One of the most dramatic events that the Jewish people experienced in their long history was the exodus from the land of Egypt. Our Torah narrates that Almighty G-d brought down upon the Egyptians ten plagues which literally destroyed the land and halted the Egyptians to continue the enslavement of the Jewish people. For two hundred and ten years the Jews were captive in a strange land, driven only by an ancient promise that a deliverer would come and redeem them. Moses, the prophet of G-d, appears and performs wonders, literally overthrowing the Egyptian kingdom. Finally, after two hundred years plus years – with signs and wonders – the Jews leave the land of Egypt. What a remarkable story!
One would expect that after witnessing such a spectacle of miracles and marvels, the Jewish people would be ardent believers in Almighty G-d and could never entertain any doubts as to his omnipotence. Yet, after the miraculous splitting of the sea of reeds, the Jews openly rebel against Almighty G-d. Moses had not returned at the specific time and the Jews believed that he was dead. In desperation they built the Golden calf and began worshipping it in defiance of G-d and his Torah. When Moses finally returns from his forty-day sojourn with Almighty God and is holding the most treasured possession bequeathed to him and the Jewish people from G-d, he sees the idol and smashes the Ten Commandments upon it. What ensues is a massive slaughter of the guilty people who took part in this debacle.
Our sages tell us that there is no calamity that befalls the Jewish people that does not carry within it the sin of the Golden calf. So devastating was this incident that it was never forgotten in all the succeeding persecutions of the Jewish people.
Upon reading the text in the Torah one doesn’t really understand the magnitude of the exodus from Egypt. The Torah counts approximately 600,000 men from the ages of twenty through sixty. However, when one takes into account the women and children and those men and women who were over sixty or below the age of twenty, one must come to the fantastic conclusion that there were at least three million Jews that left Egypt who were assembled a Sinai.
The Torah, when narrating to us the story of the Golden calf, tells us that when Moshe returned from the mountain and instructed the Levites to kill all those who worshipped the Golden calf, that in all 3,000 Jews were killed. This amount, when placed into perspective in relation to the entire number of those that were in the desert, represented only one percent of the entire community. The women were not involved, nor were the children. It would seem therefore rather strange that we attach such seriousness to this incident when only a small percentage was involved! Of course it was a calamity! But why did our Rabbis attach such weightiness to this episode stating that every occurrence involving the persecution of the Jews had some relevance to the sin of the Golden calf?
I believe that the answer lies in the responsibility one Jew must have for his neighbor. While the true culprits who were actively involved in the incident were killed it does not excuse the remainder of the Jewish people from guilt. They should have been troubled with their brethren who were committing this terrible crime and should have tried to stop them. Jews are commanded to be concerned for one another and when seeing something that is wrong to take an active part to rectify the situation. It was this lack of interest and concern that placed the blame if not equally than passively on all of Israel. We call this principle kol Yisrael arevin zeh lazeh – each person is integrally involved in the welfare of their fellow Jew.
I am reminded of the story once told to me of a man who was given the opportunity to see heaven and hell. When he arrived at the latter he saw all the people sitting at a table with all the delicacies that one could imagine. Except that no one could eat them for each of the people had no elbows, hence they could not bend their arms to place the food in their mouths. They sat there starving. He then visited heaven. There he saw the same scene except the people were eating and were satiated. When he inquired as to how the people who were in heaven were able to consume the food though they too had no elbows, he was told that the people in heaven were concerned with their neighbors and fed each other. The concern for one’s neighbor defined the difference between the wicked and the righteous.
It is this lack of concern that is the root of all succeeding calamities that has befallen our people. When people are only interested in themselves and don’t take into account the suffering of all our people, it brings to the forefront the sin of the Golden calf and all its implications. And when we show this concern we are able to bring the redemption just a little bit closer.
May that time come speedily!