Post: I noticed the following interesting post at Revach, summarizing an explanation found in Kol Eliyahu, from the Vilna Gaon:
This is a very creative and neat way of solving the difficulty presented by this midrash. I would note that according to Anaf Yosef, this explanation was put forth in Rishfei Eish. I haven't looked it up and don't know if the author of this particular Rishfei Eish is contemporary.Parshas Ki Sisa: Vilna Gaon - Three Thousand Killed For The Ox"Vayapel Min HaAm Bayom Hahu Kishloshes Alfei Ish" (Ki Sisa 32:28). Three thousand people were killed in reprisal for the Chait HaEigel. The Medrash says that this is what the pasuk means that you pay five cattle for each ox (Mishpatim 21:37). What is this Medrash pliah talking about?The Vilna Gaon answers with a pasuk in Koheles (7:28) that says, "Ish Echad MeiElef Matzasi V'Isha Bichol Eileh Lo Matzasi", I found one man out of a thousand but but among these not even a single woman. The Medrash says that this refers to Chait HaEigel (where they said "Eileh Elohecha Yisroel") where one out of every thousand men sinned but not even a single woman.One out of a thousand means that only 600 men sinned. If so asks the Medrash why did three thousand die? "Chamisha Bakar Yishalem Tachas HaShor", the halacha is that if you steal and slaughter or sell a cow you pay five times. Therefore for the Chait of the Eigel or calf Hashem collected five time which is three thousand.
Is there any other way to explain this midrash? I would say yes. Whether this alternative explanation is as satisfying is a subjective matter. The Midrash Rabba in question, on parashat Mishpatim, reads as follows (also here):
ר' יהודה אומר:"Rabbi Yehuda said: Israel said to Hashem: There are many laws of commandments here: 'When a man steals an ox or a sheep' -- because we stole an ox and made a calf, therefore five oxen we paid in its place, that our ancestors died for it in the wilderness. 'And four sheep in place of the sheep' -- four kingdoms who ruled over us; and that we stole Yosef, we were made to serve four hundred years in servitude in Egypt."
אמרו ישראל להקב"ה: הרבה דיני מצות יש כאן, כי יגנוב איש שור או שה, לפי ששור גנבנו ועשינו עגל לפיכך ה' בקר שלמנו תחתיו שמתו תחתיו אבותינו במדבר.
וד' צאן תחת השה, ד' מלכיות שמלכו בנו ושגנבנו ליוסף, עשינו ד' מאות שנה משועבדים במצרים.
This is indeed a somewhat confusing midrash. What ox was stolen? Matnas Kehunah explains this as a reference to Yosef, who is elsewhere compared to an ox. But this would mess up the parallel. Unless both the eigel and the stealing of Yosef are shor for this part, and the same sin reappears in the second part regarding the seh. It seems more likely like Etz Yosef that this is that they "stole" the ox (/bovine) by improperly making the eigel.
Even so, why should the sale of Yosef be referred to as the seh? I would suggest that perhaps this is because a goat was slaughtered to cover up the crime.
Note that the midrash does not specify a number here. The Gra brought in that number of people killed, 3000, from Ki Tisa, but the Midrash does not make reference to a specific number. All the midrash states is ה' בקר שלמנו תחתיו שמתו תחתיו אבותינו במדבר. If it had brought in that number, and the pasuk in Ki Tisa, then it certainly would have been a midrash pliah, since we would more certainly have been expected to perform some calculation to make this work out.
