The Perfection of Man
Commenting on the verse, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 32:9), Rashi explains that the Children of Israel are described in this way “because they turn their stiff necks toward those who reprimand them and refuse to listen.” The Sforno concludes that there is no chance they will repent.
Does such behavior truly befit the generation of knowledge? Some commentators explain that the Children of Israel, having believed that they reached a state of perfection, felt that they had nothing more to learn. As we know, in such cases people become filled with arrogance and pay no attention to reprimands.
All the same, we are not dealing with ordinary individuals here, but with the generation of knowledge. How could they have reached such a state?
The Ohr HaChaim writes about this issue: “How can we imagine that people of such a level could have been so foolish as to say of an inanimate object, ‘These are your gods, O Israel’ [Exodus 32:8]?” For his part, the Rashbam adds: “Did they not know that his calf, born today, had not brought the Children of Israel out of Egypt?”
Because the Children of Israel witnessed so many miracles that even a servant girl at the Sea of Reeds saw what the Prophet Ezekiel never saw, and because they had completely rid themselves of their impurity (Zohar I:63b; II:94a) – as well as having been crowned by the angels for having stated, “we will do and we will hearken” (Shabbat 88a) – the Children of Israel became filled with pride. Now as we know, pride belongs to G-d alone, as it is written: “The L-RD has reigned, He has donned grandeur” (Psalms 93:1). The pride they felt consisted solely besheker (of falsehood), which has the same numerical value (602) as boshesh: “The people saw that Moses boshesh [delayed] in descending” (Exodus 32:1). This in turn led to a breakdown in their Torah study, which invariably causes a spiritual collapse that can produce irrational behavior. As we have seen, the Torah does not survive with those who are impudent, meaning with people who think that they know everything and have reached a state of perfection.
We can therefore understand the Mishnah that states, “One who walks on the road and studies [Torah], then interrupts his study and remarks, ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!’ Scripture considers it as if he were guilty of a mortal sin” (Perkei Avoth 3:7). Why such a strict sentence? It is because a person who is shoneh – who repeats his studies and feels that all he has to do is to continue repeating what he has learned, since he feels that he has already mastered it – and deludes himself into thinking that he can stop learning, such a person is liable to the penalty of death.
The manna that descended upon the desert was capable of making those who ate it distinguish between a Tzaddik, an average person, and a wicked one. This meticulous insight enabled the Children of Israel to realize that they had not yet reached a state of perfection and that they still had work for a tikkun (spiritual correction) through constant Torah study.
Thus if the Jewish people were about to be wiped out during the time of Achashverosh, it was because they had grown arrogant and allowed themselves to neglect the study of Torah and to participate in the banquet of the wicked Persian king. The Torah is also described as a banquet, for it is called “bread” (Proverbs 9:5). This is the reason why Mordechai had to assemble school children who studied Torah and prayed with them that the sin of pride and lack of Torah study be forgiven (Esther Rabba 8:6).
On the first day of Adar, we recall the mitzvah of giving shekalim. The mitzvah of giving half a shekel demonstrates that a man is only a half, not a whole, and that this world with all its pleasures is simply futile (see Ecclesiastes 1:2). G-d loves only the humble and hates those who are conceited. He appreciates one with a broken heart, who feels that he is but a half (see Psalms 51:19). This mitzvah occurs during the month of Adar in order to recall the sin of the Jewish people in the city of Shushan, where they felt that they had reached a state of perfection and believed that they could accept Achashverosh’s invitation without sinning.
This mitzvah also applies in our days, for it serves to remind us of Temple times and enjoins us to remember that we are not perfect, that we have to work a great deal on ourselves in order to achieve perfection.
At this point we understand why Parsha Ki Tisa deals with the offering of the shekalim for the construction of the Sanctuary. As we noted above, the sin of the golden calf was caused by the pride of the Children of Israel. Thus we can only correct this sin if we feel incomplete without one another. The offering of the half-shekel was given before the sin of the golden calf, for in the final analysis it was like a cure given before the illness (Megillah 13b).
Rabbi Akiva taught, “Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of [G-d]…as it is stated: ‘For in the image of G-d He made man’ [Genesis 9:6]” (Perkei Avoth 3:18). This is not an excuse, however, for a person to become haughty.
As we noted many times before, it was a belief in his own perfection that corrupted Elisha ben Avuya, the teacher of Rabbi Meir (Hagigah 14b).
Scripture relates that at Gibeon, Hashem appeared at night in a dream to Solomon and said to him, “Request what I should give to you” (I Kings 3:5). Solomon replied, “May You grant Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people” (v.9). King Solomon’s request pleased G-d, and since he had not asked for a long life or wealth, G-d gave him these things as well. However we may raise a question concerning this subject: G-d surely knew what Solomon lacked, for He probes the heart of men. Yet in such a case, why did He ask him what he wanted?
Solomon in fact lacked nothing. He had inherited gold and silver from his father King David, and the kingdom was his. Solomon loved Hashem and followed the ways of his father. From his earliest years, he was gifted with wisdom, as it is written: “I have given you [past tense] a wise and understanding heart” (I Kings 3:12). Therefore Solomon asked for wisdom because he already possessed a certain amount of it, for the Holy One, blessed be He, does not give wisdom to those lacking it (Berachot 55a), as it is written: “He gives wisdom to the wise” (Daniel 2:21). Furthermore, “Wisdom will reside in an understanding heart” (Proverbs 14:33) and “A refining pot is for silver and a crucible for gold, but a man according to his praises” (ibid. 27:21). G-d therefore asked Solomon what he lacked in order to test him: If he told G-d that he lacked nothing, he would have been saying that he had already reached a state of perfection. Yet in his wisdom, Solomon replied that for his good, as well as the good of all Israel, he wanted even more wisdom. This is why Hashem replied, “Behold, I have acted in accordance with your words” (I Kings 3:12), for He had created him with intelligence.
Nevertheless, Solomon understood that in spite of the extra wisdom that G-d gave him, he had still not reached the level of supreme wisdom, as it is written: “I said, ‘I will get wisdom,’ but it was far from me” (Ecclesiastes 7:23) and “Surely I am a boor of a man” (Proverbs 30:2).
Let us not be deluded, for we are all far from perfection. Therefore let us focus all our efforts into attaining it.