At the end of the parsha about the eigel and
its results, the Torah describes the awesome splendor of
Moshe Rabbenu's face, radiating beams of glory. "And Aharon
and all the Children of Israel saw Moshe and lo, the skin of
his face beamed, and they were afraid to approach him"
(Shemos 34:30). Rashi quotes the words of Chazal:
"Come and see how potent is the power of sin! Until they did
not extend their hands in sin, what does it say? `And the
glory of Hashem was like a consuming fire at the top of the
mountain before the eyes of Bnei Yisroel' (Shemos
24:17) -- and they were not overwhelmed. But after they made
the eigel, the very beams of glory that radiated from
Moshe agitated them and made them tremble."
The entire nation is uplifted to the level of prophecy. The
people saw the glory of Hashem with their naked eye and were
transformed into a spiritual essence to such an extent that
they were not afraid nor overwhelmed with awe at the truly
awesome sight of Hashem's fiery, consuming glory. Chazal
teach us that the river Dinor is created from the
perspiration of the holy celestial creatures in the presence
of the King of Majesty. And here, denizens of the earth,
mortals made of earth- clay, gaze unabashedly at that
From that highest apex to the lowest nadir, to the state
where they cannot even bear the beams reflected from Moshe's
face. Just see how terrible is the power of sin! It
transforms a simple reality from one end of the spectrum to
the very opposite, unrecognizable far- end.
Let us now examine the sin that accomplished this
metamorphosis, the horrendous act that effected such a
drastic change. Let us at this point recall that the ones who
were actively involved in the sin and were forewarned by
witnesses, were all slain by the tribe of Levi, as is
testified in this parsha. As for those who worshiped
the Golden Calf but received no formal warning, it is
written, "And Hashem smote the people." Those who took no
part whatsoever in the idolatry were exposed by Moshe to the
waters into which the ashes of the burnt Calf were strewn and
which they were given to drink. The testimony proved
irrevocably who had sinned and who not, for the sinners were
stricken with swollen bellies from which they died.
Who, then, was left alive of whom it could be said that they
feared to approach Moshe because of his awesome glory? Those
who had taken no part whatsoever in the idolatry, but who had
not protested it either.
It was this faction of the people for whom Moshe interceded
by Hashem and asked for mercy and atonement. And Hashem
acquiesced willingly, saying, "And Hashem said: I have
forgiven, as you said."
We are talking here about a marginal, questionable sin for
which there was a subsequent process of repentance, and that
was subsequently specifically pardoned. It was, as Chazal put
it, a mere peshitas yad, a trespassing of sin.
Negligible and not deliberate.
And the results?
Horrendous! Unbearable. Total demolition of the previous
condition. An abrupt, headlong descent from the peak of
proximity to Hashem that had surpassed that of the celestial
creatures where Israel had beheld [the glory] and had been
unaffected. A sublime spirituality. And to the opposite
extreme -- all the way to a state of total weakness,
prostration, and spiritual helplessness expressed in the
inability to even gaze upon a reflection of light from Moshe
And this destructive force eats its way in, diffuses itself
and does not stop its erosion. How long will it continue to
devour and consume and debilitate? For how long will they be
unable to approach and feast their eyes upon the radiation of
Moshe's glory? "And Moshe replaced the veil over his face."
And "And thus did he do henceforth, and thus was the custom
with Israel until the day that the glory of Hashem gathered
him up" (Ibn Ezra).
These words lend a different dimension to the need for
caution against anything approaching sin. Who does not know
how much toil and effort is invested until one attains any
level of spirituality? And who will not have pity upon all
that effort lest it perish through a transition from Torah to
sin and vice versa, from words of Torah to idle talk? For "Is
he not the fool, the one who consciously loses what he is
And the thought steals its way into my heart that our
spiritual level is so far removed from the ideal, in spite of
prodigious effort on our part. But there is no cause to
wonder. Here we verily see that a setback through sin, a
backsliding and stumbling, can catapult us all the way down
and cause a drastic change as polar as heaven-from-earth.
All this is encompassed in what Abaye said to R' Pappa (in
Shabbos 119), "There is no comparison of the breath of
one who has sinned to the breath of young [cheder]
children who are innocent of sin! The very world is supported
by the latter!"
Abaye, a holy amora, does not value the Torah he
studies as worthy of upholding the world in the same measure
as the mere breath issuing from the mouths of student-babes
whose study at that point is a mere repetitious mouthing of
their teachers. Why is this? Because that breath is
untainted, unbiased, not even distantly associated with sin
or the hint thereof. That breath is purely spiritual in a
measure that is capable of upholding the very world!
(Based on the introduction of R' Chaim Aharon Turchin
zt'l to Maase Chiya)