“I have taken the Levi’im from among Bnei Yisrael in place of every firstborn…and they shall be mine” (Bamidbar 3:12).
We learn in Parshas Bamidbar that originally the firstborn were supposed to serve Hashem in the Beis HaMikdash. Rashi writes that this privilege was taken away at the time of the Golden Calf and given to the Levi’im, who had not participated at all in the sin.
The Seforno elaborates that at the time of Makas Bechoros in Mitzrayim, the Jewish firstborn also deserved to be punished (as they were the most honored and served as role models), so Hashem sanctified them for service in the Beis HaMikdash, thereby sparing them from punishment. With the sin of the Golden Calf, however, the firstborn lost that privilege.
The Torah tells us that the Levi’im killed the 3,000 men who had actually participated in the sin of the Golden Calf (the remainder of the Jewish nation just stood by). But the firstborn were punished in addition to these 3,000. Why?
HaGaon R’ Nevensahl cites a well-known incident with the Chofetz Chaim to explain. The Chofetz Chaim tried to recruit one of his students to participate in a philanthropic cause; the student, though, firmly declined.
The Chofetz Chaim asked him, “Are you a kohen?”
“No,” responded the student.
“Why aren’t you a kohen?” asked the Chofetz Chaim.
“Because my father and my grandfather are not kohanim; they are Yisraelim.”
“And why aren’t they kohanim?” asked the Chofetz Chaim.
The student looked at him blankly.
“When the Beis HaMikdash will be built speedily in our days,” continued the Chofetz Chaim, “I, as a kohen, will be one of those privileged to do the avodah in the Beis HaMikdash. This is because after the sin of the Golden Calf, when Moshe called out, “Whoever is for Hashem should come to me!” my great-great grandfather ran to Moshe, but yours did not and his descendants lost the merit.”
With this story we can better understand the Seforno’s comment. The spiritual standing of the firstborn – they were most honored and served as role models – in and of itself should have spurred them to protest the sin of the Golden Calf, but they didn’t. And since they didn’t step up to the plate, they forfeited the privilege of serving in the Beis HaMikdash.
A similar idea is expressed in an analogy offered by the Malbim on Mishlei 18:9, “One who grows lax in his work is also a brother to the master of destruction.” The Malbim writes that a king once ordered his servants to construct an edifice. Some of them not only didn’t participate in the construction but destroyed what was built. Others just sat idly by – neither building nor destroying. The king decreed the same punishment for both because they both shunned their obligation to build the edifice.
Rav Braverman says the call of “Mi laHashem eilei – Whoever is for Hashem should come to me!” is a charge to every person in every generation to step up to the plate – whether it be to participate in a dvar mitzvah or to speak out against something that is antithetical to Torah.
The Talmud (Shabbos 54b) states: One who could have protested the sinful conduct of the members of his household but did not is punished for their sins. If a person is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the people of his town and fails to do so, he is also accountable for their sins. And if a person is in a position to object to the sins of the whole world but fails to do so, he is accountable for the sins of all the world.
The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 4:1) writes that a person who can rebuke others and refrains from doing so is prevented from doing teshuvah. Since he didn’t facilitate the teshuvah of others, the possibility of doing teshuvah is withheld from him as well. The Rema clarifies that a person need not fulfill this duty if it will entail financial loss, bodily harm, or the risk of government retribution due an informer. That’s why some are lenient in appropriately fulfilling this obligation.
As candle-lighting time approached one Erev Shabbos in Cholon, Israel, Rav Slovtitsky went out on the streets to protect the sanctity of Shabbos. Walking into the first store he saw open, the rav tried to influence the owner to close for Shabbos. There were many customers inside the store, and the owner adamantly refused.
Rav Slovtitsky then walked over to the mezuzah on the door and, in front of everyone, loudly proclaimed with tears flowing down his face:
“I turn to you, mezuzah, to be my witness in heaven after 120 years that I properly fulfilled the mitzvah of instructing my fellow man the correct Torah path to follow in life and how to avoid sin. I tried with all my power to convince the owner of the store to close. Please give testimony on my behalf before the master of all the world that this store owner would not listen to me.”
Rav Slovtitsky then quietly walked out of the store.
After a few seconds of silence, the storeowner apparently changed his mind. He asked all his customers to leave the store and return on Sunday because he was closing up for the day.
One should never give up on another Jew. The Torah demands that one should fulfill the will of Hashem and not shirk responsibility when it is necessary to raise an objection regarding forbidden conduct.