Setting the Communal Standard – 17 Tammuz

Next week, the Jewish people will commemorate one of the most tragic dates on its calendar with fasting, prayer and introspection. The sad history of 17 Tammuz begins with the ill-fated Golden Calf, a complicated episode in which a band of misguided members of the Hebrew camp directed their spiritual energies towards a newly formed molten image.

A casual reader of the Torah’s account would logically assume that the entire nation was involved in this terrible moment of spiritual infidelity.

And God said to Moses, “Go, descend, for your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly. They have quickly turned away from the path that I have commanded them, they have made for themselves a molten calf! And they have prostrated themselves before it, slaughtered sacrifices to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:7-9)

Yet, when one considers the actual extent of involvement in the sin (oral tradition places the number at three thousand out of a total estimated population of three million, or one half of one percent) we see that only a tiny percentage was involved. Why, then, the broad, sweeping condemnation?

One approach that I saw in the writings of a leading rabbinic sage from the previous century is that although the nation as a whole abstained from idolatry, the fact that even a small percentage did participate reflected poorly on the entire community. Had the collective level of intolerance for such practice been stronger, one can assume that such activity would not have transpired.

From this approach we can see the importance of community and the power that we have to influence others. God does not want for us to worry about ourselves alone. It is our responsibility to set a standard for ourselves, our family and even our community, one that prioritizes core values, religious and otherwise, and holds us accountable for sinful, unethical conduct.