I’m pretty sure even the most disconnected uneducated atheist has some awareness of the infamous sin of the Golden Calf. Much like the “apple” from the Garden of Eden and Noah’s flood, the Golden Calf is pretty interwoven into the fabric of American culture. It’s a particularly tragic moment, quite possibly the most disasterous moment in all of history for the Jewish people.
Having purified themselves to receive the Torah, the rabbis say that the Jewish people had returned to a level of purity of just before the sin of Adam and Eve. Then upon agreeing to accept the Torah sight unseen (see Naaseh V’nishma), the angels of God gave every person in the nation two crowns. What were these crowns exactly? Well… that’d be a long Kabbalistic/messy side note of explanation. But the idea is that the whole nation was imbued with a divine spirit and they were living on a whole new level of potential.
But when the Jews did the sin of the Golden Calf, the angels took those crowns back. However, when you look at the verses in the text, there’s an interesting inconsistency. According to one rabbi, it’s an instruction on how to pick yourself up when you think you’ve lost everything.
Under the Microscope
After seeing the sin with his own eyes, Moses goes back up the mountain to talk to God awaiting His judgement. God seems to be ready to move on, essentially saying (paraphrasing) “Leave Mount Sinai and head to Israel. But I’m not going to be among you anymore, I’m sending an angel in my stead.”
To that the children of Israel respond,
“When the people heard this bad news they mourned and no man wore his ornaments.”(Shemos 33:4)
The ornaments are understood by Rashi to be the crowns I’ve mentioned above. Okay the Jews are so heart broken over what they did, they don’t even feel like wearing the holy jewelry. But then in the very next verse…
God said to Moses, “Say to the Children of Israel, ‘You are a stiffed necked people. Were I to go up among you for one moment, I would destroy you. And now remove your ornaments and I know what to do with you.'” The children of Israel took off their ornaments…(Shemos 33:5-6)
Anything seem a little odd to you? The Jews already took off their crowns. Why is God insisting they remove them, then the next line has them then taking the ornaments off? Is that just bad editing? You might think so, but the Chozen of Lublin has another idea.
Pay No Mind
Going back to the first verse above where the Jews didn’t put the crowns on their heads, there’s a way to read וְלֹא־שָׁ֛תוּ not as “they did not put” but instead as “they did not pay attention.” What this reading suggests is that the Jews were so distraught that they forgot what they were wearing. The tremendous gift that had raised them to a new level of connection they still had on their heads. In their grief they had forgotten how uniquely close they were to Hashem and from that closeness they still had tremendous potential.
It’s at that point they became depressed and lost sight of that potential. That’s when Hashem tells them to remove their crowns. Because if they aren’t going to believe in themselves, the greatest tools of Hashem aren’t going to be of any use.
When we experience failure, sometimes it can be a fight just to keep it together. With the most devastating of disappointments, the ones we’ve worked so hard for, and maybe even gotten a taste of… when those slip through our fingers… the realization can be so destructive it can leave us questioning our self worth. It’s like all our work, our accomplishments, the people we’ve touched, and the obstacles we’ve overcome, simply all evaporate.
The things we have, our possessions and money, our friends and family, our skills and talents only have value when we appreciate them. When we take anything for granted, we will eagerly trade it for the next bigger brighter greener younger whatever. When the children of Israel paid no mention to the crowns, God said, okay if you don’t realized what you still have, I’ll give them to someone who will (He gave them to Moses but that’s another story).
According to the Chozen of Lublin, the only way we can keep those “crowns” are to realize how incredible we are and how much potential we have. Yes maybe in our lives we’ve messed up and made mistakes. But within each and everyone of us is the DNA to shape or even completely change the world, to reset where the ceiling sits, and to redefine what is possible.
When we understand that the connection to Hashem is always there waiting, always something we can tap into, that in truth the crown is still there and our potential is unlimited. It’s only when we forget this and cement ourselves into our obstacles, sharply narrowing what we believe is possible, that we truly fail.
Note: Virtually all of this was taken from a lecture by Rabbi Dovid Rosman.