Written by 6th Grader Hadara Seeman
I invite you to join me on a journey back in time. We’ll start as observers of Chet Ha’Egel, the sin of the Golden Calf, looking at the mountain from the back of the crowd and then shift over to Moshe’s perspective in order to understand how his zealotry affects his reaction to Chet HaEgel. It’s a complicated moment in our people’s history, so sit back, put on your imagination caps, and allow me to introduce you to Moshe Rabbeinu and B’nei Yisrael.
You look up from your spot at the back of the crowd and see Moshe with a glowing face holding two slabs of what look like ordinary stone, but they have writing engraved on the front and back. You wonder how in the world the writing could be on both sides like that. You don’t have enough time to think it through before Moshe makes it to the foot of the mountain holding the tablets. Someone leans over and says something to Moshe. You realize it’s Yehoshua bin Nun warning him that there’s the sound of war in the camp. “War?” you think. “This isn’t the sound of war.” Evidently Moshe agrees with you. But he looks less and less happy the closer he gets to the camp. No one seems to notice his arrival, which is pretty weird given how upset everyone was when he didn’t come down at the time they expected. Everyone around you is dancing and singing around a golden calf. The energy in the camp is electric. But Moshe doesn’t join in. He looks furious. “Uh oh,” you think to yourself. This can’t be good. You remember hearing about the last time Moshe looked liked that and he ended up killing an Egyptian.
Before you can leave, Moshe throws the tablets and smashes them at the foot of the mountain. “Oooh,” you think, “This is definitely not good.” He takes the Golden Calf, burns it up into ash, mixes the ash with water and makes the people drink it. Then you hear him call out:
מי לה’ אליי?!?
"Whoever believes in God come to me!”
The next thing you know, the Levi’im are going through the camp killing sinners. It’s not a lot of people compared to everyone in the camp, but whoa was it scary. There must have been 3000 men from the Eruv Rav, the riffraff who tagged along with the nation of Israel when they left Egypt, who were killed. On Rosh Chodesh Elul, Moshe shows up in front of us again, tells us that we had sinned a great sin, and just like that, he goes back up the mountain. “Well that was crazy,” you think. With that, people started to get sick, really sick - a plague ripped through the camp. What in the world is happening? A plague from HaShem? If Moshe killed the perpetrators, why would HaShem hold the rest of Bnei Yisrael responsible? Then again, shouldn’t they have tried to stop the troublemakers?
Let’s shift to Moshe’s perspective to see if he can help us shed some light on these questions.
“These people are driving me crazy…. Give me water to drink, Moshe.” and “Why did you bring us out of Egypt just to kill us from thirst, Moshe?” Ugh. And now this. I was just on a mountain for 40 days and 40 nights with no food or water. And I did it for them and their relationship with HaShem. Now I come down from the mountain and I see them dancing around a statue? What were they thinking? What was Aharon thinking? It’s no wonder that Hashem sent me down off the mountain. And then to find the right people to kill the 3000 troublemakers, that was not simple. But then again, was it right to direct the Levi’im to kill them? I wonder whether I should have listened to their side of the story. I know that they had their reasons. I went out with Rashi a few nights ago [cause you can totally do that in Shamayim!] and he said that they only made the calf because they wanted multiple gods but they know better than that. When I spoke with the RambaN about it he said that maybe they wanted another me, because i was late coming down from the mountain, another leader to guide them going forward. Then last week I saw the Ibn Ezra and he made me feel a little bit better about their relationship with HaShem. He told me that they were building a statue so that Hashem’s presence could rest on it. Maybe B'nai Israel don’t know that only holy things which Hashem ordered to be made are things upon which HaShem’s presence can rest?
I’m concerned that I was too hard on them. I know that people describe me as zealous. Is it possible that in the midst of my zealotry, I went too far? Last time I got this impassioned, I killed an Egyptian and got myself in enough trouble to go into hiding for decades. It’s hard to look at commanding the Levi’im to kill 3000 people and not remember myself back in Mitzrayim. I know that Pesikta DeRav Kahana holds me accountable for the death of those 3000 people and Devarim Rabbah criticizes my anger and shattering of the tablets saying that my “zealotry at the Golden Calf was even worse than the Golden Calf itself.”
That is a serious burden to carry and one that the Levi’im still carry today. Remember Rabbi Zvi Grumet’s understanding of the Levi’im? He explains that Shevet Levi isn’t counted with the people, doesn’t camp with the people, and doesn’t fight alongside the people because of this! Rabbi Grumet asks, “Is it possible, after their violent rampage through the camp, that they were socially isolated from the rest? After all, who would want Levi as a neighbor? Hashem, recognizing that reality, acknowledged their isolation but transformed it into a place of honor. From now on, Levi would dwell close to Hashem whose honor they protected, surrounding the Mishcan.”
And as for me, Moshe? I hope that people remember me not for my anger, but for the good things I used it for. I was angry at injustice, and saved a slave from his master. And by the same token I worked to save the Jewish People. By giving them a punishment they could bear and focusing only on the main sinners, I saved the rest from destruction. I hope many people learn from my example and learn to use their anger for good things and only when necessary to save people.
Now that we’ve looked at this from the viewpoint of someone who stood at the sin of the golden calf and we heard from Moshe Rabbeinu as well, I’d like to share my own voice on this topic with all of you.
As I become a Bat Mitzvah, I have been thinking a lot about perspective. The fact that things often look different from different points of view. The sin of the Golden Calf - Chet Ha’Egel - looks different from the perspective of Moshe than it does from the perspective of everyday people. It also looks very different from the perspective of commentators like Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra, or the author of Pesikta Derav Kahana. Part of growing up means learning to express my own opinions and share my perspective with respect. I know that I can both speak passionately AND learn to appreciate the perspectives of others. When I put myself in someone else’s shoes, I’m able to understand that things aren’t always what they seem. I know that it’s important to ask for more information and think about things from someone else’s point of view. I realize that people in positions of great responsibility sometimes have to make decisions that don’t look fair from one perspective. But when you look more deeply, it may turn out to be what’s necessary in order to save everyone.
Learning all of these different perspectives about the same story in Chumash was a great experience for me. It taught me to appreciate the perspectives of the different commentaries as different understandings of what actually happened and I know that I can learn from all of them, even though they disagree with each other. After learning so much with my Ema and Abba towards becoming a bat mitzvah (and enjoying plenty of laughs along the way!), I look forward to continuing to grow in Torah and mitzvot.