It happened over thirty years ago and many people have forgotten about it, but at the time, it was scary. The effects of this incident are felt to this day. On April 26, 1986, a test was being run at a nuclear reactor in southern Ukraine. Somehow, the safety mechanisms had been turned off and there was an unfortunate uncontrolled reaction. Suddenly, plumes of smoke containing deadly fission products shot up into the atmosphere. There were two immediate deaths, another one hundred and twenty four people were hospitalized, and twenty more died from exposure to this toxic steam.
This was still during the Cold War, before the fall of the USSR, and the Russians were trying to keep it a secret, as if nothing happened. But they couldn’t keep it quiet for a long period, because the nuclear fallout was transported by the wind throughout much of the Western USSR and into Europe, where the radiation levels in the air rose considerably. This was the tragedy of Chernobyl.
The damage caused by this fallout is still present today. Over three decades later, the radiation levels in the air are thirty times the normal level. About forty miles are contaminated to this day and remain abandoned. People are still hospitalized with various diseases, including respiratory illness and cancer. The fallout has caused abnormal mutations in both humans and animals, causing deformities in their bodies. There are babies born with open chest cavities and lambs born with seven legs. Who knows how long the dangerous after-effects of this human error will last?
Similarly, there can be hazardous spiritual fallout when we are negligent and deviate from the Word of Hashem.
There is an incredible Seforno at the end of Parshas Mishpatim. The Seforno is of the opinion that the mitzvah of building the Mishkan was given to the Bnei Yisroel only after the chet ha’Eigel. Before the sin, Hashem said, “Wherever I permit My name to be mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you” (Shemos 20:27). Every place was fit for serving Hashem. After the sin, it was only in the Mishkan. Similarly, before the chet, there was no need for kohanim, special emissaries to bring the korbanos, but now there was a need, as it says, “Now you bring me near, bring near to yourself Aharon your brother, and his sons with him” (Shemos 28:1). And it says, “At that time (after the chet), Hashem set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the Aron of the Covenant of Hashem…” (Devorim 10:8). Before then, everyone was fit for this avodah.
The Seforno also says that every time that Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Har Sinai, he was there for forty days and nights, the same amount of time that it takes for a child to be formed in its mother’s womb. Every time, Moshe experienced a rebirth, absorbing the name of Hashem, which enabled him to grasp all facets of the Torah from the rebbi that he could not comprehend otherwise. After descending from Har Sinai for the last time, Moshe Rabbeinu merited for his face to become radiant, a sign of totally bonding with the holy Shechinah. This could have happened after the first forty days that he was there, but the sin of the Eigel compromised his level, as it says that Hashem told Moshe, “Go, descend, for your people who you brought up from the land of Egypt has become corrupt” (Shemos 32:7).
In summary, according to the Seforno, the chet ha’Eigel had numerous ramifications. Before the sin, every single place on earth was fit for avodah, while afterward there was a need for a specific place, the Mishkan. Before, all the Yidden were fit for avodah, but afterwards only the kohanim and shevet Levi were designated for this assignment. In addition, Moshe Rabeinu could not attain the radiant light of Hashem until later, as this was prevented by the chet.
Let us contemplate what happened here. There were millions of Jews in the midbar and the sin was committed only by the Eirev Rav and perhaps a few others. Three thousand people who participated were already punished with death. The rest of the nation was innocent. And yet, now, all of them became unfit to have the Shechinah amongst them. In addition, the desert was a totally pure and pristine place, away from civilization where the influence of other nations could not be felt. This is why Hashem chose the way of the desert for Klal Yisroel to travel and the place where the Torah would be given to them. And yet, after the sin, this entire area was disqualified from service, and only between the walls of the Mishkan could the avodah be performed.
Furthermore, and even more mind-boggling, Moshe Rabbeinu was on Har Sinai when all of this took place. He had fasted for forty days and forty nights, totally removed from any physicality and connected to the highest spheres in heaven. His face should have radiated with Shechinah, and yet this was prevented by the Eigel. How could this be?
This is the tragedy of aveirah. The actions of a few people can affect the entire populace and area around them. It is like the nuclear fallout at Chernobyl, which caused desolation to an area far and wide. Here, too, innocent people and even tzaddikim were contaminated. It disqualified most of Klal Yisroel and all other areas from being fit for korbanos. And it even had an effect on Moshe Rabbeinu, who was far removed from what had transpired.
But the contamination of the sin did not end there. It goes on for generations. About the Parah Adumah, which is meant as a kapparah for the chet ha’Eigel, it says, “For the assembly of Yisroel it shall remain as a safekeeping, for water of sprinkling: it is for purification” (Bamidbar 19:9). Rashi quotes a Medrash that says, “It is a remembrance that whenever we sin, Hashem still remembers the Eigel and we are punished for it.” And just as the Eigel contaminated all who were involved with it, so, too, the Parah Adumah. Those who are involved in its preparation become impure. Many centuries later, the fallout from the Eigel could still be felt to the extent that even the cleansing agent for this contaminant renders those who prepared it impure.
Chazal tell us that after the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh, the nevi’im tried to encourage Klal Yisroel to do teshuvah. They answered, “A slave whose master sold him or a woman whose husband divorced her, do they still have a relationship with one another (Sanhedrin 105a)?” The Yidden could not comprehend that teshuvah would work for them. How could this be? How is it that to us, the power of teshuvah is a given, and to those earlier greater generations, it was beyond them to accept?
The Telzer Rov, Rav Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch, explains, “It was precisely because of their high level of understanding that they despaired. To us, teshuvah is an easy concept, because we don’t comprehend the ramifications of sin. But they had the perception to see what damage chet had brought to themselves and to the entire briah. Therefore, they found it difficult to accept the words of the novi, and they couldn’t believe that their teshuvah could rectify the damage they had caused with their sin.
What are we to say today, when we have been in golus for so many years? The spiritual level of the world has deteriorated to total hefkeirus, and there is no telling how much lower it can sink. How can we manage to survive when there is contamination everywhere? The solution is the very same one the Yidden were given in the desert: the Mishkan. Between its hallowed walls, where the avodah was performed, there was an oasis of kedusha where the fallout of sin could not penetrate. Our lives, as well, must center around our botei knesses, our yeshivos, and botei medrash, the havens that isolate us from tumah.
Imagine if, chas veshalom, there was some deadly contaminant in the air. We would seal our doors and windows tightly, trying to prevent the toxins from entering our houses. We, too, must be vigilant in maintaining a level of kedusha in our homes not to allow the ills of today’s culture to enter our lives. The yeitzer hara is a genius in his many innovations to create a gap between us and Hakadosh Boruch Hu. He was successful when we were at the height of our glory at Maamad Har Sinai. Surely, in our time in golus, he is up to his devious ways. We are being tested, and if we remain steadfast in isolating ourselves from the fallout, our reward will be far greater than we can imagine.