Ki Sisa – From The Cry of War to the Triumph of Simcha

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Ki Sisa, the Bnei Yisrael find themselves waiting for Moshe to return from his communion with Hashem atop Har Sinai, since the giving of the Torah forty days earlier.

וַיַּרְא הָעָם, כִּי-בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן-הָהָר – And the people saw that Moshe was delayed in coming down from the mountain (because they had miscalculated the count of days, Rashi), וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה-לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ–כִּי-זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה-הָיָה לוֹ, and the people gathered up against Aharon, and they said to him: Get up!  Make for us a god that will go before us, for this man Moshe, who took us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him! (Shemos 32:1).

In a seemingly puzzling turn of events, Aharon instructs the people to collect gold, which they eagerly do, and lo and behold, a golden calf is made.  And they said: אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם – these are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt! (32:4). 

Drunk with lust, satiated with hedonism, and spurring each other on with the rebellion, the people wake up early the next morning and offer offerings to the golden calf.  Celebrating their success, וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם לֶאֱכֹל וְשָׁתוֹ, וַיָּקֻמוּ לְצַחֵק, the nation sat to eat, drink and got up to sport (32:6).  Rashi (ibid) teaches they were involved in the sins of adultery and bloodshed, and it was during the revelry that Chur, the son of Miriam, was killed. 

A mere forty days post the Revelation at Sinai, the spiritual state of the nation has quickly soured. 

A few hours later, as Moshe descends from the mountain, with the luchos ha’aydus (Tablets of Testimony) in his hands, he meets his faithful student, Yehoshua, at base camp.  Yehoshua, who was waiting for Moshe, Yehoshua, who never left his tent, always ready to serve and learn from Moshe (33:11). 

וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶת-קוֹל הָעָם, בְּרֵעֹה – And Yehoshua heard the sound of the people in its shouting.  Rashi explains: ברעה. בַּהֲרִיעוֹ, שֶׁהָיוּ מְרִיעִים וּשְׂמֵחִים וְצוֹחֲקִים – for the people were raising their voices, and rejoicing and laughing.  וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, קוֹל מִלְחָמָה, בַּמַּחֲנֶה – And Yehoshua said to Moshe: It is the sound of war in the camp! (32:17)  To which Moshe replied: this is not the sound of shouting of might, nor the sound of shouting of weakness; a distressing sound do I hear! (v.18).

And it was, as Moshe drew near to the camp, וַיַּרְא אֶת-הָעֵגֶל, וּמְחֹלֹת, and he saw the calf and the dances, and Moshe’s anger burned, and he threw down the luchos from his hands and shattered them at the bottom of the mountain (v.19). 

The people were eating and drinking and got up to sport; they were rejoicing and laughing, and Moshe witnessed their dancing… By any standard, it sounds like there was one grand party taking place. And yet!  To Yehoshua and Moshe, it was the sound of war and the sound of distress!

How could this be?  Was it laughter, levity and rejoicing, or was it war and distress?

R’ Mordechai Kamenetzky asks this question and insightfully answers: “The Jews got up to dance around the golden calf.  Moshe and Yehoshua, however, knew the difference between true joy, simcha, and confusion.  The Jews’ party was in reality a distress signal masked with drinks and noisemakers.  True joy is coupled with a certainty and a sense of direction; the Jews celebrating the idol did not have it.  They may have gotten up to celebrate, but it was no celebration.  To the untrained eye, it may have looked like a party, but Moshe knew that the true sound of joy is the harmony of spirituality and contentment.  It certainly did not exist with the golden calf” (Parsha Parables, Feldheim, Ki Sisa, p.273). 

What a powerful lesson and insight into simcha.  While the people partied with drinks, food, and immorality, the external display reflected no authentic, soul-based, inner simcha.  It was a mere frivolous show of sin, with no meaning within.

The truest simcha comes from a life of meaning, connection, thoughtfulness and intention, both between man and G-d and man and fellow man.  When our days and years are shaped by Torah and mitzvos, when our hours are filled with acts of chessed and commitment to tzarchei tzibur, when we live a life committed to the ideals of Torah, then simcha will be found.   

As we approach the festive day of Purim, and we recall the partying of Achashvairosh, we must remind ourselves that outward shows of joy may not be simcha at all.

The Medrash (Esther Rabbah 7:13) tells us that 18,500 Jews partied at the party of Achashvairosh.  The king conducted one mishteh (party), with food, wine, drink and immorality, after another.  And yet, there was no simcha amongst the Jews to be found.  When Mordechai saw them going, he stood up, he called out and said: Do not go to the party of the king!  He only invited you to allow the heavenly prosecutor to prosecute against you!  And the Jews did not listen…(ibid).

Only at the end of the Megillah, with the Divine salvation and triumph of the Jews over their enemies, was true simcha found – with the re-acceptance of Torah. 

לַיְּהוּדִים, הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, וְשָׂשֹׂן, וִיקָרThe Jews had light and gladness, joy and honor (Esther 8:16).  Chazal (Megilla 16b) teach: אורה זו תורה, Light is none other than Torah; שמחה זה יום טוב, gladness is none other than simchas Yom Tov, ששון זו מילה, joy is the mitzvah of bris milah, ויקר אלו תפלין, and honor is the mitzvah of tefillin.

If we want to live our lives content, b’simcha and fulfilled, we must focus on those things that bring simchas ha’chaim to each and every day.  Laughter and levity, partying and revelry come and go (and often do more harm than good), but Torah and mitzvos are forever.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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