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Measure For Measure

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

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

Twice in its history, the world stood poised on the brink of perfection. The first occasion was the creation of Adam, born in the Garden of Eden, the product of God's own hands. The second was the Exodus, when Israel received the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Had sin not reared its ugly head, our present existence would have come to an abrupt halt and God would have ushered in the World to Come. This idea is contained in the following passage of Talmud:

Rabbi Yochanan taught: "When the serpent had relations with Eve he inserted his blemish into the human species. Israel who stood on Mount Sinai was cleansed of this blemish, those who did not stand on Mount Sinai never lost it." (Talmud, Yevomat 103b).

The Maharsha (possibly the earliest commentator to systematically explain the aggadic portions of the Talmud) explains:

Adam was created in the image of God. His neshama, or soul, was taken from the heavens. His body was formed out of special earth, taken from the most spiritually pure place in the world, the place that would later serve as the foundation of the Altar in the Temple, the very same spot from which the earth was also fashioned. Adam was unique in the nether world just as God is unique in the heavens, and as an expression of his uniqueness, only human beings were created alone and unpaired, as opposed to other living creatures which all made their initial appearance as entire species.

What does it mean that "the serpent had intercourse with Eve"?

The expression that "the serpent had intercourse with Eve through the sin" really means the following:

The serpent planned to engineer Adam's death by causing him to sin (as God had told Adam that on the day he would sin, he would also become a mortal creature) so that he could marry Eve. The idea of intercourse or marriage with Eve symbolizes the fact that following his sin Adam became partly tamey, or spiritually unclean just like the other creatures in the nether world with whom the serpent was able to come in to contact.


As a result of his sin, Adam lost his uniqueness – his unblemished image of God. In its absence, he was vulnerable to the contact of the serpent and thus lost his immortality, as the Angel of Death is one of the serpent's minions.

This was the human condition until Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai when they lost the tamey blemish caused by Adam's sin and once again a portion of mankind recovered its uniqueness, and regained the purity of being cast in God's image in full, as it is written:

I said you are like God ... but like men you shall die (Psalms 82:6-7)

Although he doesn't quote it, the Maharsha is certainly referring to the passage of Talmud which states that the Jews only accepted the Torah so that the Angel of Death should no longer have any mastery over them, "as it is written, I said you are like God ... but [as you interfered with the purity of your own deeds] like men you shall die." (Avoda Zara, 5a)

The purity of Adam before his sin kept him out of the reach of the serpent, and therefore safe from the clutches of the Angel of Death, and the Jews who stood on Mount Sinai regained this state of purity and were once again candidates for immortality. The sin of the golden calf is thus the exact counterpart of the sin of eating the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge. These two sins reintroduced death by reestablishing the contact between man and the serpent.

Each of these sins came from a desire to fully connect with God.

But they had something else in common as well. Each of these sins was born out of a failure to repress the expression of a desire – that we should all aspire to feel, and would all be grateful to achieve –- to fully connect with God.

In order to fully connect, Adam knew that he must emulate God. This is the way to get the closest to God – by choosing of one's free will to make oneself Godlike through imitating God's revealed character traits. The commandment of vehalachta bidrachav, "following in God's ways" expresses this most fundamental idea of Judaism.

The serpent tempted Adam by showing him that eating from the forbidden fruit would make him like God, for God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God knowing good and bad. (Genesis 3:5)

So great was Adam's desire to achieve this closeness to God, that he was unable to resist the temptation of disobeying God's own command when it stood in the way of this goal. In fact, the Zohar tells us that God Himself fully intended to allow Adam to make the blessing of over the forbidden fruit – the grape according to one school of thought – as soon as Shabbat ushered in. The Torah informs us that Adam was created on Friday, the sixth day. The Shabbat is reminiscent even now of the World to Come. Had Adam not sinned, the arrival of that first Shabbat would have marked the actual beginning of this world.


The sin of the golden calf arose from a similar desire. The Torah informs us that when Moses did not return on schedule as expected, the Jewish people immediately made the golden calf. The commentators explain that he actually did arrive exactly as scheduled, but on the next day, when the forty days allotted for the transcription of the Torah actually came to an end. The sin of the golden calf was thus actually the result of miscalculating by a day the projected conclusion of these forty days. In turn, this miscalculation was based on impatience.

