Wednesday nights - Rav Benzion's Tanya shiur..........Please continue to daven for the good health of the Rebbe (Yechiel Michel ben Devorah Leah) and Rebbetzin (Feiga bas Sarah).

Friday, February 18, 2011

Ki Sisa: A Lion in the Holy of Holies

This D'var Torah was transcribed from recordings of informal discussions and edited for clarity of the written word only, leaving as much of the content, to the best of our ability, exactly as the Rebbe, shlit”a, said it. Any mistakes, be they from a linguistic standpoint or in the content itself, are only the product of the editors’ own shortcomings and oversight.
 Recorded on March 15, 2006 (5766)
The Golden Calf
We know that the number of Jews that were involved with the sin of the Golden Calf was but a fraction of a percent of Klal Yisroel. The Golden Calf itself was mostly a product of the Erev Rav, the mixed multitude of Johnny-come-lately’s who hopped on the bandwagon and did not have a history of commitment to monotheism. Nonetheless, the entire generation was held responsible because they didn’t protest and they didn’t stop it. Everybody is sullied by it because they should have stood up.
The obvious question is, why? The instigators were not even of Jewish extraction. Why should Klal Yisroel be punished for the iniquity of the Erev Rav? In addition,  how could Klal Yisroel be expected at that point, just out of slavery, to be activists?
After the sin, Moshe pleads with Hashem on the behalf of Klal Yisroel, and Hashem responds (Shemos 32: 34): וביום פקדי ופקדתי עליהם חטאתם, “On the days [in history] when I will remember [i.e. when they will be deserving of being punished for a different sin], I will remember this sin [also]”.
Rashi’s comments: “Now I listened to you not to destroy them altogether but whenever I shall make an accounting of their sins, I will also remember this sin with the rest of their sins. There is no punishment that comes upon Klal Yisroel which does not have in it some payment for the sin of the Golden Calf”.
Every other generation has no involvement, no complicity with the sin that took place thousands of years ago that they should be blamed for, that they should get punished for. There is nothing that I’m aware of that should support the thought that we were all there at the scene of the Golden Calf. Yet it turns out that the sin of the Golden Calf walks with us throughout history. Whenever we have to suffer the consequences of our detachment from Hashem in whatever generation it may be, we suffer not only for what we’re doing at that time but for the sin of the golden calf as well.
The Draw to Idolatry and it’s Abolishment
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 102b) relates an interesting episode where Rav Ashi concluded the day’s shiur by saying that “tomorrow we’re going to look into the matter of my friend Menasheh”. He was referring to the king Menasheh ben Chizkiyahu who was responsible for this terrible period of Avodah Zarah in Klal Yisroel.
That night, Menasheh appears to Rav Ashi in a dream and says to him, “You referred to me today as your friend. Let me ask you a question in Halacha and we’ll see if you are my peer.” He then proceeds to present a question that Rav Ashi couldn’t answer.
“You don’t know the answer and you call yourself my friend, my equal?” asks Menasheh.
Rav Ashi replies, “Tell me the answer and I will tell it over in the yeshiva in your name.” Upon hearing the answer, Rav Ashi says, “If you’re so learned, how come you were so dedicated to idolatry?”
Menasheh answered, “Had you been living in our generation, you would have picked up your tunic [so that you could run easily, see Rashi] and run after me”. Clearly there was something about idolatry which in the generation of Rav Ashi was so unthinkable, so ridiculous and ludicrous, but in the time of the kings of Israel, it seemed very appealing.
The Gemara (ibid. 63b) says that the Jewish people never took idolatry seriously and that the only reason that they embraced any idolatry at any time in history was to make immorality acceptable.
The Gemara goes on to relate that the Sages of the Great Assembly decided that the time had come to end the desire, the yetzer hara, for idolatry. They fasted and prayed that Hashem should free us of this nisayon. After three days of fasting, a lion of fire emerged from the Kodesh Hakedoshim, the Holy of the Holies. They took it captive, and from that day forward the yetzer hara for idolatry was ended and people saw idolatry for the nonsense that it was. (Seeing that they were successful, the Sages decided to get rid of the desire for immorality. They fasted and were successful about that as well. But shortly thereafter they discovered that there were no eggs to be found in the marketplace because the yetzer harah for immorality is intertwined with a legitimate desire for procreation. When they destroyed the yetzer hara, both the animal kingdom and people lost their interest. So they restored the yetzer hara but “blinded it in one eye”, thereby diminishing its strength and there is no longer the same level of desire for immediate relatives, those that constitute incest.)
A Double-edged Sword
There was a period of time in Jewish history when honor was a very powerful force. I’m not referring to honors paid in terms of either praise or deference but rather kavod ha’adam, the honor of a person. Today we might look at it more as respect or self-respect, in recognition of one’s integrity as an honorable person.
