Sinning, to Help Others?
Talmud Avoda Zara 4b:
“Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said, ‘The Jews only sinned in creating the Gold Calf so as to encourage repentance in mankind, as it says, ‘Would it be so, that the Jewish people would have such a heart to fear Me all their days’.”
That is quite difficult to understand. The Jews sinned because they caved into idolatry! That is in fact what happened. The Talmud seems to twist facts, justifying one of the worst sins. And Rashi, explaining Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, makes the problems greater:
“This means to say that those Jews were strong willed and ruled over their emotions, and it was unfit for them that their emotions overtook them. But they sinned, as it was the decree of the King that their emotions rule them so as to give encouragement to those [in the future] who wish to repent. For if sinners will say, ‘What use is repentance, God won’t accept me back’, we can reply, ‘Go and learn from those who made the Gold Calf, who denied God, and yet, they were forgiven’.”
Does Rashi really intend to say that God caused man to sin? That is the furthest thing from the truth. Such a notion rejects the fundamentals of Reward and Punishment, free will, and God’s justice. For if God causes man’s sins, man should not be punished. Yet, those Jews who created the Gold Calf were killed.
To approach this question, let’s address the greatest problem, Rashi’s suggestion that the “King decreed” those Jews to build the Gold Calf. Since that is impossible, to what else might “King decreed” refer? Think for a few moments…
I suggest as follows. The “decree” here refers not to the event of the Golden Calf construction and worship. Decree refers to God’s design of man. Based on His “decreed” design of the human species, it is inevitable that a sensual being, coupled with a strong desire to relate to God, will not find some idolatrous expression at some point in his or her life. The preponderance of amulets and idols that punctuate myriads of cultures for millennia attest to just how strong this idolatrous emotion is.
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi means to say that this event (although committed sinfully) also offers future generations encouragement to repent from their respective sins. For if God forgives sins of the greatest magnitude, He surely forgives lesser crimes.
It is also fitting that Rashi says this sin was the “King’s” decree. Meaning, God’s very existence contributed to this sin, as if He literally decreed it. The very existence of religious emotion and God’s abilities generated this sin. The Jews sought some tangible means of being religious, but they went too far. In fact, Sforno teaches that the Temple is a response and concession to this religious need. God only commanded man in the Temple’s construction, once man demonstrated an irresistible desire to be religious in a sinful, tangible expression.
Of course, those ancient Jews did not sin “in order” that others gain encouragement. That is a misconstrued notion of their purpose. But the Talmud is isolating the “purpose” of the creation of the Gold Calf, as if to say the only real purpose that can be derived from here, is a meaningful lesson. In truth, it is preferable that idolatry never occurs. But in this specific instance, God’s forgiveness emerges as worthy words to offer sinners.