Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Golden Calf and the Paschal Lamb: A Mitzvah Turns Away Sin

Pesach—1st Day

          Rather than the Torah reading, I will focus my drash/rabbinical commentary on Psalm 136, which is part of the Shabbat and holiday davening and the Haggadah as well, and features the refrain: Hodu la-do-noy—“Praise the Lord, for He is good, for His lovingkindness endures forever.” One of its lines (136:16) thanks God “for leading His people through the wilderness.” Certainly, the Israelites must have been meritorious indeed, to rate God’s personally escorting them through the dangers and perils of the desert.
Yet, we know that, ironically, just a short time before they set out, the Israelites had committed the heinous sin of building and worshiping the Golden Calf, as well as cavorting orgiastically around it. What merit was this?
          According to the Alter of Slabodka (Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, 1849-1927), the Israelites earned this privilege only through the merit of Abraham, who, despite the lingering pain of his having been circumcised a mere three days earlier, nonetheless escorted his angelic guests from the rest and repast he had offered them. Avraham Avinu, Abraham, our founding patriarch, at the age of one hundred years, exerted himself mightily to perform his favorite mitzvah, that of hachnosat orchim—welcoming guests, not knowing that he was (in the words of John Milton in Paradise Lost), “entertaining angels unawares.” He fed them dainty viands—milk, bread, and (we may assume, a half-hour later) veal, and stood by while they ate, eager to serve.
          When the angels left, any centenarian might have been excused from escorting them; indeed, Abraham might have asked Ishmael, whom he was training in proper etiquette, to perform that task. No: Abraham insisted on accompanying his guests himself, and making certain that they were headed in the right direction (in this case, off to Sodom and Gomorrah, to fulfill the remainder of their mission).  
Because of his meticulousness in performing the mitzvah, Abraham’s descendants benefited by receiving no less an escort than the Lord God Almighty, throughout their wilderness sojourn. Such is the power of a mitzvah properly fulfilled. Let us learn from Abraham’s example, and fulfill any mitzvah which comes our way with a full heart and complete intention!