By: Steve Kirschenbaum
The primary source for the Zechira of the Chet HaEigel is in Eikev 15:7, ‘Zachor Al Tishkach Eis Asher Hiktzafta Es Hashem Elokecha Bamidbar,’ remember and do not forget how you provoked Hashem, your G-d in the Midbar. The truth is, there are many things Klal Yisrael did to provoke HKBH in the Midbar. But if we read on, of all the things Klal Yisrael did, the most painful event is the Chet HaEigel, which includes the breaking of the Luchos and the near destruction of Klal Yisrael. So, we’re commanded to never forget that G-d contemplated destroying Klal Yisrael.
What was so terrible about the Chet HaEigel? The Maharal in Chidushei Agados, his commentary on the Gemara Sanhedrin, explains the long reach the Chet has throughout history. Adam HaRishon for example, was one person; yet, he sinned and we’re still paying for that sin today. When Adam HaRishon sinned, the Kenas, the penalty was that death would be introduced into the world; due to the decision that Adam made, mankind will now have to face a reality called death. The choices Adam HaRishon made impact all of mankind moving forward. He’s the foundation, the Yesod. Says the Maharal, just as Adam’s decision had the ability to impact all mankind, so too when Bnei Yisrael sinned by the Eigel, all of Klal Yisrael is impacted moving forward. The same way that Adam, from a global perspective, was the foundation of the world, this generation of Klal Yisrael was the foundation of Klal Yisrael – the first group of people worthy of the title ‘Yisrael.’ Anything they do will define what the name of Yisrael will carry thereafter. So, anyone carrying the name Yisrael, carries the mistake made long ago. We’re still affected by the Chet HaEigel.
What was the Chet HaEigel exactly? It wasn’t just Avoda Zara; they got together. ‘Kumu Letzachek.’ Rashi says, based on the Medrash Tanchuma, Letzachek is a reference to, Avoda Zara, Gilui Arayos (immorality), and Shefichas Damim (Murder), as it meant by Yishmael. Chur was murdered while trying to stop Chet HaEigel. The very essence of the Chet HaEigel is captured in the word Letzachek, which Chazal understand has a connotation for these cardinal Aveiros, which encompass all sins. The Mechutan of the Vilna Gaon, Rav Noach Mindes, teaches the Gematriya of the word Letzachek is 228, which is the same value as Eigel Maasecha, the molten calf they created. The essence of the Eigel contained these cardinal Aveiros, which contain all sins in the world. A very broken moment in Jewish history. The Shelah HaKadosh writes that Eigel is an acronym for Arayos, Gezel and Lashon Hara. This was everything; any type of Aveira or vice was included. Until today, we’re paying for this crime. So, what’s the Zechor, Al Tishkach — what are we supposed to remember? From all this negativity of Chet HaEigel, what are we to learn?
The Sefer Chareidim 23 writes if we’re being asked to remember and to reflect on the Chet HaEigel, even though we may not feel a personal connection to it per se, it serves as a reminder to be cognizant of our own Chet HaEigels, to contemplate our own transgressions. If the Torah wants us to think about an offense that occurred long ago and impacted Klal Yisrael, we should be mindful of the sins we commit today, a Cheshbon HaNefesh.
Further, the Gemara Avoda Zara 4b says when Dovid HaMelech sinned with Batsheva, it didn’t make sense that someone so refined as Dovid would get involved in such an Aveira; likewise, it doesn’t make sense that Klal Yisrael should commit the Chet HaEigel. The leaders of Klal Yisrael are involved in the world and make mistakes. Dovid, from the standpoint of his own Neshama, shouldn’t have made the mistake he made; Klal Yisrael, who were witness to so many miracles, shouldn’t have made the Eigel. However, the lesson to learn is if/when we make mistakes, we should look up to Dovid and see the manner in which he did Teshuva. The same thing with a group; if a Tzibbur makes a mistake, we look at the generation that committed the Chet HaEigel. People, individually or collectively, make mistakes and we can do Teshuva as well.
The Kotzker Rebbe explains that when HKBH looked at this terrible transgression, He was willing to forgive this mistake. In a sense, He was willing to forgive even more than the Chet HaMeraglim because it was a spiritual mistake, a mistake of Avoda Zara. We wanted to be spiritually connected to a higher power. The Meraglim were complaining about Gashmiyus, the land and the fruit. G-d isn’t as quick to forgive a person complaining about Gashmiyus. However, a mistake in Ruchniyus stems from a place in which the person is endeavoring to reach spiritual heights. There may be mistakes along the way while looking for G-d, but at least you’re striving for something lofty. G-d says Zachor Al Tishkach, remember that Chet but keep trying; it’s a big mistake, but a holy one, nonetheless.