Beyond the Gold Calf – Destruction, Acher, Saplings and the Change 

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

Much of this week’s parsha centers around the incident of the Gold Calf, with the commentaries spending a great deal of time elucidating the more difficult concepts surrounding this event, as well as the lessons learned. Obviously, this marked a turning point for the nation and the enormity of what occurred as well as its repercussions make it easy to get caught up in the major plot. However, as in many instances, it is sometimes the smallest detail, a simple phrase that offers incredible insight into a pivotal moment.

With the completion of the Gold Calf, the Torah tells us (Shemos 32:6):

“They arose early the next morning, and offered burnt-offerings and brought peace-offerings. The people then sat down to eat and drink, and got up to amuse themselves.” 

The story now turns to God’s communication to Moshe (ibid 7-8):

“God spoke to Moshe, "Go down, for your people have become corrupt (shichais amcha) those whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt. They have departed quickly from the way that I commanded them, they have made for themselves a molten calf. They have prostrated themselves to it and offered sacrifices to it, and have said, 'These, Yisrael, are your gods who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.'”

The Ramban focus is on the meaning of “shichais amcha”; however, prior to delving into his commentary on this verse, it is important to have a little background regarding his comments on the initial fabrication of the Calf. As we all know, the Torah presents Aharon as the facilitator for the creation of this calf. The Ramban (5) explains that Aaron’s plan was actually a well thought out approach that might avert the potential disaster. His intent was that Bnai Yisrael, when offering sacrifices and other acts of worship, would ultimately direct these actions towards God. His hope was that Moshe would return, get rid of the Gold Calf, and the worship would then be exclusively directed to God. His plan actually was somewhat successful. Initially, the Torah tells us (ibid 6) that Bnai Yisrael “offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings,” but the object of worship is not clear and is therefore not necessarily problematic. When God criticizes the nation, He explains that they “prostrated themselves to it and offered sacrifices to it.”  The distinction demonstrates that the entire nation was not involved in this sin, reflecting Aharon’s influence. Nonetheless, a significant number of Bnai Yisrael were involved in this idolatry. 

At first glance, the Ramban’s analysis of “shichais amcha” is very cryptic. He explains that God told Moshe of two evils committed by Bnai Yisrael. The first is the “shichais amcha”, which alludes to some type of destructive outcome to befall the Jewish people. Precedents for this explanation are found in both Yechezkel (9:1) and Yirmiyahu (41:25), where the term “hashchasa” clearly means obliteration. Of course, Bnai Yisrael were not completely wiped out due to their sin, so what exactly is this destruction? The Ramban clarifies that Chazal referred to hashchasa as "mekatzetz benetiyos", which literally means cutting off the saplings (more on this later). He then explains that the second evil committed was the actual sacrifices performed and overall worship of the Gold Calf, the idolatry mentioned above. He finally points out a further differentiation between the destruction concept and the idolatry. The first evil, the shichais amcha, was only known by God, revealed to Moshe through prophecy. The second, which involved the actual sacrificing and worshipping, was essentially public knowledge.

The Ramban’s citation of “mekatzetz benetiyos” has its source in an episode with an individual one would think completely removed from the event at hand. The Talmud (Chagigah 14b-15a) relates the famous yet extremely obscure story of the four individuals who entered the “pardes”, or garden. The Talmud then describes how the time in the pardes had different effects on each of the entrants. For example, we learn that Ben Azzai died, while R’ Akiva exited unscathed. One of these four was Elisha ben Avuya, known as Acher, who was “mekatzetz benetiyos” while in the pardes. Clearly this story is metaphorical, and requires some elucidation. However, as it relates to our issue, one must ask why the Ramban is making reference to this when discussing the “destruction” that emerged as a result of the sin of the Gold Calf?

The Rambam, in numerous places, offers one of the most compelling explanations regarding the incident with the pardes and the effect it had on Acher.  The visit to the pardes is not to be taken as a literal stroll through the garden. Instead, it refers to an intellectual pursuit of abstract metaphysical ideas, an engagement in areas of yediyas Hashem – knowledge of God – beyond the scope of the average person. The Rambam warns (Hilchos Yesodai HaTorah 4:13) that one must be on a high level before entering into this realm of study. In the Moreh Nevuchim (1:32), he expands on this, writing that Acher was someone who “exceeded his intellectual power.” It was this that ultimately led to his downfall, which the Talmud implies was his distortion in the most basic fundamental ideas about God (i.e. – God being non-physical). This led to his being outcast from Bnai Yisrael, forever defined as a heretic (this area requires much more analysis, not for the scope of this article). 

Why then is Acher described as destroying these saplings, and how does this apply to Bnai Yisrael? One interpretation is that the destruction here refers to the corrupt view of God that emerged from the incident with the Gold Calf, analogous to the error manifest with Acher. God was explaining to Moshe the nature of the sin, which was their corruption of knowledge of God, and this was only something He could know of. However, there might an additional explanation, one that uses what would seem to be an unimportant detail. It is interesting that Chazal choose the destruction of these young shoots, rather than, say, the cutting of the trunk of a mature tree (more representative of the destruction of a fundamental idea). Acher, prior to his downfall, was a burgeoning talmid chacham, Torah scholar. His pursuit into the pardes revealed a severe overestimation of the self, leading to his heresy. His growth as a talmid chacham ceased the moment he entered into the pardes, an area of knowledge he was not ready for. His flaw resulted in the complete destruction of his potential, his definition as a talmid chacham obliterated, and the effect on his soul terminal.

This point might play a crucial role in the analogy offered by the Ramban. God was pointing out to Moshe more than just the mindset of Bnai Yisrael at the time of the Gold Calf. He was explaining to Moshe that their relationship to God had now changed permanently. In other words, He revealed to Moshe the extent of the effect this grave sin had on their souls. Their growth was now stunted as a result of this act, something that they would never recover from. How their relationship to God changed is something only within God’s realm of knowledge. This could be the two evils being discussed with Moshe. First, God was telling Moshe the “hashchasa”, the uprooting of a fundamental principle and its severe effect on the nation as a whole. The second evil referred to the expression of the idolatrous mindset, something Moshe would be able to assess and deal with accordingly.

When all was said and done, the sin of the Gold Calf is clearly a crucial moment in the history of the Jewish people. The mindset of the nation at the time of this grievous deed serves as a lesson for us for eternity. Yet underneath this evil lies a deeper misfortune – the permanent change in the relationship between God and Bnai Yisrael. Based on the above interpretation, the Ramban is helping us focus on this idea, a further understanding of the breadth of the sin. These two words become a window into the tragedy.