Thursday, March 4, 2010


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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One day a Jewish fellow walked into Starbucks to find his friend perusing an Arab newspaper. “Moishe, what’s this? Have you lost your mind? Why in the world are you reading an Arab newspaper?” Moishe put down the paper and replied, “I used to read the Jewish newspapers but the news was always so glum and morose. Jews are being persecuted, Israel is vulnerable and in danger of attack, Jews are fighting against Jews, and the assimilation rate is rising. So I decided to switch to the Arab newspapers. Now I read about how the Jews own all the banks, Jews control the media, Jews are rich and powerful, Israel is a mighty force to be reckoned with, and Jews run the world. The news is so much better!”

Klal Yisroel stood at Sinai and accepted the Torah in a state of supreme purity and complete unity. Every Jew reached a level of prophecy and witnessed an unparalleled revelation of G-d. Then Moshe ascended Sinai for forty days so G-d could teach him the laws and details of the Torah.

When the forty days had ended, Klal Yisroel thought Moshe would not return, and they panicked. The result was catastrophic; they created a golden calf and committed an egregious sin1.

How did they reach such a low level? It began with a miscalculation. The people thought Moshe was supposed to return that day. When six hours passed and he had still not returned, they began to become skeptical of his return. They knew that Moshe was very precise - to him midnight was exactly midnight and midday was precisely midday. They immediately began to panic. If Moshe was really gone, G-d forbid, what would become of the Jewish people? Who would lead them into Israel? Would they remain in the desert for eternity? Would the manna continue to fall - after all it was only due to the merit of Moshe that it fell in the first place? And if there was no manna what would become of their families? To make matters worse, Satan showed them the image of Moshe dead.

The Satan did not succeed in totally convincing the Jewish people that he died, for the people only said "we do not know what became of him"; there was no mention that he died. They did, however, allow their imagination to overpower their intellect. They were terribly frightened. If they would have been completely logical they would have reasoned that G-d would not abandon his people, even if Moshe did not return; perhaps Aharon would take over. The problem was that the people followed what their eyes saw, not what logic dictated.

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz zt’l pointed out that in the Hoshanos recited on Hoshana Rabba we beseech G-d to save, "the ground from accursedness ... the soul from panic." In that paragraph we ask G-d to save the granary from "gazam" - a type of locust, and the crop from "arbeh" - another type of locust, for they are destructive forces.

By the same token the soul must be saved from panic, for panic can destroy the soul. This is precisely what happened in the desert. The people panicked. They were so frightened that they were not able to think logically. Their panic led to decisions made in haste2.

The lesson to be learned from their sin is that one must not allow himself to be immediately overwhelmed by what his eyes see. Our imagination can at times paint terrible pictures, but we must realize that in the end it is only our imagination.

Why did the Jews panic so much when they thought Moshe would not return?

We must bear in mind that despite the fact that the nation had just accepted the Torah at Sinai, a mere year earlier they were still lowly slaves in a brutal exile.

Servitude does not only destroy one’s physical sense of freedom, it destroys the slaves mental and psychological sense of self as well. A slave becomes completely dependent on his masters. There are no bills to pay or decisions to make about which school to send his children to. The slave forfeits his identity to his master and knows nothing other than the directions imposed upon him.

When the Jews marched forth from Egypt they had the difficult challenge of not only traversing the land of their captivity but also triumphing over the slave mentality that had infiltrated their conscience for so many generations. That reality was extremely daunting and immobilizing for the newly freed nation. They were frightened by the prospect that they had to make their own decisions and forge their own pathways of service to G-d3.

So when they thought Moshe would not return they feared that they would be unable to lead their families and live up to their lofty potentials without an intermediary to guide them.

This mindset was an integral part of the sin of the Golden Calf. It wasn’t only what they did; it was also the feeling of turmoil and fear which caused their actions. They were held accountable for allowing their emotions to overwhelm them because they did not sufficiently believe in themselves!

With this in mind we can understand why the Torah repeats the importance of safeguarding Shabbos prior to its narrative of the sin of the Golden Calf. When Shabbos is observed properly it helps instill within a person a sense of serenity and inner-peace. It is a day of connection when we remind ourselves of our priorities. On Shabbos we have the ability to contemplate life and our place in it in a manner that we cannot achieve during the other six days, which are more chaotic and fast-paced.

When one observes Shabbos properly he is protected from sins such as the Golden Calf.

Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzhal shlita explained that in a certain sense the Purim story served as rectification for the sin of the Golden Calf. In contrast to other enemies of Israel, at the time of Purim there was a tremendous upheaval that came about without warning.

For example, when Nebuchadnezzar approached with his armies from the North heading towards Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah warned the nation repeatedly of the impeding doom that would befall them if they did not repent. Although the false prophets claimed Jerusalem would not fall, when the enemy surrounded the city the people could not say they had not been forewarned.

The Jewish people in Shushan on the other hand, could not have imagined that a decree would be passed slating them for annihilation. It was simply unfathomable. The Jewish people had a good relationship with their neighbors. They had gone to the king’s feast together and celebrated in unison. Then, suddenly, without warning, an order was passed "to destroy, to slay, and to exterminate all the Jews, from young to old, children, and women4".