This force has both positive and negative aspects. For example, in a positive sense, people felt compelled by what they understood to be their inherent worthiness to live up to that worthiness. They understood that they were endowed with something G-dly. They understood that they were invested with a vast spiritual genius, an ability for spiritual and moral excellence, and they felt compelled to answer to that. They felt summoned by it. They recognized their own sense of kavod ha’adam, that greatness with which G-d had endowed them, as a responsibility.
On the other hand, if they did not answer to it, if they violated it, their sense of shame and of failure was so awesome that it was impossible for them to deal with it. They looked at themselves in the mirror and they couldn’t bear what they saw. Moreover, they were convinced that it was transparent and that nobody else could respect them either. So that very thing that was the source of, or could be the source of greatness also became the source of extraordinary self-deprecation. In other words, they saw themselves as sinners. This discrepancy had thunderous connotations on their how they understood their essence.
The conflict between their physical appetites and their spiritual aspirations was of such enormous proportions that when they felt unable to deal with their summons to greatness and the effort it demanded from them on the one hand and their very formidable drive towards indulging their immediate gratification on the other, they had to come up with something that was just in the middle. Idolatry allowed one to step out in public as an honorable person, even though they knew in their heart of hearts that the whole thing was a nasty charade. It enabled them to continue to say with some self-believability, however thin that façade probably was, “I am an honorable person. I am an upstanding…” whatever it was, whatever the religion was. But it was the only thing that allowed them or that gave them some reputability as they were in social circles which were doing nasty stuff, but it’s okay. It’s acceptable. What they did was to create a religion that reinstated their public respectability and to whatever extent it also made them feel better when they were sitting alone before their fireplace. It was not a cure, but it helped numb the self-contempt and dreams. This disposition, which at once calls people to greatness and demands of them that they have some sort of public respectability is drawing from a relationship with royalty. The royal disposition is one which demands of a person that they live up to their office but also has a profound sense of shame associated with not being worthy of it.
Without the Lion
One of the symbols of royalty is the lion. That lion of royalty, which could call people to the greatest levels of holiness, is also that which was responsible for dragging us into the abyss. It was such an extreme that if you couldn’t measure up then you had to invent some faith system to replace it in order to regain a sense of respect. So in reality, Jewish greatness is in the Kodesh Hakadoshim; it is supremely holy. When the chachomim fasted to destroy the drive for idolatry, in effect they diminished our awareness of our own sense of what we are called to become. Once that was weakened, we no longer have the need to justify ourselves.
Today it’s okay for somebody to do whatever they want to do. They don’t feel like they need to justify it by creating a face for it. Okay, so I did something wrong. Whatever it is, maybe I’m an adulterer, maybe I’m a thief. We have people today who can cheat somebody out of their skin but they don’t feel that they need to create a face to defend it to say that it was a legitimate thing to do.
So, we are no longer driven to create an idolatry. But the price we pay is that we’re also not aware of the heights that we’re supposed to reach and we don’t strive for those heights. The chachomim took the lion out of the Holy of Holies, but they also took the Holy of Holies out of the lion.
What’s Happening Today
The fact is that even though we don’t create idolatries today to defend our self-respect, we do create all kinds of rationalizations why it’s okay to do the many things we do today that we shouldn’t. All the different forms of reformations that have occurred over Jewish history whether it was two thousand years ago or two hundred years ago, it doesn’t matter. It’s basically the same mechanism. It’s something that to tell ourselves and others, “this is okay”.
You’ll find it in many Orthodox circles today, people who are making things okay that should not be allowed to be okay. Because they didn’t totally destroy our honor, people still have honor. People still look in the mirror and hold themselves accountable. The only thing that we don’t do today to defend ourselves is to create new gods and faith systems. We don’t go that far. But we do create rationalizations. Everybody does that. It turns out that humanity and the Jewish people are still involved in the same basic mechanisms, just not to that extreme.
Hashem said, “Look, there’s going to be a time when I’m going to visit upon you your sins and I’m going to visit upon you the sin of the Golden Calf because you’re still doing it.” Not because we’re responsible for what they did then, but we’re responsible for what we’re doing now. What we’re doing now is basically a replica of what they were doing then. The only thing then is that since they were bigger people they needed more extreme ways of justifying. I think that the reason that we sleep walk today is just because we’re less aware. Once upon a time when we looked at our spiritual horizon, we saw majestic peaks, great mountains to climb. We see foothills from here on out.

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