The Golden Calf was a catastrophe of absolutely colossal proportions. You might expect that people who witnessed the most overtly supernatural public miracles before or since when God took them out of Egypt, followed by the cataclysmic Splitting of the Sea, might think that they were in safe hands and things would work out. And yet, Moses disappeared for a little longer than they expected, and they panicked. The mob cornered Ahron and demanded he come up with something to lead them:

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 – The people gathered against Ahron and said to him, “Make us a god who will go before us, because Moshe, the man who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what happened to him.” (32:1)

Especially seeing that those people had seen, it was a massive betrayal, and obviously, the aftermath was ugly. Moshe destroyed the Tablets containing the Ten Commandments, quite literally shattering the covenant between God and the Jewish People, and God sent a plague.

What happens next is interesting and important.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this is the very first time the Jewish People have been on the receiving end of God’s severity. The only historical paradigm up this point is that God gets angry at you, it’s over. Destruction and annihilation wouldn’t be a surprise, and the Golden Calf was a close a call as any. But that’s not what happens.

Instead of just destroying them, God specifically tells Moshe how He’s feeling:

וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי וְיִחַר־אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל – “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make you the great nation.” (32:10)

What’s so interesting about this is that God doesn’t need to threaten anyone or share how He’s feeling; He can just do things, and that’s why He’s called God. The idea of a threat is specifically to provoke the desired response in the person being threatened. Recognizing this prompt, Moshe successfully persuades God to forgive the people.

The very next thing that happens after the Golden Calf is God’s instruction to build the Mishkan. R’ Hirsch explains that even before the sinners could undergo rituals or offer sacrifices, Hashem had already paved a pathway forward for them.

For the first time, and on at least two fronts, God established plainly to humans that our relationship can withstand missteps. The Golden Calf was the first and worst thing the Jewish People could do, and we could still find our way because God is not only waiting, but inviting us back.

Whatever mistakes we’ve made, we can take heart that we can always make amends.

The Haggada is the story of the Exodus from Egypt. But there’s a strange section towards the beginning that doesn’t quite fit the theme:

צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּשׁ לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ: שֶׁפַּרְעֹה לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים, וְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל – Go learn what Lavan from Aramean sought to do to our father Yakov; Paroh only oppressed the males, whereas Lavan tried to destroy it all

Paroh was a cruel despot who enslaved an entire race and ordered childen to be cast into the Nile; Lavan was a swindler who gave Yakov a home, a family, and tremendous wealth.

In what universe can we say that Lavan was worse than Paroh?

Before Moshe’s death, he warned the people about a mistake they and we would repeatedly make:

הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ, פֶּן-תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת-ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹר מִצְותָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם. פֶּן-תֹּאכַל, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ; וּבָתִּים טֹבִים תִּבְנֶה, וְיָשָׁבְתָּ.וּבְקָרְךָ וְצֹאנְךָ יִרְבְּיֻן, וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב יִרְבֶּה-לָּךְ; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-לְךָ, יִרְבֶּה.וְרָם, לְבָבֶךָ; וְשָׁכַחְתָּ אֶת-ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים – Take care that you don’t forget the Lord your God and fail to keep His commandments, rules, and laws, which I instruct you today: when you have eaten and you are satisfied, and built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, be careful that your heart does not grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, home of slaves… (8:10-14)

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that Lavan appears in the Haggadah as a powerful warning that the story does not end with Pesach. When calamity strikes, we kind of know what to do; across the ages, the more the Jews have suffered, the more they studied, prayed, and improved their observance – וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ. 

The danger of Lavan is more insidious – that Yakov would forget who he was – לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל. The most significant threat to Jewish continuity may well be affluence and freedom.

Affluence, no less than slavery, can make us forget who we are and why.

It is one thing to believe in God when you need His help. It is another thing entirely when you have already received it. The antidote was presented long ago – we remember our history and where we come from, so we do not lose ourselves. 

Before the Jews entered the Land of Israel, Moshe gave a speech to the gathered people. One of the points he made was that just because some things seem less important; it doesn’t mean people should perform them half-heartedly:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם-וְשָׁמַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – When you finally listen (עֵקֶב) to the laws, observe and perform them; Hashem will safeguard you, and uphold the covenant sworn to your fathers. (7:12)

עֵקֶב is the word for “heel”; it denotes some definition of stepping. In other words: when you observe the things that are trodden on, God safeguards you in some way.

Rashi understands the word to be cognate to “kneading”, which lends an additional layer of understanding. Kneading has a constructive purpose, which is to warm and stretch a cold and firm dough. We knead mitzvos when we instrumentalize them for personal gains and ends.

R’ Shlomo Farhi observes that Moshe repeats the imagery of stepping on things once again:

כָּל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר תִּדְרֹךְ כַּף רַגְלְכֶם בּוֹ לָכֶם יִהְיֶה מִן הַמִּדְבָּר וְהַלְּבָנוֹן מִן הַנָּהָר נְהַר פְּרָת וְעַד הַיָּם הָאַחֲרוֹן יִהְיֶה גְּבֻלְכֶם. לֹא יִתְיַצֵּב אִישׁ בִּפְנֵיכֶם פַּחְדְּכֶם וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם יִתֵּן | ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תִּדְרְכוּ בָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָכֶם – Every place the soles of your feet tread will be yours… No man will rise before you; the Lord will cast the fear of you and the dread of you on the land upon which you tread… (11:24,25)

This seems to say that the Land of Israel would become theirs by stepping on it. But this cannot be literal – Israel became theirs after a war!

