The parsha which describes Moshe Rabbeinu's reaction
to the making of the eigel is explained in depth in
Ha'emeik Dovor by the Netziv of Volozhin zt'l
with a message that rings true and sharp.
When the Torah depicts the tableau that was revealed to
Moshe, and which evoked his cry of "Mi laShem eilai --
Whoever is for Hashem, rally unto me," it says, "And Moshe
saw that the people were in disorder, for Aharon had made
them disorderly, to the scandal of their leaders." Moshe
Rabbenu took in the scene and analyzed the situation as
including two basic failings:
First he saw the people acting wildly, each one pursuing his
own evil inclination. Second, he also saw that the leaders of
the people tried to protest and prevent them from sinning but
here they overcame them. It is generally the rule amongst
Jews that they submit to the will of their leaders. Here,
however, they argued with Aharon and verily forced him to
capitulate despite the fact that he knew they were sinning.
Thereby he dealt wildly with komeihem -- with those
who normally rise against the people to show them what is
true and right.
It was not only a removal of the yoke of propriety and
responsibility, says the Netziv, not only a question of each
person doing what he desired. It was the total rejection of a
higher authority. Instead of submitting to their elders and
leaders who protested and sought to restrain them, they
reversed the roles and attempted to impose their will upon
the leaders. This severe breach demanded an extraordinary
reaction, a repercussion not anchored in routine justice.
This was that "Moshe did something extreme and dangerous
which he should not have done had he not seen a drastic need
for such a measure." Moshe's reaction was unusual in two
ways: first, in his commanding the Leviim to kill with their
own hands those whom they believed to have worshiped the
eigel. Generally, a king who seeks to subjugate a
nation and sends his soldiers to surround the country and
punish its inhabitants, does not allow the army to kill
wantonly, but sends officers to hold a court martial and to
investigate the extent of the treason or the offenses on a
personal basis. Here, however, Moshe permitted the Leviim to
range freely with swords bared to kill.
Second, even if a king decides to allow his soldiers free
rein to kill, he will not dispatch a small army to a large,
belligerent population which can easily overcome it and wipe
it out. He would, rather, send a strong battalion, well armed
and trained to quash the rebellion. All Moshe did was command
the Leviim, the smallest of the tribes, armed only with
swords, to a camp of six hundred thousand able bodied,
sensually aroused men. Why? Because the situation called for
such a move!
"For he saw that the people was disorderly. He saw that even
those who had not yet worshiped the Calf were in a state of
unruliness, of savage arousal, having cast off all fear of
Heaven and fear of judicial authority. This is already a
giant step towards actually practicing idolatry and indulging
in any other abomination that lust dictates."
What to do? "It was necessary to do something radical, to
slay a large number in one day so as to impose the fear of
beis din upon them."
"A similar situation arose in the time of the Tana
Shimon ben Shetach. He hanged eighty witches in one day
to make a tremendous impact upon the people. The
circumstances dictated such a drastic measure."
This was not enough. "Moshe also saw that the people were
usurping the authority from their leaders. They would have
killed them, had they protested." Here the Netziv declares
incisive words that ring out from one end of the world to the
other. "Moshe sought to show in this act that those loyal to
Hashem have no fear of the rabble, even if they are greatly
outnumbered by it. They need not fear it. No one dared touch
the Leviim, who risked their lives in obeying Moshe, and they
learned the lesson that one does not reject or resist the
authority of the people's true leaders. They came to realize
that `The name of Hashem is a fortress of strength; the
righteous runs into it and is safe' (Mishlei
Upon whom did Moshe Rabbenu impose this mission? To
demonstrate the fact that the loyal servants of Hashem do not
fear the roused masses? Who was chosen to uphold the
authority and fear of the beis din? Moshe did not
hesitate. He declared: "Whoever is unto Hashem: rally to me!"
Whoever is totally dedicated to Hashem will naturally
gravitate and come to me of his own.
The Netziv explains who is included in this declaration:
"Mi laShem eilai" does not necessarily refer to one
who did not worship idols, for by the eigel, the
majority of the people did not actually sin. This clarion
call was directed to each person, to whomever knew in his
heart that he was totally loyal to Hashem and was prepared to
lay down his very life and all of his possessions for the
sake of his love for Hashem and His honor. Moshe was unable
to endanger the lives of the slayers against such an incensed
rabble. However, one who is already on such a level that he
has no will of his own outside that of serving Hashem, is,
similarly, not afraid of laying down his life for Him. He is
fearless. He in unfazed even by a real, imminent threat of a
Aside from the light which he sheds upon this stormy chapter,
the Netziv also teaches us what are the motives that move the
faithful and from where the leaders of our people have drawn
the strength to fearlessly fight the battle of Hashem, tooth
and nail, for all they were worth, risking their very
Here, then, is the answer to this question. When the very
spiritual authority of the nation is in danger, when forces
attempt to distort it or to impose their own authority in its
stead, then it is necessary to publicly demonstrate the
fearlessness of the servants of Hashem, their disregard for
their own safety in the face of the masses. The loyal are
staunch and stalwart.
Who are those standing in the front lines? Those who knew in
their hearts that they are purely and solely for Hashem. They
have no separate will of their own. How moving is the
conclusion of the Netziv: "When all of Israel shall reach
this state and recognize that they are divested of all
personal will, they will also project such strength that no
one will be able to stand up to them. All will acknowledge
that they are like the veritable angels."
Incredible. Those sentenced to death, they and their
relatives and colleagues will, in the end, sense the truth
and will raise their hands in surrender for they will realize
that they cannot tamper with angels.
Thus does one fight the battle of Hashem!