Levi special. The lesson is, the next time someone says 'Who's on God's side, come to me' - you go!"
MOSES DEFENDS THE NATION
(11) Moses asked God to forgive the people, even risking his own neck in the process. When God offered to destroy the entire nation and make Moses a new "Abraham," he flatly refused. "If a chair with 3 legs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) cannot stand, how much more so one leg!" In other words, Moses argued that the first time his descendents would sin, God would destroy them.
Moses evoked the forefathers and their merit. God revealed to him the "13 Attributes of Mercy" that are never unanswered - as long as we are emulating God's merciful/compassionate attributes!
(12) God forgave the people, and then, Moses (seeing he's got a good thing going) made the most incredible request in all of human history: "Let me see Your face" (not to be taken literally).
(13) In the aftermath of the great transgression, Moses received the greatest level of prophesy conceivable. The Sages say that the most righteous man cannot compare to the "Baal Teshuva" whose depths of sin makes him strive for something higher. As the nation repented their grave mistake, they rose to such spiritual heights that their representative (so to speak) could perceive God - back view only (not to be taken literally)!
(14) As a result of his close encounter with the Almighty, the face of Moses became illuminated with a spiritual shine. When the people saw his countenance, they approached him with awe. Moses then covered his face with a veil. Only when he taught Torah did Moses reveal the blinding illumination.
(The famous statue of Michelangelo's "Moses" with a horn is based on a mistranslation. They confused "ray of light" with "horn of light" and that's how Moses got a horn!)