Faith in Mankind

The Jewish people were nervous and scared. Forty days had passed, and Moshe had yet to return from Har Sinai. They approached Aharon HaKohen to ask for a replacement. Strangely, instead of asking Aharon to replace Moshe himself, they demanded a graven image. Why choose a man-made, inanimate object over the man who made it?

Rav Yechezkel Weinfeld sees the answer in their words to Aharon: “Zeh Moshe ha’ish… lo yadanu meh hayah lo — We do not know what happened to this man Moshe.”[1] Moshe’s disappearance caused the Jewish people to lose faith in not only Moshe but all of humanity.

The Jews were unwilling to appoint another human leader because humans are inconsistent and unreliable. They can be here today but disappear tomorrow. A figurine may not be divine, but at least it is predictable and dependable. It remains where you leave it and does not disappear without warning. The people chose the worship of a “reliable” inanimate object over trust in humanity.

Hashem brought the makot to Mitzrayim and split the sea through the hands of Moshe and Aharon to show the significance of man as Hashem’s agent.[2] When the Jews arrived at Sinai, Moshe climbed the heavens to receive the Torah.[3] Mortal man has the potential to reach the heavens and the right to receive the Torah.

Moshe’s performance of miracles and ascension to the heavens should have reinforced the Jews’ confidence in man. Tragically, they misunderstood Moshe’s delayed return as having the opposite implication.

Faith in Humanity

The sin of the eigel (golden calf) is rooted in man’s first sin — the eating from the Etz Hada’at.[4] The snake convinced Chavah to eat the forbidden fruit by promising her godliness.[5] The snake was right. Eating from the tree did indeed make man more godly.[6] It was just not who he was supposed to be.

Hashem's intention for us is clear — to live in His world as human beings, created in His image,[7] and invested with honor and glory.[8] We should be able to recognize our inherent value without needing to determine what is good and bad. By following Hashem's directives about how to develop ourselves and His world, His distinctions between good and evil, we play the meaningful role He intends for us and affirm our self-worth.

Adam and Chava did not appreciate this. Unsatisfied by their creation in G-d’s image and the vital role He intended for them as human beings, Adam and Chava felt the need to transcend their humanity. Their sin brought about not only curses and expulsion from Gan Eden, but also their mortality. Hashem initially gave man access to the Tree of Life, which enabled eternal life. After man tried to become G-d, Hashem used mortality to remind him of his humanity.[9]

Adam and Chavah, like their descendants who worshipped the golden calf, failed to appreciate humanity's value. Adam and Chava tried to transcend humanity; the Jews in the desert sought a substitute.

To atone for the sin of the eigel, Hashem mandated the contribution of the machatzit hashekel (a half shekel).[10] The Torah describes the mitzvah as aiming to “raise the heads of the Jewish people.”[11] Their sin flowed from a lack of self-esteem; the subsequent punishment reinforced this feeling. The mitzvah of machatzit hashekel aimed to remind them of their worth.[12] They were worthy enough to contribute towards and ultimately build the Mishkan, which “housed” Hashem’s Shechinah.

Faith in G-d’s Love

Unfortunately, their low self-esteem lingered and eventually led to the sin of the Meraglim (spies)[13] and their death in the desert.

The spies returned from Eretz Yisrael with a terrifying report about giants residing in well-fortified cities. Though we understand why this intimidated the Jews, we wonder how the makot they saw in Mitzrayim and at Yam Suf and the miracles they experienced in the desert failed to reassure them. Could they have possibly doubted Hashem’s ability to help them defeat the giants and conquer the land of Israel?

Moshe’s account of the rhetoric of their cries answers our question. At the beginning of Sefer Devarim, Moshe recalls how the Jewish people were mourning in their tents, saying that Hashem hated them and had brought them to the land of Israel to deliver them into the hands of its fearsome inhabitants.[14] They did not doubt Hashem’s ability to help them; they questioned His interest in doing so.[15]

Of course, we know that Hashem actually loved the Jewish people.[16] That is why he redeemed them from Egypt, gave them the Torah, and protected and provided for them in the desert. The Jews assumed that Hashem hated them because they saw themselves as unworthy of His love. They were incapable of appreciating Hashem’s love because they attributed their own feelings to Him.[17] Their low self-esteem caused them to explain away all of Hashem’s assistance as motivated by His dislike for them and part of His plan to harm them.   

This low self-esteem also expressed itself in the spies' report, which included how the giants saw them as grasshoppers. Interestingly, they first described how they saw themselves that way: “We were like grasshoppers in our eyes. And so were we in their eyes.”[18] The spies attributed their lowly view of themselves to others and may have even caused others to see them that way.

The spies' and their generation's low self-esteem impacted how they perceived their relationship with Eretz Yisrael and Hashem and their ability to rely upon Hashem. They did not deserve to enter Eretz Yisrael and instead, died in exile in the desert.

Their death in exile generated future exiles[19] which reinforced our low self-esteem and insecurity. The curses of Parshat Ki Tavo depict how exilic persecution and fear cause Jews to lose “belief in their lives.”[20] The first generation of Jews died in exile because they did not value themselves. Later generations are punished in ways that reinforce this problem.

