Question: In the book of Exodus great miracles were performed against Egypt, and when the nation of Israel was in the wilderness again God did great miracles, ie…manna…Why did the nation of Israel keep falling back on sinful ways, ie..the golden calf? One would think that after seeing such great miracles one would definitely believe. Did they keep forgetting about God? It just doesn’t seem possible.
Answer: Many feel, “If only G-d would show himself to me, I wouldn’t have any more problems of faith.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. Most of what we do is because of what we want, not because of what we believe. Part of a person is always trying to distract him from what is truly important. Anyone who has ever tried to diet knows how hard it can be to put knowledge into practice.
In terms of knowledge, the generation of the desert was the greatest there ever was. They saw; they knew!—All of our knowledge about the Torah is derived only from their testimony. Still, they were very human, and subject to human frailties. We should understand that the Jews in the desert were not all saints. Our Sages teach that many of our people died in Egypt during the plague of darkness. They had sunk so far into the immorality of Egypt that they were completely beyond hope and spiritual growth. The ones who did leave were not beyond hope. Still, lots of them must have been very close to the line. They still had potential, but were sunk deep in depravity. If they had stayed in Egypt any longer, it would have been too late! These people may have seen very clearly the need for growth, but they had yet a long way to go.
All that being said, the Jews in the wilderness did not do as badly as a cursory reading might indicate. Some of their tests were very difficult – three days without finding water, no food source, forty days with their leader gone, etc. And not all of them sinned by any means. At the sin of the golden calf, those who worshiped the calf were guilty of a capital crime. Still, the Torah testifies that only 3000 were executed (Exodus Chap. 32) out of 600,000 men. In another place (Numbers Chap. 11) the Torah says that the Jews were punished because the “Asafsuf” (loosely translated as “riff-raff”) were complaining. One of my favorite examples is in Joshua 7(11). G-d explains why Israel has lost their first (and only) battle under Joshua: “Israel has sinned, and violated the covenant that they made with me; they have taken from what was consecrated, and stolen, and lied, and packed it all away…” Terrible! But read a little further, and we find out that one Jew alone sinned. All of Israel was blamed. G-d is not being unfair; he loves us, and wants us to achieve what he knows we’re capable of. He holds us to an very high standard throughout the Torah.
[Reposted from the Archives]