“Moshe returned to Hashem and said, ‘Please! This people has committed a grave sin and made themselves a god of gold.’ ” – Shemos 32:31
When Moshe Rabbeinu came down from Har Sinai, he found a very different scene from the one he left forty days earlier. A segment of the Jewish nation, in rebellion against Hashem, had formed a golden calf and was worshiping it. The rest of the nation stood by and didn’t protest. In context, this was such an egregious act that Hashem threatened to destroy the entire nation.
Rashi explains that during the process of asking for forgiveness, Moshe said to Hashem, “You caused this. You gave the Jewish people gold and silver; they left Mitzraim with great riches. Isn’t it obvious that they would come to sin?”
This Rashi seems difficult to understand when we focus on whom these people were and where this was taking place.
Klal Yisrael was living in the desert. They neither worked for a living nor had any use for money. All their needs were taken care of. They ate mon that was delivered to their tents daily. They drank water from the be’er, the rock that followed them in their journeys. Their clothes were washed by the Clouds of Glory, and their shoes never wore out. They didn’t need money and couldn’t use it. How could it become their downfall?
The Real Danger of Wealth
The answer to this question is based on understanding why the Misilas Yesharim calls wealth one of the great tests of man.
Materialism and self-indulgence are the risks of affluence, but an even greater danger is that wealth can lead a person to view himself as different from everyone else: “There are regular people, but I am different because I am rich. The world is full of people, but I am in a different category. I am a rich man.”
With this also comes a sense of self-sufficiency and arrogance. “I am a wealthy man, so I don’t need anyone. I don’t need my children. I don’t need my wife. In fact…I am so wealthy that I don’t really need Hashem.”
This seems to be the answer to this Rashi. Granted, the Jewish people living in the desert needed nothing and could do nothing with their money, but the real risk of wealth is the sense of superiority that comes along with it. In their minds, they were now rich. As rich men, they were significant, important, too big to be dependent upon anyone, and this feeling was the root cause of their rebellion against Hashem.
This concept becomes a tremendous chiddush when we take into account that these individuals were on a higher level than any other generation in the history of mankind. They had been slaves in Mitzraim and were freed. They had lived through the entire process of the Maakos and splitting of the Yam Suf. They watched as Hashem showed total dominion over every facet of nature.
But more than all of this, they had only recently stood at the foot of Har Sinai when Hashem opened up the heavens and the earth and revealed the greatest secrets of Creation. They had seen and experienced Hashem more clearly than did the greatest naviim, which tells us that they knew exactly why they were created and how passing and insignificant is a person’s station in this world. And yet Moshe Rabbeinu compared their being wealthy to such a difficult test that it would be like putting a young man on the doorstep of sin.
This is highly illustrative of the inner workings of the human. Hashem created deep within our hearts many needs and desires. One of these is the need for honor and prestige. The drive for kavod is one of the strongest forces in man. Often we are unaware of its existence until a given situation brings it to the fore.