The Sin of the Golden Calf and the Sin of the Spies

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Sin of the Golden Calf and the Sin of the Spies

Summarized by David Silverberg


God accuses Benei Yisrael of "testing" Him ten times throughout their sojourn in the desert (Bemidbar 14:22). Although this verse makes no distinctions between any of these episodes, two out of these ten incidents were particularly severe. Only twice until this point did God threaten to annihilate His nation and create a new "chosen people" - after the sin of the golden calf, and after the sin of the spies. In both instances, Moshe intervenes on the nation's behalf and succeeds in mitigating the punishment. Why did these transgressions provoke such fierce anger that God wished to eradicate Am Yisrael?

If national destruction was the proposed response to these misdeeds, then apparently these sins violated the very purpose and destiny of Am Yisrael. When heralding the exodus from Egypt, God is very explicit as to His plan for the newly emancipated nation: "I will take you as My nation and I will be your God... And I will bring you unto the Land..." (Shemot 6:7-8). Benei Yisrael left Egypt with a binding commitment to become a nation worshipping God in Eretz Yisrael. They broke this twofold promise in two stages. With the sin of the golden calf, they rejected the service of God in favor of the worship of a physical image. Later, when the spies returned from their excursion into Eretz Yisrael, Benei Yisrael refused to live up to the second component of their covenant, to dwell in Eretz Yisrael.

Psalm 106 underscores this interpretation of the two sins. Regarding the sin of the golden calf, the psalmist laments, "They forgot God who saved them, who performed great deeds in Egypt" (v.21), while regarding the sin of the spies, he asserts, "They rejected the desirable land" (v.24). Thus, through these two sins, Benei Yisrael negated the central purposes of their redemption from Egypt.

Other factors common to these two events may have contributed to their severity. Both occurred at moments of particular significance in the shaping of Jewish history, moments which presented Am Yisrael the opportunity to reach its highest potential. The Jews fashioned the golden calf just forty days after God's revelation at Mount Sinai and the receiving of the Torah. Similarly, the wailing of the sin of the spies occurred on the day the Jews were supposed to have embarked on their final journey into Israel.

Furthermore, these two sins involved the failure of Jewish leadership. The calf was constructed by Aharon Ha-kohen himself. Although the Sages argue as to Aharon's reasoning, his involvement in the sin of the golden calf suggests a lack of effective leadership. Similarly, the major instigators of the sin of the spies were the nesi'im, the twelve tribal leaders. They were expected to lead and encourage Benei Yisrael to triumph over the Canaanite nations. Instead, they incited their followers to revolt against God and Moshe, resulting in another thirty-eight years of wandering in the desert.

While the other eight "nisyonot" ("tests" of God) were unfortunate incidents of religious blunder, the sin of the golden calf and the sin of the spies had a lingering impact on Benei Yisrael. These events brought about a permanent change in the character of the Jewish nation, since they had rejected the two central components of their destiny. From then on, every punishment of Benei Yisrael would also contain part of the retribution for the sin of the golden calf (see Shemot 32:34 and commentaries ad loc.). Additionally, Moshe feared a repetition of the sin of the spies in his dialogue with the two-and-a-half tribes (Bemidbar 32:8-15). From that fateful time and on, Am Yisrael faces the challenge of "chadesh yameinu ke-kedem," of renewing our dedication to the covenant of the Exodus.

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Shelach 5755 [1995].)


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