A study of the commentators reveals that the source of this impatience was the intense frustration of the Jewish people over their lack of ability to contact God. So great was Israel's love of God following the meeting at Sinai, that the Jews found the lack of ready contact with God – that Moses' presence among them rendered possible – simply intolerable. When you think about it, we can readily relate to their collective feelings for we all relate the same way towards those we love.

So great was Israel's love of God that the Jews found the lack of contact with God simply intolerable.

We do not need to be in actual contact with those we love constantly, but we do need to know that we have a way of being able to reach them in case of need. If there is no way to see them, or contact them on the phone, or at least communicate with them by mail, we find the situation quite burdensome if not downright painful. If it were within our means to establish a channel of communication with the object of our love, we would certainly be willing to pay a substantial price for its attainment.

Rashi and Nachmanides dispute the origins of the commandment to build the Tabernacle. Rashi maintains that the commandment was a sign from God that Israel was finally forgiven the sin of the golden calf. But according to Nachmanides, the idea of a Tabernacle was always an integral part of the giving of the Torah and the face to face meeting at Sinai. The Tabernacle was designed by God to preserve the level of contact established with God at Mount Sinai. Thus God Himself was in perfect sympathy with the Jewish desire to always have the means at its disposal to access the Sinai experience.

As with Adam, the sin of the golden calf consisted in attempting to attain a level of closeness to God that was always intended, but doing it prematurely.


As they clearly emerge from the loftiest of desires, how can these two expressions of an overabundance of the love of God be considered such great sins? What is so wrong with desiring to be like God just a little too much, or feeling the need of the security of constantly being able to reach Him a little too intensely?

It must be considered terribly wrong by God, because the punishment to Adam was most severe:

"...accursed is the ground because of you; through suffering shall you eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the ground from which you were taken: for you are dust and to dust shall you return." (Genesis 3:17-19)

But how does it make sense to take Adam, this lofty human being, who was created to reach the dizzying heights of the greatest spiritual levels, and who aspires with all his heart to refashion himself in the perfect image of God, and immerse him in a life of endless agricultural toil thus effectively stifling all his lofty desires and aspirations?

The key to all this involves the understanding of a concept called midot, inaccurately translatable into English as "character traits." We are dealing here with a concept that is so foreign to the secular mind that the English language doesn't even have a word for it. Yet so central are midot to Judaism that the Gaon of Vilna repeatedly declares that the major purpose of sending man down into the world was to work on his midot. [See Even Shlema 1,1.]

The word midah in Hebrew means "measure." All of our interactions with the world have to be measured. Suppose A insults B. B is flooded with a feeling of rage. The feeling is beyond his control, but his response to the feeling is not. Thus B has several options to choose from. He can insult A in return. He can strike him or take out a gun and kill him. He can challenge him to a duel. He can swallow his rage and walk away.

The word midah in Hebrew means "measure." All of our interactions with the world have to be measured.

If B is a person without self-control, he will select the behavior option that matches the intensity of his rage and allows it its most perfect expression. Most humans have a fair amount of self-control so this is unlikely to happen. Several of B's theoretical options might be closed to him by the laws of society and by social conventions, leaving him with a more limited selection of options from which to choose. As long as B expresses his rage with only these considerations in mind – i.e. the best way to convey what he feels, and the socially acceptable method of expressing it – he does not come near to expressing his midot, even though he is acting with self-control.

In order to behave with midot, B has to go through an entirely different exercise on top of the ones mentioned above, which are automatic and instinctive to all human beings. He has to ask himself what God would do in such a situation and attempt to model his own response on the projected Divine one.


Maimonides informs us that this method of relating to situations is mandated by one of the most central of the positive commandments of the Torah, the commandment to "follow in His ways":

So the rabbis taught us as to the content of this commandment. Just as God is called compassionate so you should be compassionate. Just as He is described as merciful so should you be merciful. Just as He is called holy so should you be holy. And it is in this fashion that the prophets described God in terms of character traits – slow to anger, abundant in kindness, righteous, perfect, powerful and strong etc. – to teach us that these are upright and positive traits, and a person is obligated to conduct himself according to their example, and thus to make himself like God as far as it is in his power. (Maimonides, the Laws of Character, 1,6)

It is by following in God's ways that we connect with Him and not by simply expressing our desires and emotions no matter how noble or spiritual they may be.

