Sin Has Consequences                

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Torah reading, Vayakhel-Pekudei, describes the building the Mishkan which the Jews engaged in after the sin of the Golden Calf. That transgression did not disqualify the people from having a Sanctuary where they could worship Hashem. In fact, according to the Sforno, the need for a Mishkan came about only as a result of their descent to the level where they needed a physical object to facilitate their relationship with Hashem.

However, the consequences of that egregious sin were very great. Hashem’s immediate response was to inform Moshe that He intended to obliterate the Jewish People and form a new chosen nation from Moshe. Indeed, one wonders why that threat never came to pass.

To understand this we must acknowledge the great power that Hashem has conferred on man. Why did Hashem not execute His judgement against the Jews? Because Moshe would not allow Him to. This, of course, seems astounding. Can mortal man who is a creation of the Supreme Being exercise veto power over the works of the Sovereign of the Universe?

Yes he can, but that is only because Hashem has thus empowered man. The idea that Moshe could prevent Hashem’s intended punishment was communicated in the words, “And now desist from me and I will let my anger flare up against them and I shall annihilate them; and I shall make you a great nation.”

Moshe, thus realized that “this matter only depends upon me”  and immediately intervened with prayer and rational argument. He asserted  that if G-d destroyed the Jews this would cause a colossal Chillul Hashem (desecration of Hashem’s Name) which would defeat the goal of having Him recognized and glorified throughout the world. Moshe said; “Why should Egypt say ‘With evil intent did He take them out, to kill them in the mountains and to annihilate them from the face of the earth? Relent from your flaming  anger and reconsider regarding the evil against Your people.” Moshe’s reasoning and prayer found favor with Hashem and the nation was saved.

But Moshe’s intervention could not erase the guilt of the people and save them from all of  the sins’ consequences. Moshe smashed the Tablets, crushed the molten calf and ground it into dust. He then mixed it with water and forced the people to drink it. According to the Rabbis, this was akin to administering the “bitter waters” to the wayward woman known as the Sotah and would have the effect of providing punishment for those who had worshipped the graven image.

And even Aaron faced grim consequences for his role in the tragedy. True his intentions were to limit the damage of the people’s deviation, but he was complicit in the crime and faced the death penalty. But here again the formidable power of prayerful intervention came to the rescue. In the words of Moshe; “Hashem became very angry with Aaron to destroy him, so I prayed also for Aaron at that time.” And the prayer was effective.

Not only that, but Aaron  and his offspring were  subsequently chosen to be the priests who, alone, could perform the Temple service. Aaron was designated as the first Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and charged with performing the inaugural ministrations of the desert Mishkan.

At first glance it is difficult to understand why Aaron was selected to play an exalted role in the Temple. Given his tragic mistake in sculpting the Eigel we would have thought he would be kept at a distance from the sacrificial service. The fact that he was honored with the priesthood contains a great insight into the process of Teshuva.

The Rabbis have extolled repentance and famously said, “In the place where the penitent stands the perfect Tzadik cannot stand.” This expresses the teaching that Teshuva does not only remove sin but it catapults the individual to a higher level that he could not have otherwise attained.

I believe that the case of Aaron illustrates this point. He had in no way been guilty of the sin of idolatry. He made an error in judgement concerning the emotions of the people and did not foresee the consequences of building the Calf. There is no doubt that he engaged in very serious soul searching after the debacle. In fact, the Rabbis maintain that initially he felt himself to be unqualified to perform the Temple service but Moshe reassured him that he was Hashem’s choice.

As a result of his introspection and Teshuva he gained a greater insight into the error he had made and a clearer understanding of the complicated emotions that propel people toward paganism. Aaron was the one most suited to the role of the priesthood as he was the leader most beloved by the people because his life was dedicated to promoting peace and love in the private and public life of the nation.

True, his great concern for the people’s welfare had led him to intervene in the affair of the Calf and bring harm upon them. But his motives were pure and having learned from his mistake he was now the most qualified person to prevent any future corruption in the Holy Temple.

The nation which had committed the Cheit Haegel also engaged in genuine Teshuva. And it was accepted by Hashem who proceeded to command them to construct the Mishkan. The ultimate purpose of this edifice and the Holy Temple which succeeded it is  to sanctify the Name of Hashem in the world. This holy mission has been allocated to a very special group of people. Hashem declared, “This nation I have fashioned unto me. My praises they will communicate.” In giving the charge to construct the Tabernacle after the calamity of the Golden Calf Hashem was letting it be known that we were still His chosen  People who could be trusted to declare His praises and sanctify His Name.

May we merit to achieve that.

Shabbat Shalom 

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