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the meaning here mirrors the figurative sense of treading on essential things. By be being careful what we step on, we measure our steps, and each safeguarded step takes us where we need to go.

But this is only true if we internalize the lesson – וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן.

What if we don’t get it?

Moshe addresses this in his very next sentence:

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָֽה – Look and see how I place before you a blessing and a curse… (11:26)

Quite literally – רְאֵה – “Look and see! I need you to get this!”

The curse that comes along with not measuring our actions is actions that are not measured! We will inevitably tread on the important things, and our steps will take us nowhere.

With a singular focus of what matters and what doesn’t, we would have such singular focus that it would be impossible to go wrong. We have a crystal clarity that fire burns when you come too close.

If we had the same level of perception of right and wrong; that itself would be our safeguard, and every step would take us forward, and we would not fear a misstep.

Steps can take us forward, backward, sideways, and nowhere. We can step on important things and important people along the way. It is always a good time to be mindful of the direction we are headed, why we’re doing it, and if what we’re doing is the best way to get there.

The speech was long ago, but the message is as true today as it was then. No one else can take the steps for us. We need to blaze trails of our own.

Our moral compasses can only navigate for us when they are switched on.

One of the sections of Moshe’s farewell speech opens with a reiteration on the importance of energizing actions with effort:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם-וְשָׁמַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – When you will finally listen to the laws, observe and perform them; Hashem will safeguard you, and uphold the covenant sworn to your fathers. (7:12)

The c conditional protection raises an issue. We are not supposed to observe our duties as workers expecting compensation; we are meant to dedicate ourselves because it is objectively important.

So why is observance framed with the conditional incentive of protection?

The Alshich notes that the word עֵקֶב is very peculiar, and not frequently found. It also doesn’t seem to add anything to the message.

R’ Shlomo Ganzfried explains that the reward is not the outcome of observance itself; it is for the effort and exertion the word עֵקֶב implies.

The Gemara in Berachos tells of how R’ Zeira took a short break from his learning and left the study hall. He sat on the steps outside so that if a scholar walked by, he could stand up out of respect, gaining merit while being idle from his learning.

In other words, beyond any particular of set mitzvos and laws, his attitude was an independently valuable characteristic to display and exercise.

The Torah always requires witnesses to testify, without getting paid. However, they can be still be paid for their time or travel, because the payment is for the work and effort put in, and not the testimony.

The same is consistently true of the Torah’s affirmation of rewards. There may not be a reward for the actual mitzva in this world – but there might be tangible benefits to showing respect for the things the Torah considers important.

This might be why the word עֵקֶב – literally “heel” – appears here. Our legwork will safeguard us because effort makes all the difference.

In Moshe’s final address to the people, he tells them how each of them must take care to observe and uphold the law to earn God’s blessing:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹ-ךָ לְךָ אֶת הַבְּרִית וְאֶת הַחֶסֶד אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – It will be because you listen to these ordinances, keep and perform them, that the Lord your God will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. (7:12)

Why does Moshe alternate between the singular and plural תִּשְׁמְעוּן / לְךָ?

Perhaps it serves to teach us how as individuals, we fit into a broader community.

The Gemara in Shabbos tells a story of a non-Jew who proposed that if Shammai could teach him how to observe the entire Torah while he was standing on one leg, he would convert to Judaism. Interpreting this as mockery, Shammai chased him away with a piece of construction material. When he made the same proposal to Hillel and stood on one leg, Hillel simply said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary, now go and study.”

Clearly, the notion of learning anything on one leg is absurd, let alone the subject matter, or the stature of his audience. But the most interesting part of the story is Hillel’s response.

How does loving your neighbor incorporate laws such as Shabbos, lulav, and every other mitzvah?

Perhaps Shamma turned him away because it is simply impossible for an individual to observe every law in the Torah; many are mutually exclusive. Only a man can only do some, and only by a woman can do others; some only by a Kohen, some only by a Levi, and some only by a king! How could anyone learn to observe the whole Torah?

Shammai chased him away with construction material – the imagery of which alludes to a building that has many component sections – rooms, ceilings, walls, and floors. Without its parts, there is no building.

In the same vein, a lone Jew is incomplete. Shamai’s response indicates that the Torah is not for individuals; it belongs to the Jewish People as a whole.

Hillel went one step further – he proposed how people can transcend their individuality and become part of something bigger.

The ultimate expression of וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ is כאיש אחד בלב אחד – one man with one heart – disparate parts forming one holistic unit.

We do not have separate identities for our hands or our feet. They all belong to one indivisible “me”.

We can not observe the entire Torah individually. But by forming a group, we can observe the whole Torah collectively. Arguably, shaping this cohesive identity is one of the Torah’s expressly stated goals.

R’ Yitzchak Lande notes that the Torah switches from plural to singular throughout because although there is a communal responsibility, we each have an individual’s duty to pitch in.

Moshe says וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם – we must collectively keep and perform the Torah, and then וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹ-ךָ, Hashem will protect you – the individual.

Because even the most observant person cannot keep the whole Torah – we can each only do the best we can.