In this week’s parsha of Ki Tisa we read that shortly after witnessing the miracles of liberation from Egypt and seeing the Torah being given on Mount Sinai, the Jewish people erected a golden calf idol and were having a party worshiping it. Indeed, when Moshe comes down from receiving the Torah after 40 days, Yehoshua asks him what the noise was all about. “Is it the sound of war?” he asked. Moshe corrects him and says, no, it is a “kol anot.” The Ramban as well as the Sforno translate this to mean “the sound of merriment,” i.e., the sound of joyous celebration. In effect, the Jewish people were happy and enjoying a state of “simcha,” albeit for the wrong reason.
One would have thought that this was the worst thing the Jews could have done. After witnessing great miracles and declaring their faith in God, now they are completely “off the derech” and worshiping idols. Indeed, Moshe punishes the most flagrant evil-doers and 3,000 people were killed that day. However, if we fast forward later in the parsha we see that Moshe prays for forgiveness on behalf of the Jewish people. He mentions the 13 attributes of forgiveness, which we repeat in our prayers. In the end, not only does God forgive the Jewish people, He promises to do wonders and awesome miracles on their behalf that will astonish the world. The Jewish people come out in even better shape than before.
Contrast this outcome to the story of the spies we find later on in the Torah. There, we read that men of distinction came back after scouting the land and made very pessimistic pronouncements. They spoke of gloom and doom. One would think it quite natural for the Jews to react with broken spirits and to feel depressed and disappointed upon hearing the bad news. Yet, there we see that God punished the Jews even more severely than in the story of the Golden Calf. In effect, Hashem stated that “since you cried and carried on, I will give you cause to be miserable for millennia to come.” As a result, on Tisha B’Av we recount all the disasters that have befallen the Jewish people and continue to observe the day with fasting and repentance even in modern times.
Why did the spy incident merit endless suffering on Tisha B’Av as opposed to the forgiveness we experienced at the hand of God for the idol-worshiping experience?
R’ Levi Neubort suggested that the key difference between the two events was the emotional state the Jews found themselves with. In the spy incident, they reacted by being miserable and depressed. This emotional state, in and of itself, is an undesirable circumstance and makes one vulnerable to merit punishment. In the story of the Golden Calf, on the other hand, the Jews may have been sinning and completely in the wrong. However, they were celebrating and partying. They were in an emotional state of joy. Moshe noted “it was the sound of merriment.” This not only made it a forgivable event but the Jewish people came out stronger, with promises of God performing awesome acts of wonder and miracles on their behalf.
From here we can derive that Hashem desires that we do our best to maintain a state of “simcha.” The psalmist writes that it is incumbent upon us to worship God with simcha. We celebrate the month of Adar by reinforcing our sense of joy.
May Hashem help us cope with any despondent thoughts we might begin to entertain. Instead, we should try our best to maintain a state of joy and optimism in our daily lives. After all, Hashem apparently prefers that we live a life filled with simcha.
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist in private practice. He is acting president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, NJ, and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected]