Believing in the Sinner's Sweet Potential
Most of us are familiar with the reason why chelbana (galbanum), a notoriously malodorous spice, is included in the Ketoret (Incense Offering): to teach us to include the sinners.
The Kli Yakar concurs, of course, emphasizing a statement from Kritot 6b, which says that we must fast for our sinners.
The Kli Yakar explains:
"If there are sinners of Yisrael among us, then anyway, we must fast for their sake because every Jew is responsible for one another."
The Kli Yakar goes on to describe the great spiritual potential lying dormant in any Jewish sinner. Then he professes his belief in the ability of the sinner to repent, as represented by the chelbana.
After the person spiritually elevates himself through repentance, the Kli Yakar states:
"The transgression will also be elevated as a pleasing fragrance (rei'ach nicho'ach), like that of the mitzvot, as exemplified by the chelbana, which rose with a pleasing fragrance like the rest of the spices."
He concludes by saying that this particular section of the parsha symbolically alludes to fasting and teshuvah (repentance).
The Corrupt and Bizarre Mind of the Erev Rav
Before the Kli Yakar interprets the whole episode of the golden calf, he makes a declaration of intent:
"Therefore, for the honor of the entire House of Yisrael, I have seen fit to write in a brief way the main point as understood by the majority of the commentators. I have no intent other than to clarify the content of the matter, to publicize the purity of Yisrael...."
Then he proceeds to heap blame upon the Erev Rav, whom he portrays as engaging in bizarre and self-obsessed thinking.
- Because Moshe Rabbeinu--rather than God Himself--insisted on their inclusion into the Jewish people, the Erev Rav feared that if Moshe wouldn't return, then God would just kick them out.
- So in desperation, they decided to seek out another leader.
- Because Moshe Rabbeinu - rather than God Himself - insisted on their inclusion into the Jewish people, the Erev Rav feared that if Moshe wouldn't return, then God would just kick them out.
- So in desperation, they decided to seek out another leader.
As irrational as that response was, they now get even stranger (and more corrupt).
According to the Kli Yakar, despite everything they had seen and heard, including the Ten Commandments, the Erev Rav believed that Moshe Rabbeinu's power derived from the "image of some kind of star" they were sure he possessed.
So they asked Aharon Hacohen to produce "some kind of image" that could serve as an intermediary between them and the stars (I guess the astrological constellations, specifically).
The Kli Yakar then references Sanhedrin 63, which describes the Erev Rav as "craving many gods," because they had no idea (and apparently didn't care) what kind of image would be chosen.
Aharon Hacohen agreed to this on the assumption that it would take a goldsmith a couple of days to hammer out an image and by that time Moshe Rabbeinu would certainly return (as he ultimately did). But via the occult powers of witches, the Erev Rav caused the calf to emerge on its own. (Aharon Hacohen had the best of intentions all this time, which the Kli Yakar and all other commentaries describe at length.)
(Riiiiiiight, Erev Rav....Yeah, yeah, that's the ticket....)
The Kli Yakar observes that the Erev Rav "could not uphold their emuna for even one or two days."
- After describing at length the Erev Rav's history of and tendency toward corruption, the Kli Yakar quotes Hashem as saying to Moshe Rabbeinu about the Erev Rav:
"Leave Me be as I will no longer deal with them Myself." Hashem goes on to say that in place of Himself, so to speak, He will appoint two evil angels as emissaries named: Af (Anger) and Chamah (Seething Hatred).
Yet Moshe pleaded on behalf of the Erev Rav, providing many reasons why Hashem should not carry out this intention.
So Hashem withdraws that plan and decides that it is for everyone's benefit for everyone (Jew and Erev Rav) to experience negative consequences a little at a time, rather than one colossal whack.
Innate Characteristics of the Erev Rav
- No matter how dedicated and self-sacrificing you are for them, they will still drop you like a hot potato at the first sign that you may no longer serve their self-interest.
- They are only interested in power, associating themselves with anything as long as it appears to be the biggest bully on the block.
- (See more in The Erev Rav Strategy: Following the Biggest Bully on the Block.)
- Even when genuinely inspired, their emuna is still mind-bogglingly short-lived.
- They can't quite grasp the concept of Hashem's Total Omnipotence and even the most obvious displays of Hashem's Mastery and Involvement will still have them frantically searching for "natural" causes, no matter how bizarre and unlikely.
- Hashem doesn't really like them so much.
- They are willing to use absolutely any means necessary to get what they want.
- Even when things are their fault to the point that God Himself lays the blame at their feet, you will still suffer the consequences for going along with them, so it's best to just stay within your own dalet amot as far as they are concerned.
- They are really manipulative and evil, yet kind of dumb and gullible at the same time.
- They are the biggest kvetches.
While we can't always know who is Erev Rav, if you see people displaying the above traits, it's best to avoid them. Even though a true-blue Jew can, under the influence of Erev Rav, behave just like Erev Rav, it's still best to keep your distance so as not to be influenced by them or to incite any Heavenly Judgement against the Jewish people.
The Malbim (1809-1879) was Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel who was born in Russia and served as a rabbi all over Eastern Europe. He was bitterly fought by the Reform Movement for most of his adult life, even suffering brief imprisonment over a false accusation in Rumania by wealthy German Reformers. Fortunately, he left us an amazing commentary on the entire Torah among other valuable works he composed.
Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Luntschitz (1550-1619) lived in Bohemia (which is today Poland and Czechoslovakia). He served as rabbi and dayan and wrote several books, the most well-known being his commentary on the Chumash known as the Kli Yakar.
Although I did borrow a few terms here and there from Rabbi Elihu Levine's translation, this is primarily my own translation and any errors are also mine.
For a wonderful rendering of the Kli Yakar into English, including helpful footnotes, please see Rabbi Elihu Levine's translation.