The sin of the golden calf, according to Chazal, is one that we continue to suffer a certain measure of backlash from even today. Still, it is inconceivable to naively believe that the sin was merely mass idolatry. A nation that had just witnessed the revelation of Sinai would surely not have stumbled to that degree.
Moreover, it was Aharon HaKohain who suggested they amass their gold and cast it into a blazing fire. To believe that his intentions were anything but noble is preposterous.
Rashi notes that the entire debacle was precipitated by the “airuv rav – the great mixture.” When the Jews left Mitzrayim, a group of people from various nationalities joined them (Shemos 12:38). They were enamored by the supernatural miracles and events they had witnessed and Moshe allowed them to accompany the Jews without consulting G-d. That decision proved to be a tragic error.
It was G-d who informed Moshe about Cheit HaEgel. At the time, Moshe was still in heaven learning all of the Torah. “G-d spoke to Moshe: Go, descend – for your people that you brought up from the land of Egypt has become corrupt” (Shemos 32:7). Rashi notes that G-d called them “your people” because He was specifically referring to the members of the airuv rav whom Moshe allowed to join Klal Yisrael.
If the sin was caused by this spiteful group, it seems illogical that the Torah would not allude to the identity of the perpetrators. How did the sages derive that it was the airuv rav who incited the nation and brought about the sin of the golden calf?
Rabbi Itzeleh of Volozhin (Peh Kadosh) explains that the exodus from Egypt is always called yetzias Mitzrayim, going out of Egypt. The Torah itself refers to it as a “yetziah” whenever it mentions those events. “It was at the end of four hundred and thirty years… all of the legions of G-d left Egypt” (Shemos 12:41). That is also the terminology used in our tefillos, including Kiddush for Shabbos and Yom Tov.
The expression “going out” connotes a permanent departure. It implies leaving with intent of never returning. Just prior to the exodus, the Jews had sunk into a morass of impurity that threatened their spiritual existence. “Going out of Egypt” allowed them to leave behind their former way of life and transcend the impurities that had engulfed them. They were destined for elite greatness and they knew it. When they crossed the borders of the country, they also transcended the crassness and vulgarity of Egyptian culture forever!
It is noteworthy that throughout the Torah’s narrative of the debacle of the golden calf, the exodus is referred to as going up from the land of Egypt. “For this man Moshe who brought us up from Egypt, we do not know what has become of him… They have made themselves a molten calf, prostrated themselves to it, and sacrificed to it, and they said, ‘This is your god, Israel, who has brought you up from the land of Egypt…”
The aggregate that amassed around Aharon and demanded that he “do something” referred to the exodus, not as “going out,” but as “going up.” That subtlety is very crucial. It is well known that “what goes up must come down.” In other words, they viewed the exodus as a transient victory. It was an exuberant and wonderful event, but it lacked permanence.
The sages understood this terminology as a clear indication of who its authors were. It was unquestionably the lexicon of the airuv rav who failed to appreciate the true greatness of the exodus. They saw miracles and joined the bandwagon but had no intention of remaining aboard when the going got tough. If Moshe, the emissary who had brought them up from Egypt, was out of the picture, they needed a quick fix to keep that high going. They did not appreciate the eternal quality of the redemption and the fact that it was an “eternal freedom” on a spiritual level.
The laws of ritual contamination and purification are intricate and, at times, complex. The whole concept of spiritual purity and impurity symbolizes an integral aspect of a Jew’s belief system, i.e. that there are potent forces that affect us despite the fact that they are indiscernible to the human eye.
The “Parah Adumah – Red Cow” serves as the quintessential symbolism of this lofty idea. We have no idea why the ritual offering of the Red Cow and the sprinkling of its ashes serves as the purification for one who became impure via a dead body. What’s more, Shlomo HaMelech declared that certain aspects of this idea remained a mystery even to him.
Still, there are lessons we can glean from its process. After being slaughtered and its blood sprinkled in the direction of the Temple, the entire Parah Adumah was burned, along with certain enumerated materials. Then water from a fresh spring was mixed together with the ashes. The ash-water was subsequently sprinkled upon the contaminated person on the third and seventh days of his contamination.
The color red symbolizes sin (Yeshaya 1:18). The Red Cow which was completely burned symbolizes the eradication of one’s past. It is then mixed with water from a flowing spring, which symbolizes continuity.
Homiletically, we can explain that the mixing of the ashes of the Red Cow with flowing water symbolizes the process of life. The past is unalterable and irretrievable. Yet, we cannot ignore the foibles and mishaps of the past. We take the “ashes of the past” and mix them in flowing water, symbolizing the need for continuity. Life is not a stagnant process. One must move beyond the pitfalls of the past into the hopes of the future.
That is the process of purification from contamination via a dead body. Many people, who are alive physically, are ritually dead. They have become fixated with the past and are not able to maintain a sanguine attitude for the future. Such a person has given himself a death sentence, despite the fact that he is still breathing.
One must always view life as a dynamic process. There are ups and there are downs, there are highs and there are lows, but life is never stagnant. The lows and the downs are all part of going forward. Even the ashes must become part of the flowing waters.
The holiday of Purim, like all holidays, presents us with an opportunity for a unique form of spiritual growth. Purim is the celebration of life itself and, specifically, what life means to us as Jews. A person who celebrates Purim but then slides right back into his daily affairs as if it never happened, has lost out. He has allowed the holiday to fade into a heap of ashes, like burning embers that will eventually fizzle out completely. But a person who is able to take the joy with him, along with all of the feelings of love and unity that he felt on Purim, has mixed those ashes with the living water which continues to flow with unstoppable force.
We all cruise along the roads of life. Along the way there are many stop signs. Sometimes we stop because of challenges and difficulties that arise, and sometimes we stop to celebrate and enjoy, but stops are inevitable. At those junctures our task is to look both ways, take in what is happening around us, and then to proceed. At a stop sign, we do not go backwards. We stop (completely!) so that we can then move on.
Those stop signs are vital because otherwise the road would become monotonous and unemotional. When our service to G-d is out of rote and habit, we know it’s time to stop before we proceed. Habit is a wonderful thing, but not for our service to G-d.
The airav rav failed to realize that every juncture of life presents us with opportunities for unalterable growth. Life can never regress, even at moments of challenge and struggle. We did not ascend from Egypt, we left Egypt!
In a similar vein, we cannot simply celebrate Purim; we must internalize Purim. From Purim one looks ahead excitedly to the holiday of Pesach and reacceptance of the Torah on Shavuos.
The ashes of the past blend into the unstoppable flow of water, and life becomes a revitalizing process of constant growth.