R. Meir of Premishlan was the Rebbe of a small town that was then part of Austria-Hungary. He was known to perform miracles and the people of his community held him in awe. The younger members of the town, however, had their doubts and some even desired to minimize the reverence with which their elders looked up to the Rebbe.

The ritual bath in Premishlan was on top of a steep hill. During the winter, the snow made the incline very slippery and the townspeople would all take a circuitous route around the mountain rather than try to scale it. R. Meir, however, would go straight up.

Now there were some young men who felt that they boasted greater athletic prowess than the frail Rabbi. If he could climb the mountain, they surely could. And so, they made an attempt.

Unfortunately, however, they failed miserably. After ascending more than half way up, they slipped and fell, sustaining severe injuries.

Their parents, fearing that their children had fallen because they had offended the Rabbi came running to R. Meir, begging for forgiveness. R. Meir, on his part, explained that he had not known about the incident. He forgave the youths and even went to visit them to show his goodwill.

During the visit, one of the youths somewhat shamefacedly asked R. Meir how he could ascend the mountain so easily. R. Meir smiled and replied: “When you are connected above, you don’t fall.”

That story is relevant when dealing with the constant ebbs and flows of our spiritual progress. How can we prevent ourselves from falling? By being connected above, by binding ourselves to unchanging spiritual truth. That gives us a tether to rely on as we navigate life’s slippery landscapes.

Parshas Ki Sissa

This Torah reading contains the narrative of the Sin of the Golden Calf, ostensibly, one of the most perplexing incidents in our nation’s spiritual history. Forty days after they heard G‑d’s voice at Mount Sinai, our people built and worshiped an idol. How was it possible that they sank so low after being so high?

Some explain that the reason is that they were unprepared for the revelation. As it is said: It took G‑d one moment to take the Jews out of Egypt, but forty years to take Egypt out of the Jews. They had been worshiping idols all their lives and it was natural for them to slip back into their pattern.

Without minimizing that explanation, a more basic interpretation can be offered. Why are we surprised at their sin? Our lives are filled with ups and downs. On the contrary, after ascending high, it is almost logical to assume that they would fall low. After all, our spiritual lives reflect an interaction of two elements of our beings, our G‑dly souls which search for spiritual growth and our animal souls which look for material satisfaction. When two people are wrestling and one summons up extra strength, the other will respond forcefully. He has no choice. Either he fights back or he loses. And if he fights back, it’s possible that he will be victorious.

An analogue can be seen in our spiritual service. Just when we start to feel energy and vitality during prayer, we will start thinking about our stocks, the conversation we had last night, or just about anything else to get our minds off serious prayer. When the G‑dly dimension of our being gets aroused, the other side understands the challenge and goes into battle.

When we understand this motif, we are not surprised at the Sin of the Golden Calf. After the revelation at Sinai, the animal soul understood that it was now or never. It summoned up all its power and lured the people to sin. Is it a surprise that they let down their guard and were ensnared?

In truth, the question is not about our ancestors at all. The only reason it’s important to know why they sinned is to know how we can avoid falling into the same trap.

To do that, we have to look at two people who didn’t sin at the time of the Golden Calf: Moses and Joshua.

Moses didn’t sin, because he was on Mount Sinai with G‑d, learning the Torah. The sin itself was not a personal challenge for him. Later, the result of the sin was. He could have abandoned his people in their moment of weakness. Instead, he chose not to. He pleaded with G‑d not to destroy them and he went into their midst and compelled them to change direction. But that was all afterwards. At the time, the sin itself did not present a challenge. He was too busy with G‑d.

Similarly, we meet individuals who live a step above ordinary reality and don’t feel challenged by it, because they’re too involved with higher things. The problem is that most of us cannot emulate their example. The level of a Moses is too lofty for most of us.

But then there is Joshua. Joshua wasn’t with Moses on Mount Sinai; he was not on that level. But he wanted to be with Moses and that desire lifted him above the level of the people at large. Therefore for the 40 days Moses was on top of the mountain, Joshua was camped somewhere midway on its slope. He wasn’t together with the people when they sinned. His identification with Moses prevented him from being there.

Therein is a lesson for us. We cannot necessary expect to be a Moses, but we can be a Joshua. And as Joshua, through our connection with Moses, we can rise above the nitty-gritty of worldly attractions.

Looking to the Horizon

It is significant that it is Joshua, not Moses, who led the people into the Holy Land. G‑d’s intent is not to have people live at Sinai, a mountain in the middle of the desert, but to have them enter a land where they sow and reap and live ordinary lives. Moses is above the ordinary and so he does not enter into the land with them. Joshua, a person on their level, is their leader.

But Joshua does not proceed on his own power. He is Moses’ man and that gives him the strength to carry out his mission. He communicates to the people because he is on their level, but what he communicates to them is what he received from Moses.

What does Joshua continually tell the people? Chazak V’Ematz, “Be strong and take heart,” have your mission — Moses’ mission — in front of you and dedicate yourself to it.

Like the Jews in the desert, we are on a journey to our Holy Land, i.e., preparing to enter the Land of Israel with Mashiach. By dedicating ourselves to that goal, we make it a reality. For by living with the mindset of redemption, experiencing a foretaste of the spiritual awareness to be achieved then, we hasten the coming of the day when it will become a top-to-bottom reality.