Ki Sisa – Proactive Positive Reinforcement

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The Tur (581) begins the halachos of Rosh Hashana by quoting a medrish, in the Pirkei DiRebbe Eliezer (46), which is related to this week’s Torah portion of Ki Sisa. The medrish relates the chronological events that took place before and after the sin of the golden calf:

“Rebbe Yehoshua ben Karcha said, ’Forty days Moshe was there on the mountain, he read the Written Torah by day and learned the Oral Torah by night. After 40 days he took the tablets and went down to the camp. On the 17th of Tammuz, he shattered the tablets and killed the accursed of the Jews. He was involved in the camp for 40 days with burning the golden calf, and pulverizing it into the dust of the earth, and he killed all who kissed the golden calf. He also cut out any lasting semblance of idolatry from amongst the Jews and set up each tribe in their perspective place. On Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first of the month of Elul, Hashem told Moshe, ‘Go up the mountain to Me and they blew the shofar throughout the entire encampment for Moshe was going up the mountain so that they won’t be tricked again into idolatry. Hashem was elevated on that day by that shofar as it says, ‘G-D was elevated by the shofar blast, Hashem with the voice of the shofar’ (Tehillim 47:6). Therefore, the Rabbis enacted the shofar to be blown on Rosh Chodesh Elul every year.”

The Bayis HaGadol comments on the line “and they blew the shofar through the entire encampment for Moshe was going up the mountain;” this means that because of the shofar blasts everyone came together, and they told them that Moshe was to go up the mountain. Since one could say that if they had simply made an announcement, that would have traveled  around to everyone and been sufficient to prevent anyone from sinning, and there was therefore no point to the shofar, it was therefore necessary to say that Hashem was uplifted on that day with the shofar. As it says, ‘G-D was elevated by the shofar blast…’ meaning Hashem was uplifted by the blast which refers to the blast of Rosh Hashana as it says by it, ‘A day of blast shall be for you’. However, the end of the pasuk, ‘Hashem with a voice of the shofar’ is superfluous, and must be written to teach us about the voice of the shofar in the desert. That because of it they went after Hashem, and they didn’t have any other mistaken beliefs. Also, in this way, Hashem was elevated and therefore it was enacted that the shofar will be blown on Rosh Chodesh Elul every year to remember that shofar blast. The Bayis HaGadol goes on to say that the Tur concludes that the custom of blowing the shofar throughout the entire month of Elul, in addition to the first day, is to arouse us to repent; but the blowing on the first day is specifically dedicated to remembering the blast which announced Moshe going back up the mountain to receive the second set of tablets which he brought back on Yom Kippur.(Click here for Hebrew text.)

It would seem according to this medrish that on some level the sin of the golden calf had to do with idolatry. The Prisha (2) on the Tur also comments that because Hashem was elevated by the same shofar that saved the Jews from sinning, that is why we blow it on Rosh Chodesh Elul. Elaborating on the Bayis HaGadol’s question, why was the Shofar needed to ensure everyone knew Moshe was going up the mountain another time for 40 days so that they will be careful not to succumb to idolatry again? Isn’t it safe to assume that there was a 99.9% chance that they would not make a mistake going down the same path again, especially after just seeing thousands of people killed for the sin of the golden calf? In addition, the golden calf was melted down and pulverized into ashes, and any other remanence of idolatry were wiped out of the camp; therefore wouldn’t the feelings of yiras ha’onesh, fear of punishment, be running very high at that moment? Furthermore, nowhere does it say that Hashem ceased giving them manna from heaven, water from the rock, and clouds of glory by day and fire by night just because of the sin of the golden calf. Fear of punishment coupled with a sense of gratitude knowing Hashem was still performing open miracles for them even though they rebelled against Him should have been enough to deter them from falling into the trap of idolatry again; so why was the Shofar blast needed?

It would seem that the shofar blast was a positive physical oractive reinforcement, that being in this case the royal trumpet blasts uplifting Hashem’s sovereignty and majesty over everything, to ensure that there was no room for making a mistake and turning to idolatry again.

We can take a lesson from this that even though a person might feel a tremendous amount of love and fear for Hashem, positive proactive reinforcement still helps to ensure a person will not mistakenly turn down the wrong path and is worthwhile to use even if it seems highly unlikely that a mistake could happen.

We find this lesson in the beginning of this medrish as well. The medrish said that Moshe read the Written Torah by day and learned the Oral Torah by night. The Bayis HaGadol quoting a Medrish Tanchuma says this means that Hashem taught Moshe the Written Torah by day and the Oral Torah by night. The Bayis HaGadol explains that the intent is to show us that even at night the mind (literally in the Hebrew text, the heart) of a person does not rest, and if one cannot look into a book, he should learn Torah by heart and it should flow from his lips.
Everyone knows there is a mitzva to learn Torah 24/7 as it says in Yehoshua 1:8, “This book of the Torah shall not leave your mouth; you shall meditate therein day and night.” So why does Hashem have to specifically teach Moshe the written Torah by day and the Oral Torah by night? Isn’t it obvious that if there is a mitzva to learn at night we can figure out logically on our own how to do it even if it is hard to read at night, especially if we know there is such thing as an Oral Torah? Why then did Hashem specifically teach Moshe the Torah in this manner in order to teach us this lesson?

The answer must be that positive reinforcement is worthwhile to be done to ensure people won’t make up any excuses that one’s heart or mind is meant to shut down at night, and obviously, if you can’t see there is no obligation of Torah learning at night even though it is extremely clear that the obligation of Torah study never stops, therefore this positive reinforcement emphasizes otherwise.

No matter how confident you are positive proactive reinforcement helps.