In Parshat Ki Tissa we read about the episode of the Egel Hazahav (golden calf) that Bnei Yisrael built in Moshe’s absence. On his return, Moshe broke the luchot (tablets), destroyed the Egel, challenged Aharon concerning his involvement in this episode and then gave an ultimatum to the remaining people: מִי לַה’ אֵלָי – who is for God, Come to Me! (Shemot 32:26).
In response to Moshe’s call, all the Levi’im gathered around Moshe who then instructed them to kill all those whom they knew had been involved in the building and worshipping of the calf. They did so, and we are told that ‘approximately 3000 people were killed that day’ (Shemot 32:28). However, as the Chiddushei HaRim (R’ Yitzchak Meir of Gur) observes, the numbers don’t add up. If only three thousand people were involved in the sin, why didn’t more people gather round Moshe when he called out מִי לַה’ אֵלָי? And if more people were involved in the sin, why were ‘only’ three thousand people killed?
The Chiddushei HaRim answers by explaining that it is true that only 3000 people were actively involved in the sin. However, of the remainder, it was only the Levi’im who mustered up sufficient courage to respond to Moshe’s call and take a stand, while the rest of the people passively stood by the side. It is for this reason that members of the tribe of Levi were singled out to serve God in the Temple, and it is this fact which serves to explain a fascinating conversation between the young R’ Shimon Schwab and Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan, known affectionately as the Chafetz Chaim.
When R’ Schwab was a young student learning in Mir Yeshiva, he travelled to Radin to visit and receive a blessing from the Chafetz Chaim. The Chafetz Chaim sat with the young man for some time, and then, without warning, he turned to R’ Schwab and asked him, “Tell me, why are you not a kohen?”
R’ Schwab hesitated and then responded “I… I don’t understand.”
The Chafetz Chaim asked him once again, “Why are you not a kohen?” Astounded by the question and in a state of confusion, R’ Schwab finally answered back, “Well… because my father was not a kohen!”
But the Chafetz Chaim pressed on. “And why was your father not a kohen?”
At this point, R’ Schwab truly did not know what the Chafetz Chaim wanted from him, and answered, “I guess, because his father wasn’t a kohen?”
The Chafetz Chaim took R’ Schwab’s hand gently in his own, and explained: “No, you know why I am a kohen and you are not? It is because when Moshe Rabbeinu came down from the mountain and saw the Jewish People worshipping the Golden Calf, he called out ‘מִי לַה’ אֵלָי – who is for God, Come to Me!’. My great-grandfather ran to his side, and your great-grandfather did not. When one hears the call, מִי לַה’ אֵלָי one must immediately run to be available!”
To be a Jew is not only to heed the call of Lech Lecha and to take a journey to an unknown land, but also, to heed the call of מִי לַה’ אֵלָי and to stand up for God and Torah; it is not achieved by doing what we want and claiming it is the will of God, but rather, by doing what God wants even if we find it hard.