The Observance of Shabbat Atones For the Sin of the Golden Calf
The commandment to observe Shabbat appears in this week’s parsha, as it is written: “The Children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath” (Exodus 31:16). Immediately after this passage on the Sabbath, we have the account of the golden calf that was made by the Children of Israel. They no longer believed that Moses would again descend from the mountain, for the Satan had shown them his casket in the heavens. Thus they made a god of gold and said before it, “These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you out of the land of Egypt” (ibid. 32:8).
If we look around and observe how people live, we will notice that there are many (in fact thousands) who fashion idols for themselves on a daily basis and practically bow down to them. Some people love their houses or homes and serve them. Every so often they change another piece of furniture, or perhaps repaint their home, and there are even some people who move more than once a year. To them, their homes have already become too small and outdated, so they need something bigger. Hence they feel the need to move.
Some people are fixated on what they wear, buying new clothes almost every day. If it is a woman, she will change her dress, wig, and so on, because styles change each day, and a person obviously has to please his or her neighbors and the people in the street! Thus the fashion cult grows.
Other people are drawn to silver and gold, and here we can truly speak of golden idols. Such people work solely to earn money, being completely incapable of tolerating the sight of a wealthy person while they are sitting down and doing nothing. They rush after money, being able to crush the innocent in their path just to earn more, as it is written: “If he has a hundred, he wants to turn it into two hundred” (Kohelet Rabba 1:13§1). It gets to the point that a love for money completely overwhelms such people. These are truly idols of silver and gold.
This is what happened to the Children of Israel in the desert. They stopped believing in Moses, the man of G-d, and started to believe only in themselves. It was at that point that they committed the grievous sin of the golden calf. They threw all their silver and gold into the fire, and out came a golden calf. It was before this idol that they bowed down and prostrated themselves, saying: “These are your gods, O Israel.” Yet Moses in his great mercy could not tolerate this. As the shepherd of Israel, he refused to believe that the people could not elevate themselves after the sin of the golden calf, which is why he asked the Holy One, blessed be He, “How will the power of Israel be restored?” How will they rekindle their strength and elevate themselves once more? Hashem told him, “By Ki Tisa” (literally, “When you will lift up” their heads). We must understand the meaning of Hashem’s reply to Moses: “By Ki Tisa” – what is Ki Tisa? Here the Holy One, blessed be He, hinted to Moses that the observance of Shabbat would protect the Children of Israel, and it was this observance that would redeem them from this sin. As we know, the observance of Shabbat is worth as much as all the other mitzvot combined. Thus if a person denies all the mitzvot by making an idol, it can be atoned for if he carefully observes Shabbat. How is this possible?
The words Ki Tisa contain many allusions to Shabbat. The word Tisa has the name numerical value (including the word itself) as the word Shabbat. Moreover it is formed by the initials of tishmor Shabbat achat (“observe one Shabbat”), for in that case the glory of the Children of Israel would return. This is because if a person wants to observe one Shabbat, it is obvious that he will then want to observe others, and with even greater enthusiasm than the first. It is then that the words Ki Tisa will be fulfilled in him: He will lift himself up (mitnase) and come closer to Hashem.
This is a fitting place to cite what the Chiddushei HaRim Zatzal of Ger stated: Lifting the head (nessiat rosh), this is Shabbat, for each letter elevates itself to the following letter. The letters of the word rosh are followed in the alphabet by those letters that form the word shabbat. That is, the letter shin comes after the letter resh, the letter beit comes after the letter aleph, and the letter tav comes after the letter shin. This means that a person lifts his head by means of Shabbat, for it is Shabbat that elevates him. It is said concerning Rabbi Chaim of Chernovitz (the author of the Torah commentary Be’er Mayim Chaim) that on Shabbat he was actually taller than on the other days of the week, for on Shabbat a person can elevate himself. On Shabbat we can rectify our sins and come closer to Hashem.
As a result, it is not without reason that the passage on the observance of Shabbat comes immediately before the account of the golden calf. When we bow before a golden calf, or anything else foreign to the Torah, we descend spiritually. We show that we are too simple-minded, that we have no spiritual standing, and that we are content to bow before material things that fill our hearts and minds. Instead of elevating ourselves to spiritual heights, we replace spirituality with materiality, which we then worship. In addition, where does all this idol worship come from? It comes from the fire, from our innermost desires – material desires that are like an evil inclination whose raison d’être is to make a person sin and have him fall into its hands, that he may never again get up. However when a person is resolved to elevate himself, he decides in his heart to observe Shabbat and climb to the highest levels. He wants a direct connection to spirituality, thereby becoming capable of overcoming every idol and connecting to Hashem. Yes, if we know how to properly observe Shabbat, we can conquer the evil inclination and attain all that is good in both the material and spiritual realms.