I'll add another difficulty with the Gra's answer. Yes, the Bnei Levi killed 3000. But the Torah tells us in the very same perek that Moshe gave the Bnei Yisrael to drink, of the ground-up golden calf. And when Moshe appeals to Hashem not to wipe out all of Klal Yisrael, which happened after the 3000 were killed, Hashem says that he will punish only those who were guilty. And the last pasuk of the perek tells us of a mageifa Hashem brought upon the Bnei Yisrael, which seems to have killed them. To cite the Ramban:
(לה): ויגוף ה' את העם - לא ספר הכתוב כמה היו המתים במגפה, כאשר ספר הנהרגים ביד בני לוי, וכאשר פירש במגפה של דבר קרח (במדבר יז יד), ושל בעל פעור (שם כה ט). אולי לא מתו במגפה אחת, אבל נגפם ה' למות בלא עתם, כעניין שכתוב כי אם ה' יגפנו או יומו יבא (ש"א כו י). ואולי לא חשש למנותם, כי כן לא מנה המתים בתבערה (במדבר יא א): ובקברות התאווה, שנאמר (שם יא לג): ויך ה' בעם מכה רבה מאד. אבל הנופלים על יד בני לוי פרט לכבודם, לומר שהרגו רבים בעם ולא פחדו מהם כי על ה' בטחו:
ואמר על אשר עשו את העגל - שלא היו מן המשתחווים לו והזובחים לו, אבל היו מן העושים אותו, כלומר מן הנקהלים על אהרן והמביאים לו הזהב. ובעבור שאמר שנענשו על מעשה העגל, לא על עבודתו, והם לא עשאוהו, פירש אשר עשה להם אהרן במצותם.
Thus, there would appear to be many more than just the 3000 who were struck down. If so, the Gra's neat explanation based on the midrash of 1 of 1000 referring to the chet ha'egel, and thus 600 sinned and five times, meaning 3000, perished, does not work out quite so neatly.
An answer which is not as satisfying as that of the Gra, and does not work out so (apparently) neatly, is that the midrash here is not attempting to give a precise number in the tachas hashor segment, because no number works out. For while four appears prominently in the four kingdoms and the four hundred years in Egypt, the precise number of slain in the aftermath of the eigel is 3000, not 5000. And if we are counting the ones slain in the mageifa, then we don't know the precise number.
Rather, at this stage, it is simply denoting strong, almost overwhelming punishment. For this one sin, so many people died! This is a chamisha yeshalem tachas hashor moment.
I'll suggest another, related explanation. When the midrash states לפיכך ה' בקר שלמנו תחתיו שמתו תחתיו אבותינו במדבר, it is not talking about just the 3000, or just the 3000 + the unknown extra. Rather, it is talking about all the Israelites in the desert at that time. I am suggesting this based on what we know from elsewhere about Chazal's interpretation of these pesukim.
Hashem's initial reaction to the Sin of the Golden Calf was:
|10. Now leave Me alone, and My anger will be kindled against them so that I will annihilate them, and I will make you into a great nation."||י. וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי וְיִחַר אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל:|
Moshe pled on their behalf. Eventually, Moshe says:
|32. And now, if You forgive their sin But if not, erase me now from Your book, which You have written."||לב. וְעַתָּה אִם תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם וְאִם אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ:|
and Hashem responds:
As Rashi comments on pasuk לד:
|וביום פקדי וגו': עתה שמעתי אליך מלכלותם יחד, ותמיד תמיד כשאפקוד עליהם עונותיהם ופקדתי עליהם מעט מן העון הזה עם שאר העונות, ואין פורענות באה על ישראל שאין בה קצת מפרעון עון העגל:|
Thus, every subsequent punishment of Israel has in it some aspect of punishment for the chet ha'egel. This would then include the punishment for the sin of the spies (and Bnei Yisrael weeping at the report), for which they were punished by that entire generation perishing in the wilderness.
Alternatively, we can say that this was what Hashem had in mind by וּבְיוֹם פָּקְדִי וּפָקַדְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם חַטָּאתָם, that he would not forget this and eventually they would be punished with this rather severe punishment.
This would work well with the words of the midrash, which states just לפיכך ה' בקר שלמנו תחתיו שמתו תחתיו אבותינו במדבר. And it would work out with the other all-encompassing punishments. The servitude in Egypt was national in scope, and far-reaching past the initial incident, as is the subjugation under the four kingdoms. This as opposed to a rather tiny percentage of klal Yisrael at the time, and in immediate punishment for what they themselves had committed.
By the way, this is not the only place where the "five in place of the shor" is discussed in Shemot Rabba in reference to the eigel hazahav. See also this parshablog post. In that other midrash, they most certainly did focus on the precise number.