The sin of the Golden Calf is one of the most difficult to comprehend episodes in the Torah. The commentaries discuss at length how the Jewish people could stumble in such a severe sin just forty days after the Revelation at Sinai. The events that led up to the sin are similarly clothed in mystery. In particular, the account of how the people came to believe that Moshe Rabbeinu had died Is very difficult to understand: The Torah tells us that the people miscalculated when Moshe would return, believing he should come back one day earlier than was in fact the case. The Gemara elaborates on the details of this mistake. It tells us that the Satan showed them an image of Moshe no longer alive. When they saw this they panicked and demanded that Aaron create for them a new medium through whom they could relate to G-d. One of the difficulties in this passage is the method in which the Satan caused them to sin by showing them an image. Nowhere do see we such a tactic used in other incidents in the Torah. Normally a person sins because he would rationalize that what he was doing was correct. What is the nature of this form of persuasion and why was it necessary for the Satan to show them such an image instead of using the normal methods of persuasion?
Rav Chaim of Volozhin in his classic work, Nefesh HaChaim answers these questions in the course of his discussion on the nature of the yetser hara (evil inclination). In order to do this, he first explains the sin of Adam and Chava, and ends by showing how the events of Mattan Torah (the Giving of the Torah) and the Golden Calf paralleled the state of Adam and Chava before the sin and after the sin: He begins with an analysis of Adam and Chava’s state before the sin: Chazal tell us that before the sin, mankind did not have a yetser hara, yet this does not mean that he did not have free will. He related to evil - in his situation in the form of the nachash (snake) - as something that was totally outside of himself. Its goal was to somehow persuade him to perform an act that was clearly abhorrent to him. The Nefesh HaChaim compares it to a person deciding whether he should step into a fire. However, somehow, the nachash was able to seduce Chava into eating from the fruit of the knowledge of Good and Evil. By eating from this tree, Adam and Chava brought the yetser hara into themselves. This means that they now constituted of a combination of the good that emanated from their pure soul, and the evil that came from the yetser hara.
The result of this was that they were now subject to the main weapon of the yetser hara; confusion. When a person knows that something is clearly wrong he will not do it. The yetser hara’s tactic is to convince him that this sin is actually not a sin at all, in fact it is the correct thing to do. In this vein, Chazal tell us that a person only sins when a ruach shtus overtakes him – this means that he loses touch with his sense of right and wrong and therefore does the wrong thing, whilst convincing himself that it is actually the right thing to do.
The Nefesh HaChaim continues that this state of being continued until Mattan Torah. The Gemara states that the ‘poison’ that Chava ingested when she sinned (ie. the yetser hara) was completely negated when the Jewish people stood at Har Sinai. In this way, the Jewish people returned to the level of Adam before the sin. At this point in time, the people would be able to live eternally as was the case with Adam before he ate from the tree. With this understanding of the state of the people after Mattan Torah, the Nefesh HaChaim explains why the Satan showed an image to the people. They were on such a high level that there was no yetser hara inside them. Accordingly, the yetser hara could not trick them with its regular weapon of internal confusion. Rather, it had to persuade them externally, in the same way that the nachash did with Chava. When the people succumbed to the Satan’s persuasion, the ‘poison’ from the sin returned to them and the yetser hara once again dwelled within them.
We have seen how the Satan was forced to revert to unorthodox methods of persuasion in order to cause the Jewish people to sin with the Golden Calf. However, after they sinned, the Satan re-entered the very being of each person, leaving us with the difficult task of trying to discern the good inside of us from the evil. The yetser hara’s main tool now is to convince us that what we are doing is actually permitted or even a Mitzvo. For example, the Chofetz Chaim zt”l pointed out that many people were speaking lashon hara with the justification that this particular thing they were saying was permissible; or that it was permitted to speak lashon hara about that particular person. The lashon hara speaker did not think he was speaking lashon hara, rather he rationalized that what he was saying did not constitute forbidden speech. In this vein, the Baal HaTania points out that if one were to offer an observant person a large amount of money to speak lashon hara, he will refuse. This is because he intellectually recognizes that no amount of money is worth transgressing a Mitzvo. Yet the same person will, on another occasion, speak lashon hara for no monetary gain! This is because he convinces himself that he is not speaking lashon hara at all.
How can a person begin the long journey in discerning between the yetser tov and the yetser hara that is inside of him? One vital tool is Torah learning. If a person learns the laws of lashon hara, for example he will find it much harder to rationalize that what he is saying is permissible. Likewise, learning Mussar helps a person understand how his yetser hara works, and act accordingly. The other essential tool is that of Cheshbon HaNefesh (accounting of the soul). This involves a regular analysis of one’s actions and can enable a person to look back and rationally analyze the true nature of his actions. It is highly recommended to seek assistance in how to do Cheshbon HaNefesh in the proper way. With a concerted and long-term effort at learning Torah and self-analysis a person can begin the long journey back to gaining true clarity as to good and evil.