Devarim: Explosive Potential

July 13, 2023

The golden calf, the translation of the Torah, and Shammai's "power grab". A historical journey through dramatic moments in our past, with a bold message for the present.

(משיחת שבת פרשת וארא, ה’תש”מ)

A. A Wild Comparison

In this week’s Torah reading, we read about Moses’ translation of the Torah (Source 1). 989 years later, the Torah was translated a second time, at the behest of King Ptolemy. Ptolemy isolated 72 sages and asked each of them to produce a translation of the Torah. “That day was as difficult for the Jews as the day the golden calf was made,” the Talmud says (Source 2). The Rebbe asks, how can the translation of the Torah be compared to the sin of the golden calf? What could be so terrible with translating the Torah to Greek? 

There’s another place where this comparison is made: When there’s a difference of opinion between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, we usually follow Hillel (Source 3). One day, however, most of the students present in the academy were from the school of Shammai, and the ruling followed Shammai. On that day it was said “That day was as difficult for the Jews as the day the golden calf was made.” (Source 4). Here too the Rebbe asks, how could this incident be compared to the golden calf?

B. Dangerous Potential

The Jews didn’t just wake up forty days after receiving the Torah, and decide to worship idols. They weren’t asking for a new G-d. They only wanted a replacement for Moses. Moses connected them to G-d, and after his disappearance, they needed a new intermediary. On that day, there was no concern of idol worship, the issue was the dangerous potential it carried.

Therefore, after fashioning the golden calf, Aaron declared a “celebration  for G-d tomorrow.” He hoped that Moses would come down from the mountain in the interim and explain to the Jews that only G-d can choose his intermediary; the people cannot choose their own. In such a best-case scenario, they wouldn’t worship idols and they’d receive a lesson on faith. In reality, the next day, they committed idol worship.

In summary: Saying that something is “as difficult for the Jews as the day the golden calf was made,” refers to the potential for idol worship, not actual idol worship.

The translation of the Torah faced the same problems. It had explosive potential. Had the sages rendered a literal translation, it could have led Ptolemy to reason that there are two G-ds (Source 5). This is why the translation is compared to the day the golden calf was made; both had the potential to lead to idol worship.

The day that Shammai overruled Hillel wasn’t so terrible because of the 18 rulings they issued in favor of Shammai, it was the potential for Shammai to seize the decision-rendering process forever.

What was wrong with that? Shammai expressed a strict style of ruling, one that was less concerned with the person standing before them and more concerned with the truth, no matter the price. The issue is that the world cannot function in such a way; before G-d created the world, the attribute of truth advised G-d not to even create it. This was compared to the golden calf because the problem was more the laden potential than what was happening in the moment.

C. Disseminating Chassidic Teachings

In a letter to his brother-in-law, Rabbi Gershon of Kitov, the Baal Shem Tov describes a time when his soul ascended to heaven on Rosh Hashanah, 1746, and he asked the Mashiach when he would come. “He answered me: This will be a sign; when your teachings will spread forth and be revealed, and your wellsprings spread outwards.” (Source 6). When the Chassidim heard this, they cried, the Rebbe said. Similarly, when the Previous Rebbe began to translate Chassidut to other languages, some weren’t pleased. They feared the potential damage of revealing the deep secrets of Chassidut.

However, just as the seventy elders and Hillel and Shammai merited for the disastrous potential not to be realized, and on the contrary, it yielded a positive result, the same was for disseminating Chassidut. The Baal Shem Tov and Chassidic leaders in successive generations were successful in spreading the teachings of Chassidut in a positive way, and, as the Mashiach said, bringing the redemption closer.



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