Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Be- Shalah 5766/ February 11, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

“They had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses”

 

Prof. Nathan Aviezer

 

Department of Physics

 

The most dramatic event in this week’s reading is undoubtedly the splitting of the Red Sea – one of the most impressive miracles in the entire Torah.   The Israelites were caught between the sea and the approaching Egyptian army, and it appeared as if all were lost and hopeless.  Then suddenly the Holy One, blessed be He, split the sea, the Israelites crossed safely on dry land, and the entire Egyptian army that had been pursuing them was drowned:   “The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the horsemen – Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea; not one of them remained” (Ex. 14:28).

Amazingly, it was only a few weeks after the splitting of the Red Sea that the sin of the golden calf took place.   The Israelites, the very people who had witnessed the splitting of the Red Sea with their own eyes, were the ones who committed the terrible sin of the golden calf.  The Torah stresses that the entire people were party to the sin:  “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god …  and all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron…   And they exclaimed, ‘This is your god, O Israel’” (Ex. 32:7-8).

From Revelation to Revelry

How could it be that the people who experienced G-d’s deliverance in the splitting of the Red Sea turned to idolatry?  About the splitting of the Red Sea, the Mekhilta comments, “Maidservants beheld at the Sea that which even Isaiah and Ezekiel did not see” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate de-Shirah ch. 3).  Nevertheless, despite the revelation to which everyone was party, the impact of the splitting of the Red Sea on the Israelites did not endure more than a couple of weeks.   Why was this?

Before answering this question, there is another question which ought to be raised.  Why was the Holy One, blessed be He, so angry about the sin of the golden calf?   On account of this sin the Holy One, blessed be He, proclaimed He would annihilate the entire people of Israel:   “Now, let Me be, … that I may destroy them” (Ex. 32:10).  The Israelites were saved from annihilation only by virtue of Moses’ intense pleading on their behalf, saying, “Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the record which You have written!” (Ex. 32:32).  In the end the Holy One, blessed be He, accepted Moses pleading, but punishment for the sin of the golden calf was not waived.  The Holy One, blessed be He, only replaced it with a conditional punishment, hanging over their heads until the day they sin again:   “But when I make an accounting, I will bring them to account for their sins” (Ex. 32:34).   The next sin was not long in coming.  Several months later the Israelites sinned once again, this time in the episode of the spies; one sin brings another in its wake.  The sin of the golden calf was compounded by the sin of the spies, and the fate of the Israelites in that generation was sealed.

Why did the Lord pronounce such a harsh sentence – destruction of the entire Israelite people – for the sin of the golden calf?  To appreciate the severity of the punishment it suffices for us to compare the sin of the golden calf to another sin of idolatry, described in Numbers:  “The people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god.  The people partook of them and worshiped that god.  Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-Peor” (Num. 25:1-2).   This was not only a case of idolatry, but also of partaking in illicit sexual relations and eating forbidden foods.  Nevertheless, there is not the slightest hint in the Torah that the Lord intended to wipe out the Israelites.  Why was the sin of the golden calf so much more terrible in the eyes of the Lord than the sin of idolatry that the Israelites committed in their involvement with the Moabite women?

The key to the answer lies in the timing of the sin of the golden calf.   This event took place immediately after the Israelites had experienced the splitting of the Red Sea, immediately after they had witnessed a series of miracles in the Ten Plagues, and immediately after the revelation at Mount Sinai at which they had been given the Torah.  If after all these wondrous acts the Israelites were still so easily drawn to the golden calf (due to a miscalculation of but one day in Moses’ schedule), they certainly did not deserve to enter the Land of Israel.  

Faith and Miracles

The Torah reveals an extremely important message in the accounts of the splitting of the Red Sea and the golden calf.   The prevalent view that miracles bolster faith is fundamentally wrong.  The way to true faith is not the short road of wonders and miracles, no matter how impressive they may be.  The way to true faith is only the long, arduous road of daily devotion to studying the Torah, to observing its commandments, to deep thinking, and to living in a community of others sharing the same faith.   There is no shortcut to faith.   The situation of the people having “faith in the Lord and His servant Moses” does not endure at all.

An interesting story illustrates this point.  In the twenties and thirties of the previous century there was an English professor at Harvard University by the name of George Kitredge, a great expert of international stature in Shakespeare and his period.  For decades Professor Kitredge was outstanding both in his research and in his teaching, legendary in the academic world for his fascinating lectures.  One day the president of Harvard University decided to hire an expert to investigate how the academic faculty divides their time between research, teaching, academic committee work, etc.   When Kitredge was asked how much time he spends preparing a single lecture, he answered, “A lifetime.” Each and every lecture he gave was the fruit of decades of deep thought and extensive research, and that is what made his lectures so brilliant.

Similarly, in order to attain complete faith in the Holy One, blessed be He, one needs devotion that lasts an entire lifetime.  True faith is acquired through long years of pondering, studying Torah, observing commandments, and improving oneself; it is not the product of momentary elation that comes in the wake of one or another miracle, no matter how impressive.  The latter sort of fervor comes in a flash but also dissipates in a flash, as Maimonides wrote, “Those who have faith because of miracles, their hearts are not true” ( Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, ch. 8, halakah 1).

The miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, along with all the other miracles of that period, could not save the Israelites from the most base of sins, which led to the entire adult population perishing in the wilderness.   Indeed, even after years of faith one can have failings, as in the sin of worshipping Baal-Peor. Nevertheless that generation was deemed worthy by the Holy One, blessed be He, of entering the land of Israel, to establish there the religious tradition of the Torah that continues to this very day.