Thus Adam, who was the creation of God's own hands, naturally felt a desire to be like God. This desire was not the result of any thoughtful, methodical self-development, but was inborn in Adam. As he was created by God Himself, his very nature was necessarily holy and spiritual. The unrestrained expression of the spontaneous feelings of such a noble nature finds no greater merit in God's eyes than the unrestrained expression of any other innately natural human emotion. It is not measured. It does not represent a commitment to follow in God's ways. As an expression of midot, Adam could never have attempted to be like God by doing precisely the opposite of what God commanded him to do.

In the same way, when God took Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles, fed the Jewish people manna in the desert, met with them face-to-face and gave them His Torah. He naturally elevated the Jewish people to a very lofty spiritual plane where the love of God and constant interaction with Him became an indispensable part of everyday life. When Israel expressed this emotional attachment without restraint, and failed to filter it through the lens of good midot, its expression found no favor in God's eyes whatever.

In fact, the improper understanding of the role of the development of midot underlies the most common misconceptions about what constitutes a healthy Divine–human relationship.

Those of us who have dedicated at least portion of our lives to developing such a relationship, have the mistaken feeling that unless we experience an emotional closeness to God through our prayers and Divine service, our efforts are meaningless. In fact many of us are troubled by an existential question that shakes the very foundations of our faith in God for all that it is seldom openly expressed. "If God is interested in all this, how come He doesn't bring me closer? How come he doesn't allow me to feel the inspiration of His Presence?"


The answer is clear. We have just recently read the story of Saul's war with the Amalekites, the Haftara of Parshat Zachor. Saul does not destroy the best of the cattle of the Amalekites contrary to God's command. When confronted by Samuel, he replies:

"I have brought them from the Amalekites for the people took pity on the best of the sheep and cattle in order to slaughter them to the Lord, but we have destroyed the remainder." (1 Samuel 15:13)

And again, when Samuel continued to chastise him for disobedience:

"But I heeded the voice of God and I walked the path on which God sent me! I brought Agag, king of Amalek, and I destroyed Amalek! The people took the sheep and the cattle from the loot, the best of what was to be destroyed, in order to bring offerings to the Lord in Gilgal." (1 Samuel 20-21)

Thus Saul genuinely believed that as he kept the best of the sheep and cattle only to sacrifice them to God, he was in no way violating the commandment to destroy everything that belonged to the Amalekites. Samuel's reply to this was the following:

"Does God take delight in elevation-offerings and feast-offerings in obedience to the voice of God? Behold! Obedience is better than a choice offering, attentiveness than the fat of rams." (1 Samuel 22)

But how does this answer Saul's defense? He was claiming obedience to God, saying, "I heeded the voice of God."

The real bone of contention is the point of this essay.

The purpose of all the commandments is to instill good midot, not the attainment of spiritual highs.

To Saul, the culmination of a successful war with the Amalekites required that the experience strengthen Israel's emotional bond with God. This in turn required the bringing of sacrifices. To save the best of the cattle for these sacrifices was interpreted by him as being part and parcel of conducting the war itself.

But Samuel knew better.

The purpose of all the commandments is to instill good midot, not the attainment of spiritual highs. The search for such high points is itself the greatest misunderstanding of all that God intended through the issue of His commandments.

Samuel knew that Saul had disobeyed in a very fundamental way.


Character is the only aspect of man that is his own creation. The body is a given and the soul comes straight from God. It is only in his midot, the unique blend of mind and emotion that each person develops through the exercise of his free will that he becomes an enduring individual. Moreover it is also through the midot that he fashions, that each human being develops his own way of fulfilling the commandment of vehalachta bidrochov, of "following in God's ways."

Contact with God on a mature level is only possible through one's midot. The intimate spiritual contact with God that is the source of the joy experienced in the next world can only take place between personalities that have reached a true meeting of minds. The fleeting inspiration of spiritual highs is as temporary as everything else in our present existence. The Torah aims for something more permanent.

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