By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
In Parshas Ki Sisa, we read of the tragic downfall of the Bnei Yisroel in the incident with the Eigel. Moshe Rabbeinu went up to Har Sinai to receive the Torah. When he did not return when they expected him to, the people who had ascended to such exalted levels descended to worshiping a calf which they had made out of their own jewelry.
We wonder how the people who stood at Har Sinai and proclaimed, “Na’aseh venishma,” gave it all up for a little getchkeh. How was it possible for this noble people to fall so far, so fast? What caused them to be led astray? How could they think that they can elevate an inanimate object to the lofty position of G-d’s emissary?
Rashi (32:1) explains that Moshe told his people that he would be back in forty days and they erred in their calculation. Rashi quotes the Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (89a) which explains that the Soton “confused the natural order,” creating a mirage of Moshe’s body being carried in heaven as if in a casket.
Can we really blame the Bnei Yisroel? How were they supposed to know that what their eyes were seeing wasn’t real?
Their mistake, it appears, was precisely the failure to question those images. They should have probed for the truth behind the mirage. They should have contemplated the possibility that their calculations were in error. Instead of being misled to conclude that Moshe would never return, they should have trusted Moshe’s promise and sought to figure how it could remain viable and consistent with what they saw. They should have restrained the impulse to invent an immediate substitute. The urge to offer an instantaneous response is one of the Soton’s tools. The Soton achieves his goals by goading people facing a quandary or tragedy into making quick decisions, spurred on by tension as well as fear.
I was with Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, who heads Lev L’Achim, when there was some type of crisis swirling about. A very tense director called him. “What do I do,” the person asked. “The world is crashing all around me.” Rabbi Sorotzkin told him, “Ten li yom yomaim. Ani chozer eilecha. Give me a day or two to get back to you.” He explained to me that the worst thing to do in a crisis is to give an immediate response. It takes time to think through the proper course of action and how to proceed. If you answer on the spot, your response will generally be mistaken. How correct he is.
The slope from holiness to depravity is so slippery that, in a few short hours, the Jews slid from the apex of spiritual achievement to the lowest rung possible. Such is the ability of the Soton to use tension to capitalize on human frailty.
Aharon sought to delay the Bnei Yisroel. He urged them to wait until the next day, promising that “We will celebrate before Hashem tomorrow.” By the next morning, however, the people had degenerated to such a sorry state that they were engaged in idolatry and promiscuous conduct.
Moshe returned and called for those loyal to Hashem to rally towards him. Only the sheivet of Levi offered a positive response to his call. The sheivet that dedicated itself to the study of Torah and was free of Egyptian enslavement was the only one that grasped the need of the hour, casting their lot with Moshe. The others panicked in a time of perceived crisis. The people couldn’t wait until the next day and perhaps be calmer and more level-headed about their predicament and better able to analyze the situation.
Instead, they let themselves be fooled by the Soton and convinced that Moshe wouldn’t return. Even when their worst fears were proven false because Moshe did come back, they couldn’t bring themselves to accept the reality of the error. When he called out, “Mi laHaShem eilay,” they ignored him.
Life often throws challenges of this sort our way. We lose ourselves and rationalize our actions as we slide, engaging in self-destructive behavior.
The Soton destroys overnight what took painstaking effort to construct simply by sowing insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty. We can outsmart him by remaining calm enough to be level-headed. We can then prevail.
We live in an age when politicians and leaders engage in demagoguery instead of offering real solutions to the problems that confound their countries. In order to solve problems, it is necessary to understand both sides of the issue. Resolutions are arrived at through calm, rational discussions between all parties. That doesn’t seem to happen anymore, when each side demonizes the other without ever attempting to bridge gaps and resolve problems for the greater good.
They play groups against each other, alternately calming and inciting the masses as necessary to maintain popularity. They create one crisis after another, never solving them, utilizing the quagmire for political opportunism.
Several countries have never recovered from the recession, but instead of following the laws of economics – curbing government spending, lowering taxes and seeking other ways to ensure that people have more money to spend to restore economic health – they act in ways detrimental to their people.
Instead of encouraging investment and providing businesses with incentives to hire, they give speeches vilifying successful segments of the population. That makes the unsuccessful feel good, but it does nothing to contribute to a healthy economy, which would put money in the poor people’s pockets in a sustainable, honorable fashion.
Governing well and solving problems responsibly require hard work, a thorough understanding of the issues, and the ability to effectively negotiate solutions. It is simpler to demagogue and manipulate people’s thought processes, spreading fear and anxiety and polarizing the groups who don’t support you. “It’s all their fault,” they tell their supporters, setting up straw men to blame and knock down. “If we could only bring them into line and make them pay their fair share, the economy would improve and your life would be blissful,” they proclaim.
Some leaders call for the rich to pay their “fair share,” as if they don’t already pay a large enough share of their income in taxes. But it’s worse than that. Even if all the money of all the rich would be impounded by the government, that would only cover several days of the government’s out-of-control expenditures.
In Israel, a country beset by myriad problems that are too numerous for any person or group of people to realistically solve on their own without obvious Divine assistance, demagogues are riding high, calling for everyone to pay their fair share. While here, in the US, they blame the rich, and in Europe member countries of the EU blame each other, in Israel they blame the chareidim. The demagogues assuage the pain of a people under constant attack, fearful of the future, anxious about the designs of international enemies and friends, and worried about how they will pay next month’s rent, telling them that it’s all the chareidim’s fault.
If only the chareidim would contribute their fair share, the country would be so much better off, they tell the masses. And the poor people lap it up. They reward those who seek to divide and conquer with votes and higher poll numbers. As the country totters, they play hard to get and dig in their heels. The more hatred they incite, the more support they gain and the higher their poll numbers rise, all while they have neither accomplished anything nor offered realistic solutions to the country’s problems.
In every generation, there are false prophets blessed with amazing grace and charisma who feed opium to the masses. No matter how many are smitten by the charm, we must remember that our eyes, and ears, can fool us. We must resist the deceptions of ego-driven people with self-serving agendas.
We must not be deterred. We must remain steadfast in our devotion to Torah and its causes.
When the great posek, Rav Shmuel Wosner, was younger, after partaking of several lechayims on Purim as per the halacha, he would repeatedly ask of Hashem, “Hoshanah nefesh mibeholoh, save us from acting with panic, haste and a lack of yishuv hada’as.” As a Torah leader, he recognizes that acting in haste can be extremely dangerous.
The posuk at the end of Megillas Esther recounts that upon the conclusion of the Jewish victory over Haman, many people converted to Judaism: “Verabim mei’amei ha’aretz misYahadim, ki nofal pachad haYehudim aleihem.” They converted, the posuktells us, because they feared the Jews.”
The sefer Manos Haleivi remarks that despite the severity of Haman’s gezeirah, there is no record that any Jews converted to Haman’s religion out of fear to spare themselves the awful fate.
Despite the threat of decimation, he says, the Jews remained calm and didn’t panic. Their faith was strong and held them. People of menuchas hanefesh don’t take action based on circumstances, but based on what’s right and true. Those who sought to destroy them, however, panicked when the Jews emerged victorious and thus converted.
The Torah doesn’t only provide instruction for how to live. It is the tool by which to live with serenity and yishuv hada’as. If we follow it, we will be empowered to shake off the tremors brought on by the Soton and his drive to deter us from our missions.
Eitz chaim hee lamachizikim boh. It will lead us to a life of happiness and fulfillment if we maintain the spirit of Purim all year around.