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Parashat Ki Tisa 5772 – 03/07/2012

Parashat Ki Tisa

Crime and Punishment

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Hashem sent a plague on the people because they made the Calf which Aharon had made. (32:35)

Now Gd wanted to reduce the great sin for them so that they should be worthy of receiving this benificence [i.e. being led to the Land of Israel], so He sent this plague against them (Ramban ad loc)

And now, remove your ornaments from yourselves (33:5)

Onkelos translates adi as armament – his understanding accords with the opinion of the Sage R. Shimon bar Yochai who says [cf Shemot Rabbah 45:2] … The Holy One blessed be He girded them at the time of the Giving of the Torah with weapons to be protected from any kind of calamity and even from the Angel of Death.  And these “weapons” were Names of the Holy One blessed be He.  Thus the Israelites of their own free will accepted death upon themselves as punishment for the Calf.  This was a matter of profound repentance and remorse for their sin. (Ramban ad loc)

When my children were young, parents were advised not to “punish” children per se for wrong behavior, but to let them experience “natural consequences.”  Now since children are small and just learning their way around the world this did not include letting them burn their hands on the stove or running out in the street so they could experience getting hit by a car.  It did, however, teach them that behavior has consequences and that to avoid negative consequences one should avoid the negative behavior.  While the connection between behavior and consequences is most obvious on the physical level (if you jump off a cliff you will fall and get hurt or killed), our tradition tells us that the same connection holds on the moral and spiritual levels as well.

We affirm this fact twice a day when we recite the second paragraph of the Sh’ma: And it shall be if you hearken diligently to My commandments … then I will give you the rains in their season … and you shall eat and be satisfied.  Here the moral behavior (obeying Gd’s commandments) leads to physical results (and the opposite is also true as the paragraph goes on to state).  It also leads to spiritual benefits, a fact which is so obvious that the Torah does not bother to point it out.  In any event these spiritual benefits are [mostly] given in the future world, and it would be difficult, while we are still in our physical bodies, to even comprehend them.

Now the question arises, what is the effect of wrong action, and what is the effect of the reaction upon us, the consequences of those actions.  If we look at even just the physical creation, we two opposing tendencies.  There is a tendency towards disorder, what a physicist would call entropy.  In any system which is closed off from its environment the degree of structure or order in the system decreases until it is wholly replaced by a lifeless, inert homogeneity.  On the other hand, an open system, one which interacts with its environment and has energy and material flowing through it, tends to organize itself over time into more highly complex structures.  I would like to suggest that Gd’s commandments, and therefore morally correct action, supports the latter phenomenon, while morally incorrect action supports the former – moral action creates order and harmony in the universe while immoral action destroys structure.  We can see the “natural consequences” in this correlation: when we act properly the universe becomes more highly structured, more flexible in the behaviors it can display, and generally more pleasant to be in, and the opposite is also true Gd forbid.

In the case of a very great sin, of course the punishment is commensurately greater.  Thus when our forefathers stood at Mt. Sinai they achieved a status where they had transcended death itself and restored humanity to the state of Adam before he sinned with the Tree of Knowledge.   This is expressed by Torah as their having been given “ornaments” or “armaments” (according to Onkelos) that protect them from the Angel of Death using Gd’s Names.  Now immortality is just the most refined and elevated level of structure and functioning of the human organism, where the tendency towards disorder of a closed system is totally submerged in the opposite tendency of the open system.  The sin of Adam, and the sin of the Golden Calf both caused humanity to fall from this ideal state of functioning and introduced entropic tendencies into human minds and behaviors, as history has amply demonstrated.  The natural consequence of this is the greatest punishment of all – death.

Now we are all familiar with the idea that the negative consequences of wrong action can be mitigated by t’shuvah / repentance.  It appears that Ramban is bringing to our attention that even the negative consequences of wrong action – that is what we normally call “punishment” – also has an effect similar to that of t’shuvah.  In fact, he appears to be saying that the greater the t’shuvah the less “punishment” we have to endure and vice versa.  Now we know how powerful t’shuvah is – our Sages tell us that t’shuvah done out of love for Gd (that is, not to avoid punishment) can even turn wilfull sins into mitzvot.  Why should this be the case?

The ultimate source of order in the universe is Gd, Who created the universe to begin with.  Gd is continually involved in the functioning of the universe as we assert in the daily liturgy: Who renews in His goodness every day the works of Creation.  The root meaning of the word t’shuvah is return, that is, return to Gd.  What does it mean to return to Gd?  On the surface level it means to stop acting in opposition to Gd’s Will and to start acting in accordance with Gd’s Will.  We can understand that by correcting our behavior we will no longer be generating negative effects in the universe (that is, we will no longer be creating disorder/entropy), and there will be no need to suffer negative consequences going forward, for we will no longer be generating these consequences.  I believe this corresponds to what the Sages call t’shuvah from fear, that is, fear of punishment.  In other words, it is t’shuvah on the surface, coming from a calculus of consequences, and a choice of the least painful way to restore or maintain order in creation.

The deeper level of t’shuvah is t’shuvah from love.  In this case one returns to Gd because one cannot bear to be separated from Gd.  The disorder inherent in such a separation is itself too painful to bear, and the return to Gd’s loving embrace is its own reward.  This kind of t’shuvah entails a complete revamp of our personality.  Instead of being bound to the physical by our body and its desires, we transcend this attachment and bind ourselves instead to the infinite Source of all order.  We become a conduit by which this infinite orderliness can express itself in creation – thus we not only correct any disorderly tendency that might have been created by our incorrect behavior, but by opening ourselves up to Gd, we allow an even greater level of order to flow into the universe than was possible before.  I think this may be what the Sages meant by “wilfull sins become mitzvot” – the process of t’shuvah that was catalyzed by the sin has resulted in an influx of order that would not have otherwise been available.  In this case the universe no longer has to react to our disorder – we have provided the reaction instead, by changing who we are into something much, much better.

One would think that the Parashah with the Golden Calf in it would be pretty demoralizing, but each time I read it I am uplifted instead.  I am uplifted by the incredible degree of Gd’s Mercy and willingness to receive those who do t’shuvah and I am uplifted by the Jewish people’s ability to lift itself out of the depths of degradation by doing t’shuvah.  Let us all grasp this great gift that Gd has given us and make it a part of our daily spiritual routine; let us lift ourselves up closer to Gd day by day until we achieve the full measure of perfection of which we are capable.