If the Jewish people would have despaired at that point we could not have blamed them. There indeed seemed to be no hope. However, at that point the Jews displayed uncanny determination and resolve; they did not despair and they did not panic. They did not send a delegation to try and convince Achashveirosh or Haman to rescind the decree. Their only response was to gather together and implore G-d for mercy.

The truth is that this idea played an even deeper role vis-à-vis the miracles of Purim. When one analyzes the events of the Megillah a beautiful tapestry and pattern emerges, with each part of the story segueing to the next part. Achashveirosh makes a party, becomes drunk, kills Vashti, Esther becomes Queen, Haman becomes Prime Minister, is consumed by hubris and then with rage when Mordechai refuses to bow to him, builds a gallows, and eventually ends up being hung on his own gallows.

There is one part of the story which does not seem to fit with the whole pattern – what was the point of the parade? Why was it necessary for Haman to lead Mordechai through the streets of Shushan? It is a great addendum to the story, but it does not seem at all necessary for Haman’s ultimate demise.

The gemara relates that Haman had an incredible power of persuasion. He was extremely eloquent and influential and in his wily manner was able to convince almost anyone that his point of view was correct5. Even after Haman had been condemned by the king he should have been able to talk his way out of trouble. Why did Haman not ‘work his magic’ to bail himself out?

The Chasam Sofer explains that Haman was destroyed because of ‘behala’ – panic and a lack of equanimity! The parade was extremely unnerving for Haman, not to mention humiliating. His disgrace and misery was further compounded by his daughter’s death after she dumped the contents of the family’s chamber pot on his head. After the party Haman returned home with the hope of showering and changing for the second party. But suddenly the King’s guards stormed in and whisked him away. From that point on the events continued to move at a maddening pace. Before Haman could say a word in his own defense he was being led to the gallows he had built in a state of total defeat and disillusionment.

The irony is that while Haman was destroyed by behala, the Jewish people were saved because they did not succumb to behala!

The Jews of Shushan espoused that intellect must rise above confusion, and one's soul must not be shattered by panic. However, their repentance was not complete. One of the reasons given for not reciting Hallel on Purim is that, "We are still servants of Achashveirosh6". Although the nation overcame the initial feelings of panic and despair, we are still plagued by such emotions. In that sense we are still servants to Achashveirosh.

One of the timeless lessons of Purim is that we must never allow our faith in G-d to waver. The Parah Adumah (Red Heifer) which was offered in the Bais Hamikdash, with its ashes sprinkled upon anyone who had contracted ritual impurity via contact with a dead body, is the symbol of our subservience to G-d. Our Sages relate that even King Shlomo, the wisest of men, could not comprehend certain aspects of the laws of the Parah Adumah.

The Medrash also relates that the Parah Adumah served as atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. The sin of the Golden Calf was rooted in the fact that they acted hastily, upon impulse and out of panic. Although with the absence of the Bais Hamikdash we can no longer offer the Parah Adumah, reading about its laws helps instill within us an inner sense of subservience to G-d. It reminds us that ultimately we follow the Torah and its laws simply because G-d commanded us to!

The lesson of the Parah Adumah is that there is purpose and meaning to everything, even when we cannot comprehend it. When one is able to foster such feelings within his heart he is indeed protected from behala and internal turmoil.

The Mishna Berura (47:10) notes that there are specific points during the daily prayer during which one should pray for the success and spiritual achievement of his/her children. One of those places is in the Uva L’tzion prayer following the words, “May He open our heart to his Torah… so that we do not toil in vain nor give birth for ‘behala’.”

It is no coincidence that following those words one should pray for his children’s spiritual welfare. If we want to have children who have a healthy sense of self and have the ability to learn and grow we have to do our part to ensure that we raise them in an environment as free from ‘behala’ as possible7.

Purim has passed and Pesach is on its way. Parah Adumah seeks to reinforce within us the notion that redemption is rooted in our ability to not lose ourselves in the behala of life. World events can be daunting and frightening8, no less than our own personal struggles and challenges. Still we must always maintain our perspective and remember that there is a rhyme and reason to all that occurs.

“Haman is destroyed by behala”

“So that we do not toil in vain nor give birth for behala”

1 It is lunacy to think that after witnessing the revelation of Sinai the Jews actually worshipped the Golden Calf and believed it had led them forth from Egypt. Ramban and Kuzari explain that the people did not lack belief in G-d, rather they feared Moshe - their leader and guide - would not return. Thus they made the Golden Calf to be their representative of G-d and to be a place for the Divine Presence to rest. Nevertheless, their actions were deemed wrong and made them culpable for destruction.
2 We are not permitted to pass judgment on the generation of the desert. We can only attempt to understand what happened based on our own limited capacity to judge.
3 This fits in well with the Medrash Tanchuma (Noach) which states that although the Jews were eager to accept the Written Torah, they were hesitant to accept the Oral Torah, which entails toil and decision making. Perhaps part of their hesitancy lay in the fact that they felt inadequate to offer rulings regarding the Oral Law.
4 Esther 3:13
5 Haman was the original care salesmen and lawyer mixed together.
6 Megilla 14a
7 Of course there are times and situations beyond our control. But we must do all we can to ensure that our homes are places of safety and love. Most teachers will attest to the fact that many (if not most) of their most difficult students live in “behala-filled homes”, in one sense or another.
8 especially the manner in which Klal Yisroel is depicted in the news –often by fellow Jews


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