The Impact on the Individual

Low self-esteem is also a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Rav Nachman MiBreslov explains that the main reason people allow themselves to sin is mochin d’katnut — a “small-minded” view of ourselves and our actions as inconsequential.[21] If we and our actions do not matter, why take either seriously?

This is why the mishnah in Avot cautions us to “not see ourselves as a Rasha.” One who sees himself as a Rasha will inevitably act that way. One who sees himself as a tzaddik will try to live up to that level.[22]

Though humility is an important character trait, when applied in excess, it leads to sin. Extreme humility distances people from Avodat Hashem because it causes them to see their actions as insignificant.[23] Of course, we should remember that we are all imperfect human beings alive only by the grace of G-d. But we should also remind ourselves that we, our lives, and our actions are of great value.

In the coming weeks, we will iy”H study the many reasons we should see our lives and actions as valuable.

Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the Educational Director of World Mizrachi and the RZA. His new book, Essentials of Judaism, can be purchased at

[1] Shemot 32:1.

[2] See Tzidkat Hatzaddik 154 who explains that the Jewish people appreciated this (at least regarding Moshe) after witnessing the splitting of the Yam Suf.

[3] See Shemot 19:3,20 and 24:23,15 and the gemara in Shabbat 88b. See also Chagigah 16a which identifies three ways that human beings resembles angels.

[4] See Zohar (I:52b) which links the two sins by asserting that the zuhamah (filth) that the snake imbued within Chava was reimbued within the Jewish people after the sin of the golden calf (after it had been removed when we received the Torah on Har Sinai [Shabbat 145b]) .

[5] Bereishit 3:4-5.

[6] Bereishit 3:

[7] Bereishit 1:26-28.

[8] Tehillim 8:6.

[9] Bereishit 3;22-24.

[10] Shemot Rabbah 31:1 and Yerushalmi Shekalim 2:3. Basis for this can be found in the Torah’s description of the goal of the mitzvah as “kapara” (Shemot 30:15-16).

[11] Shemot 30:12. In addition to the contribution to the mishkan, the machatzit hashekel was also used to count the Jewish people. The count itself also showed how precious the Jewish people were (see Rashi, Bamidbar 1:1).

Understandably, the Torah describes the mitzvah of counting (with the machatzit hashekel) at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar as “raising the heads” of the Jewish people (1:2). (See the Kli Yakar, Bamidbar 1:2). The second parsha of the sefer, Parshat Naso, is named after this concept which appears in the beginning (4:22), middle (6:26), and end (7:2) of the parsha.

[12] Bava Batra 10b, Pesikta Rabbati 10, Ohr HaChayim Shemot 30:12.

[13] We connect between the two sins by reciting the words salachti kidvarecha (which were uttered by Hashem after the sin of the Meraglim [Bamidbar 14:20]) as part of our recitation of the thirteen attributes of mercy (which were transmitted by Hashem after the sin of the eigel [Shemot 34:6]). See Rabbeinu Bechayei and Rosh to Bamidbar 14:17 and the Shitah Mekubetzet to Bava Kamma 82a (d”h v’im).

See also Rashi and Tosafot to Yevamot 72a.

We also see the association between the two sins in the relationships between the days that celebrate the forgiveness for both. See Mishnah Taanit 4:8.

[14] Devarim 1:27. Hints to this can also be seen in the Torah’s initially telling the story in Parshat Shelach. See Bamidbar 14:3,8.

[15] Seforno Devarim 1:27.

[16] Rashi Devarim 1:27.

Appreciating this is a critical condition for geulah and life in Eretz Yisrael. This explains why the Ba’al Shem Tov taught (Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Va’era 1) that the coming of Moshiach is delayed by people not spending enough time on the recitation of the berachah of Ahavah Rabbah (which speaks about Hashem’s great love for the Jewish people).

[17] See Rashi to Devarim 1:27, who explains it in a similar way.

[18] Bamidbar 13:33. See Sefat Emet (Shelach 5640) who makes this point. See also Bamidbar Rabbah 16:11.

[19] Yalkut Reuveini, Bamidbar 14:21.

[20] Devarim 28:66. The Zohar (Zohar Chadash, Parshat Ki Tavo) identifies this as the worst of all the curses.

[21] Likutei Halachot, Birchot Ha’reiach U’Birchot Hodaah 4.

[22] Avot 2:13 with the Peirush Hamishnayot L’Rambam.

This is how Rav Nachman (Likutei Moharan 382) explains the importance of judging all people, even the worst reshaim, favorably (Avot 1:6 and 6:6). People seen as positive will aim to live that way.

[23] See Toldot Yaakov Yosef (Eikev 4) in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov (his grandfather).

See also Rabbeinu Yonah who opens his Shaarei Avodah by emphasizing the importance of recognizing one’s strengths. Without this awareness, a person can quickly fall into sin.

See also Pinkasei HaRa’ayah of Rav A”Y Kook 4:27.