How low can you sink when you have reached the highest level man has ever known, that is the question from this week’s parshah. Only forty days after hearing and accepting the Aseres Hadibros at Har Sinai, the Bnei Yisrael built an idol in the form of a calf and called it their new god, even though one of the very mitzvos they had heard at the mountain was to not serve any other god other than Hashem. What caused them to fall this far and who was responsible for it are questions that all the Meforshim discuss. The bottom line is, this sin, known as the עגל הזהב the Golden Calf, almost led to the destruction of the entire Jewish Nation. Only through much teshuvah and intervention on Moshe’s part did Hashem lift that decree. May that chapter of Jewish History be kept closed.
At the end of this week’s parshah, after Moshe davens on behalf of Bnei Yisrael and receives a new set of Luchos (tablets- Moshe broke the first set when he came down from Har Sinai and saw the Jews celebrating the עגל), Hashem reiterates the prohibition of serving idols, known in Hebrew as אֱלֹהֵי מַסֵּכָה (literally, “molten gods”). He then proceeds to give Moshe what looks like the most random list of mitzvos you could think of. For the next nine pesukim he tells Moshe the mitzvos of Pesach, bringing a first-born cow or sheep as a sacrifice, redeeming a first-born donkey and bringing the replacement as a sacrifice, Shabbos (with Shmittah included), Shavuos, Succos, the obligation to visit the Beis Hamikdash three times a year, the prohibition of chametz on Pesach, the bringing of the Bichurim (first fruits) on Shavous, and cooking milk with meat. It is easy to think of a reason why Pesach, Shavuos and Succos would be together, but why here? And what about the rest of the mitzvos listed, what connection do they have to each other?
The Seforno explains that אֱלֹהֵי מַסֵּכָה are used by people who want to live in the moment. He doesn’t explain the idea further, but I think the explanation is like this; a person builds an Avodah Zarah (idol) in order to connect to the power of a celestial being (i.e. sun, moon, stars) which he believes will help him. However, he can only connect to that being while it is in “power”. For example, a person would only be able to channel the power of the stars at night. What the Seforno means by “living in the moment” is that a person who serves idols uses the power of something in order to get help now from something that can only help him now, as opposed to Hashem who is always around and ready to help us at any second of the day. The Seforno explains that these mitzvos are examples of how we have our own power to “live in the moment”. All these mitzvos have a specific time of year in which they are applicable and through them, every time throughout the entire year has its own time when Hashem set up a mitzvah to help you.
Pesach falls at the beginning of the Jewish year at the beginning of the spring season and is a blessing for the entire season. It is also when we are judged on how much grain we will have over the year. That time of year is also the time when the animals give birth, therefore, the mitzvah of bringing and redeeming the first-born animals is written here.
The Seforno explains that the mitzvos are listed in order of how they were given to Bnei Yisrael, therefore, Shabbos, which was given right after they left Mitzrayim, is listed next. Shabbos is a blessing for every day of the week, for if you keep Shabbos, your business during the six days of the week will be blessed. Also included in the pasuk here by Shabbos is the mitzvah of Shmittah for which the same principle applies, if you keep Shmittah, the other six years of farming will be blessed.
The next time of year is the harvest time which comes out at the same time as Shavuos. The grain sits in the fields till the time of gathering which is Succos time. These two mitzvos are listed back-to-back as they are the next two in the year timeline (and they were given together).
The mitzvah of visiting the Beis Hamikdash three times a year serves as an introduction for the last three. Each of the last three mitzvos are specific to one of the Chagim (Holidays [when you visit the Beis Hamikdash]). The first two are obvious; not eating chametz on Pesach and bringing the first fruits on Shavuos are mentioned in other places in the Torah. But what is the connection between the prohibition of milk and meat and Succos? The issur (prohibition) of eating milk and meat together is written as “לֹא תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ” “Do not cook a goat in its mother’s milk”. Succos is the time of goats (because the tithe of animals is done right before Succos and you end up bringing the tithe to the Beis Hamikdash to give to the Kohanim on Succos), therefore, the Torah lists this issur specifically by Succos in order to make sure you are extra careful about this aveirah.
After this explanation from the Seforno, the answer to our question is clear. After Bnei Yisrael decided to serve Avodah Zarah, Hashem shows them how it is such a futile activity. The only “advantage” of it is to gain something at this moment. Hashem gives us a list of mitzvos right then to show how the Torah has the same features and better since the God that we are davening to isn’t constricted to the moment. In fact, he has no moment! Why would you even bother to try idol worshipping after that!
Let us all take these words to heart and realize for ourselves the power of the mitzvos that we were given. Even if we aren’t serving Avodah Zarah per se, there are still other things we can work on to appreciate what the mitzvos really mean and not just view them as laws which we have to keep. They are in fact shining beacons placed by Hashem along our path in life to guide us and to give us the greatest experience possible.Shabbat Shalom!