B地ai Yisrael, a Nation of Baalei Tshuva

In Parshat Ki Tisa we read about Chet HaEgel, the sin of the golden calf.


How can it be that B地ei Yisrael are seeking other gods forty days after Maamad Har Sinai where they heard the commandments 的 am the Lord and 添ou shall have no other gods but Me?


Nehama Leibowitz points out that such a thing was conceivable. The assumption that people who have scaled the loftiest heights of Divine communication are not capable of descending into the depths of depravity is without foundation.


In Melachim Alef 18 we read the story of Eliyahu HaNavi on Har Carmel. Nehama Leibowitz explains that this story is parallel to the story of the Egel HaZahav. B地ai Yisrael saw fire descend from heaven in answer to the prayer of Eliyahu HaNavi, yet the next day, B地ei Yisrael persecuted the true prophets, broke down their alters and reverted back to idolatry. Eliyahu HaNavi who was the hero of Har Carmel was forced to escape to Har Sinai and hide in the desert.


According to Nehama Leibowitz, miracles however awe inspiring cannot change human nature. They can only momentarily shake the human soul out of its every day concepts, but they cannot in themselves effect a lasting transformation.


Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim 3:32 explains: 的t is not in the nature of man reared in slavery, in bricks and straw and the like to wash his hands of their dirt and suddenly fight the giants of Cnaan. God in His wisdom contrived that they wander in the wilderness until they had become schooled in courage since it is well known that physical hardships toughen and the converse produces faintheartedness. A new generation was born which had not been accustomed to slavery and degradation.


Nehama Leibowitz adds that Maamad Har Sinai, their first religious experience, was not enough to change them overnight from idol worshippers to monotheists. Only a prolonged disciplining in the mitzvot of the Torah directing every moment of their existence could accomplish that.


Today, we have what is called the Baal Tshuva Movement where people who were previously not religious become observant. Sometimes a teenager gets interested in becoming more observant by attending an NCSY (National Council of Synagogue Youth) event or Shabbaton. Other times a student attends a Birthright trip to Israel and gets inspired. It is important for us to remember to keep in mind where these students are coming from and that they shouldn稚 be expected to take on all of the mitzvot at once. I have seen students who were genuinely interested fall off course when attending a Yeshiva program where they are expected to take on too much at once. We must remember that B地ai Yisrael couldn稚 handle taking on too many mitzvot at once and we must patiently help those who are newly religious to take on one mitzvah at a time.