There’s Only One Thing Worse Than The Golden Calf

In my Halacha shiur this week, we were discussing the bracha on tzitzis. One of my talmidim raised his hand:

“Rebbe, is it true that if you don’t make a bracha, you didn’t just miss out on a mitzvah, but you get a sin as well?”

It wasn’t really our topic, but I could see that this was bothering him.

“You’re sort of right. The Gemara says something along those lines regarding the brachos on food:

וְכׇל הַנֶּהֱנֶה מִן הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה בְּלֹא בְּרָכָה מָעַל – anyone who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if he is guilty of stealing from the Beis HaMikdash.“

Being kinda correct wasn’t what this talmid was hoping for. He looked defeated and said “So you’re telling me that I’ve racked up thousands of sins for all this stuff already.”

It’s a complicated question to answer. On the one hand, we cannot downplay the importance of a mitzvah or a bracha. We certainly can’t denigrate words of Chazal. But one the other hand, drilling down is a recipe for despondence and depression.

Pausing for a moment, I told him “Yes, missing a bracha is a sin. That said, I think you care a little too much about your sins. Maybe more than Hashem does.”

That was intentionally inflammatory and the whole shiur was bothered by this idea, so we continued the conversation, noting that in the western world, we’ve all been conditioned by thoughts of sin and punishment from other cultures.

All too often we think of Hashem as some “overbearing headmaster” with a checklist of our flaws and failures. Or perhaps, when that image is too overwhelming, we flip to the other side completely, and imagine Hashem as our best friend; loyal, supportive and tolerant.

Neither of these tells the whole story.

In the deepest way, we should think of Hashem as a great coach who sees what we are truly capable of; often before we do. A great coach trains us to know that every practice, game or competition should be taken seriously. But never to the point where we dread it.

A great coach demands diligence, dedication and a drive for perfection. But a great coach also understands that actual perfection unattainable, and cautions us not to get caught up in our failures.

On the infinite journey towards growth and mastery, we all acknowledge that we will make mistakes. Some of them will be terrible. We will have bad days, and weak moments. Sometimes we’re going to push ourselves too hard and break. And sometimes, we’re going to get lazy and not push ourselves hard enough. Often, we’re going to have a difficult time figuring out the fine line between these two extremes.

Sometimes our emotions and desires will get the better of us, and sometimes we’ll fail to bring that passion into our life, learning and work. We will dig through demotivation and frustration. That’s all part of the process. We know it’s going to happen.

Of course, knowing that we are going to fail at some point does not make it excusable. All of it must be accounted for and corrected. We should not be irreverent about it; a fundamental truth is that nothing we do is ever irrelevant in Hashem’s grand calculus. Every Aveira will require teshuva; it will need to be addressed in this world or the next. But there’s a big difference between fixing our mistakes and beating ourselves up.

That difference manifests in one pivotal way: What happens the day after we fail? Great players know that the only thing worse than losing is quitting.

That’s what Hashem told Aharon in the tragic aftermath of his helping Klal Yisrael to build the Egel HaZahav (ויקרא רבה כא ה):

אם עשית חבילות של עבירות עשה כנגדן חבילות של מצות If you’ve transgressed a pile of Aveiros, counter that with a pile of Mitzvos.

It’s not an easy task and we don’t always live like this. We’re so tempted to give up; to accept defeat and allow our hopes, dreams and aspirations to wither.

But so many of the greatest moments in our history do not come from perfect scores. They come from overcoming fear and failure.

The Sefer Imrei Daas (עמ’ קעט) records the story:

In the winter of 1930, the construction of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin was finally completed. The inauguration of the new building was set for the 28th of Sivan that year. The famed Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Meir Shapiro, made it his personal duty to ensure that the event was publicized and advertised to every Torah Community in Europe.

Weighing heavily on his mind, however, was a question posed by his Rebbe, Rav Yisroel Friedman, the Rebbe of Chortkov: It is wise to publicize this event so widely? Perhaps a more modest reception is in order?

This consideration was not simply a personal inclination. Rashi (שמות ל״ד ג), quoting the Medrash makes this point when contrasting the short-lived first set of Luchos to the second everlasting set:

הָרִאשׁוֹנוֹת עַ”יְ שֶׁהָיוּ בִתְשׁוּאוֹת וְקוֹלוֹת וּקְהִלּוֹת, שָׁלְטָה בָהֶן עַיִן רָעָה – אֵין לְךָ יָפֶה מִן הַצְּנִיעוּת

Because the first tablets were given amidst great noises and publicity and a vast crowd the Evil Eye had power over them and they did not endure. (We see from here that) there is no finer quality than to be modest.

Rav Meir Shapiro responded to the challenge with a question of his own:

Surely Hashem Himself also knows this Rashi?! And yet, He broke the barrier between heaven and earth to present us with His Torah on Har Sinai with fanfare and publicity.

Moreover, we can ask: Why did Hashem give the Luchos to Moshe at all? Moshe was handed the Luchos at the very moment when Hashem told him that the Jewish people had built the Egel. They had violated the core principle of their relationship with God! Surely Hashem knew that those Tablets were not long for this world?!

Of course He knew. He knew all of it; but something greater was at stake.

Consider that as we came out of Mitzraim, the world was drowning in idolatry. Humanity was in desperate need of a shock to their system. The world needed to be shaken awake.

Knowing and understanding this, Hashem gave us the Torah. He handed Moshe the Luchos knowing that they would be shattered, but through this, Klal Yisrael would finally arise from slavery and obscurity. The world would know that there is a Creator of Heaven and Earth, even if they had no sustainable way of serving Him. Even if they built the Golden Calf.

The Rosh Yeshiva concluded: I agree with Hashem’s assessment. If it would be, Chas V’Shalom, that the publicity of my Yeshiva would bring my own downfall, then I am prepared to risk my life to make a Kiddush Hashem in the world.

The Chortkover Rebbe nodded his head, acquiescing to the selflessness of his student and Chassid. Perhaps in some way, he knew that Rav Meir Shapiro would indeed leave the world a few short years later, but that the legacy of his Torah would endure forever in the Daf Yomi which he pioneered.

The profundity of this approach is transformative. It’s the bold declaration that despite our fears of failure and evil, we cannot let anything get in the way of pursuing the ultimate purpose of our lives: Bringing Hashem into this world.

Incredibly, since October 7th this is happening throughout the Jewish world.

Jews who have lived much their lives imagining themselves mired in filth and failures are shaking themselves from that dirt. They’re putting on Tefillin and Tzitzis. They’re saying Tehillim, giving tzedaka and kashering their kitchens. They’re risking their lives in Gaza. They’re saving lives and securing our future.

Perhaps neither they nor we, have succeeded in overcoming the Golden Calfs of our lives. Perhaps we are still smashing the Luchos. But that doesn’t mean we stop showing up for practice. That’s what the coach is asking from us. He still sees something in us and our team that we’ve been struggling to see for generations.

The deepest lesson of the Egel HaZahav is that it wasn’t the end. There is no end to an eternal nation.

So why waste your eternity wallowing in the shots we missed?

It’s time to lace up your tzitzis. Open that Sefer. It’s time to stop chasing those foreign gods and goals. But if you did; if you missed your shot, now’s the time to get over it. As Rebbe Nachman teaches (ליקוטי מוהר”ן תנינא קי״ב):

אִם אַתָּה מַאֲמִין, שֶׁיְּכוֹלִין לְקַלְקֵל, תַּאֲמִין שֶׁיְּכוֹלִין לְתַקֵּן

If you believe that, somehow, you were able to destroy, then it’s time to believe you can fix it as well.