Chet haegel is one of the most difficult episodes in the Torah. There is much discussion about how the Dor Deah could commit such a terrible sin so soon after Matan Torah. One less commonly discussed aspect of this terrible incident is the way in which Hashem punished the Jewish people for the chet: Right after it, Hashem says to Moshe Rabbeinu, “..Behold, My angel shall go before you.. ” Rashi explains that this is a punishment; up to this time, Hashem Himself would guide the Jewish people in the desert, but from now on, only an angel would guide them. Chazal teach us that Hashem punishes mida keneged mida, which means that the nature of the punishment can help us understand the nature of the sin. What was the mida keneged mida in this punishment for chet haegel?
In order to understand this we must first briefly discuss how the Jewish people could commit a sin that seems to be avoda zara. The commentaries explain that they did not intend to worship an idol, rather they wanted the egel to be an intermediary between themselves and Hashem: When they thought that Moshe had died they panicked - they believed that they could not have a direct relationship with Hashem, rather they needed an intermediary to communicate with Him on their behalf. This was not a denial of Hashem, rather it was an erroneous belief that some kind of being was needed to represent them before Him and convey His teachings and beneficence to them .
With this explanation we can now understand the root cause of chet haegel. The Jewish people came to this belief that they needed an intermediary because on a subtle level they did not desire a direct relationship with Hashem. This was not the first time in which this failing was apparent; at Matan Torah, after Hashem spoke directly to the people for the first two mitzvos, they asked that Hashem no longer communicate directly with them. Rather, He should tell Moshe and Moshe should pass on what Hashem said to them. In Parshas Va’eschanan, Moshe rebuked them for this seemingly innocuous request: Rashi tells us that Moshe said to them, “I was pained and disappointed by you. Would it not have been better for you to learn directly from Hashem’s mouth than to learn from me?! ” It was this underlying fear of a direct relationship with Hashem that was responsible for the terrible course of events that culminated in chet haegel. The mida keneged mida punishment for this was that there would now be an intermediary Malach guiding them instead of their being under direct guidance from Hashem Himself.
Later in the parsha we see a stark contrast to this in the attitude of Moshe Rabbeinu himself. Having successfully pleaded for Hashem to spare the Jewish people, Moshe saw that it was an ‘eis ratson’ a time when his words were being received. At this moment, he had the opportunity to make any request of Hashem - what did he choose to ask for? “Please show me Your Glory .” He asked for the ability to perceive Hashem on a greater level than even he had ever experienced: Moshe’s primary goal was to gain more awareness of, and closeness to, Hashem.
The incidents in the Torah are not merely there to offer interesting reading - both the positive and negative actions of the people in the Torah provide us with lessons about our own life: On a subtle level, the great Dor Deah were lacking in their desire for a direct relationship with Hashem and as a consequence they became overly reliant upon intermediaries. How does this flaw effect us? The story is told of a Rebbe who once asked one of his chassidim how often he thinks about G-d. The talmid answered, “Rebbe, I wake up every day at 3.00am to learn before davenning Neitz, I then learn uninterrupted till mincha, and after a very brief lunch I continue learning for several hours more. Finally I sleep late at night and wake up at 3.00am the next day to learn - Rebbe, when do I have time to think about G-d?! ”
Sometimes we can be so involved with our Avodas Hashem that we can forget about Hashem Himself. Just like the Dor Deah overly focused on intermediaries we can sometimes ‘miss the forest for the trees’ and be so focused on the means with which we should get close to G-d but we forget that they are just means and not an end in itself. This can even be the case with regard to Talmud Torah. Talmud Torah is so central our lives that we can sometimes forget that it is primarily a means of developing a closer relationship to Hashem. Knowledge of a great deal of Torah is not an end in itself, Torah is supposed to bring us to greater Emuna and Yiras Hashem and if it does not then, there is something amiss.
The Baaley Mussar spoke at length on this inyan and the need to set aside time to focus on developing Yiras Hashem. Even the Nefesh HaChaim, who argued against excessive mussar study, stressed the necessity of spending a short amount of time before learning to contemplate Hashem so that the learning would be infused with the correct attitude. He even wrote that a person can stop in the middle of his learning and reflect on Hashem, “before the yiras Hashem in his heart will be extinguished. ”
Moreover, the Rosh Yeshiva of Novardok, Rav Ben-Tzion Brook zt”l said that it is important to be aware of the context in which Nefesh HaChaim was written in order not to misunderstand his message as a call to focus exclusively on Talmud Torah to the expense of mussar. The Nefesh HaChaim was written as a response to people who were devoting most of their time to mussar sefarim at the expense of Talmud Torah. Consequently, he stressed that it is correct to devote most of one’s time to learning Torah and that this will bring a person to a relationship with Hashem. However, Rav Brook argued, nowadays, the nisayon for most people is very different; a person who has little awareness or understanding of emuna may read Nefesh HaChaim and see it as a heter to avoid working directly on getting closer to Hashem. The Nefesh HaChaim was not talking to this kind of person at all, and whilst it is accepted to spend most of one’s time in regular Talmud Torah, nonetheless it is essential that we realize that the ikar is indeed to increase our emuna .
It is also possible to place performance of mitzvos as the ikar in place of closeness to Hashem. A person can perform a mitzvo with little or no thought of Hashem and think that he has fulfilled the mitzvo to a satisfactory level. With regard to this it is pertinent to remember the words of the Ramban in parshas Bo: “The purpose of all the mitzvos is that we believe in our G-d and that we acknowledge that He is our G-d, and that is the purpose of creation, because there is no other reason for creation, and the only thing that Hashem wants from us is that we know and acknowledge that He created us. ”
There are a number of simple ways through which we can avoid the pitfall of forgetting that the tachlis of all our Avoda is to develop our relationship with Hashem. The most obvious is to learn sefarim that discuss such topics as emuna, bitachon or tefilla. On a more practical level, Rav Dov Brezak Shlita writes that he asked one of the Gedolim how one could work on becoming more aware of Hashem. His simple answer was that we should pray for anything that we want - even for mundane matters, things that may be of no spiritual significance. For example, if we are waiting for a bus and want it to come sooner we should ask Hashem to make it happen. This exercise can help us develop a constant awareness that Hashem is with us. If we possess such an awareness then we are far more likely to remember Hashem during spiritual pursuits such as learning Torah .
It is also very important to note that the degree to which we develop our relationship with Hashem has a tremendous bearing on how our children will develop in their own relationship with Him. If they grow up seeing their parents having a genuine relationship with Hashem then they are far more likely to do the same. We should not underestimate the significance of this in our chinch: Rav Brezak quotes Rav Wolbe zt”l as saying that the reason there are so many rebellious children nowadays is that thy were not taught to have a sensory awareness of Hashem and His deeds .
There are numerous lessons to be learnt from chet haegel. One of the most important is to remember that we do have the ability to have a direct relationship with Hashem and that everything else is secondary to this goal. May we all be zocheh to constantly develop our relationship with Hashem.