The Sin of the Golden Calf and the Rut of Routine
One can say that the sin of the golden calf was prompted by the rut of routine. If the Children of Israel had not performed the Divine commandments by habit – if they had been filled with wonder each time that the Eternal performed a miracle for them – they would have forced themselves to get even closer to G-d. They would certainly not have come to the point where they renounced His existence.
The Mishnah instructs us: “Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die” (Perkei Avoth 2:4). Any separation from our Creator, be it even the most minimal, is capable of making us fail. Examples are not lacking. We should be content to recall the case of Yochanan the High Priest, who became a Sadducee after serving as a priest for 80 years (Berachot 29a). It was, no doubt, because he wasn’t filled with awe regarding his priesthood for as long as he practiced it.
The strength of the evil inclination’s trick lies in trying to make a man perform as many mitzvot as possible, all while trying to make him lower, if not to completely freeze, his fervor.
Consequently, we should be careful to attach ourselves constantly to G-d. Let us apply ourselves to observe the least important precepts as well as the most important commandments, for we don’t know what is the recompense associated with each of them. In other words, we just don’t know if our attitude concerning accomplishing a mitzvah comes by way of Divine help or the evil inclination, the latter which wants us to fall into its trap (G-d forbid). If we reconnect ourselves to G-d, we will dispel all these worries and doubts. Let us be careful, above all, to perform those “easy” mitzvot with a maximum of concentration (cf. Tanhuma, Eikev 1).
Instead of being wonderstruck by the numerous miracles that each person saw before them – instead of strengthening themselves every day and getting closer and closer to the Eternal – the Children of Israel remained complacent. They were already so used to it! Even Mount Sinai, entirely engulfed in flames, didn’t overly impress them!
This indifference and complacency were also unfortunately introduced into the religious world. Torah scholars can engage themselves in long talks during prayer instead of responding “Amen” when they should. Have they forgotten that the one who responds amen yehei shemei rabba with all his strength annuls all strict sentences pronounced against him for 70 years (Shabbat 119b)? It is because the evil inclination has accustomed them to pray and study without concentration. Our Sages teach that the more one spiritually elevates oneself, the more the evil inclination attacks (Sukkah 52a). These people should not forget, even for an instant, before Whom they stand while praying (Berachot 28b). They should be aware of the fact that the Holy One, blessed be He, studies with them when they study (Tamid 32a). When one studies and performs mitzvot, it is best to imagine oneself at Mount Sinai receiving the Torah and hearing the Children of Israel proclaiming in unison with all their heart, “We will do and we will hear” (Ex 24:7).
As we have seen, the evil inclination was removed from their hearts when they heard the words, “I am the L-RD your G-d. You shall have no other gods before Me” (Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:15). How did the evil inclination manage to get them into the rut of routine? The answer lies in the fact that they were, after all, only beings of flesh and blood. Adam, who was devoid of the slightest trace of the evil inclination, ended up sinning. The Zohar teaches that G-d showed Adam the paths of good and evil, and Adam chose the one of evil. He did this because the injunction against eating from the Tree of Knowledge (which he was in the habit of seeing all the time) was not firmly anchored in his heart, or Eve’s, and also because he had not taken to heart to listen to G-d’s commandment. If Adam and Eve had done these things, they would never have come into contact with the snake. Rather, they would have dismissed the snake without mercy, and it would not have had any influence on them at all. Yet the very fact that they began to speak with the snake shows that they had been dominated by the influence of routine. For if Adam had been refraining from eating of the tree up to that point, it was not because he wanted to comply with the Divine Will, but rather because he had gotten into the simple habit of doing so. This is exactly what happened to the generation in the desert was well. They were so used to miracles that they couldn’t even sense their presence anymore. In this way they reintroduced the evil inclination into their hearts.
The performance of mitzvot by simple rote can lead to disgust and even to exile. To this end the prophet declares, “For what reason did the land perish … because of their forsaking My Torah” (Jer 9:11,12). The Sages explain that they didn’t recite the blessing of Betechila (“at first”) on the Torah (Nedarim 91a). In other words, they didn’t concentrate on it enough, but rather did it by simple rote. What’s more, the numerical value of Betechila (“first”) is equal to that of Mikoach Hahergel Bealma (“the habit in the world”). It is precisely this sin that caused the destruction of the Temple. For the Divine Presence is made distant through routine, and the one who doesn’t make an effort to be affected by the Shechinah, the Shechinah assuredly moves away from him. In throwing the tablet on which was inscribed, “Rise, O Ox”, the erev rav (mixed multitude), obtained an Egel (calf), which alludes to the Giul (disgust) with which they performed the mitzvot by rote, and by which they distanced themselves from G-d.
The sin of the Egel (Ain = 70; Gel: galut [exile]) drove them to galut, their dispersion and exile in the midst of the 3 (70) nations. They finished by being mocked (Laag) and derided everywhere they went. If, therefore, the Children of Israel didn’t reprimand the mixed multitude for the sin of the golden calf, it was because at the beginning they themselves worshipped idols (Shemot Rabba 16b). In seeing the mixed multitude worshipping the golden calf, the Children of Israel kept quiet because they assumed that the mixed multitude were just following the customs they had acquired in Egypt. Their silence, however, constituted a real sin, even if they felt contempt for the golden calf itself (Yoma 87b). In the final analysis, it was really the grind of normal routine that prevented the Children of Israel from rebuking the mixed multitude, for instead of the former being in awe each time they experienced a miracle, they instead became used to them.
All sin therefore originates, in the final analysis, from a life lived out of routine. Having refrained from reprimanding the mixed multitude for the sin of the golden calf, the Children of Israel have continued to pay for this over the span of the generations, as we have seen (Sanhedrin 102a).
It is therefore fitting that we study Torah and perform all the mitzvot with great fervor, doing so in such a way that, in the words of the author of Sefat Emet, the Torah enters into our heart and into our blood. We should completely run away from routine and reprimand those who perform mitzvot without any enthusiasm. In this way we will elevate and greatly strengthen them in their study of Torah.