Vayipol min ha’am bayom ha’hu kishloses alfei ish (32:28)
The Torah states that the Levites killed 3000 Jews for their role in the sin of the golden calf. There is a very perplexing Medrash on our verse, which states that our verse illustrates that which the Torah rules “chamisha baker y’shaleim tachas ha’shor – when a person steals an ox and subsequently slaughters or sells it, he must compensate the owner five times the actual value of the ox.” On the surface, the Medrash seems to make no sense, as this latter verse has no apparentconnection to ours.
The Vilna Gaon beautifully explains that our Medrash can be understood based on a second Medrash. Shlomo HaMelech cryptically writes in Koheles (7:28) “adam echad m’elef matzasi v’isha b’kol eileh lo matzasi – one man out of each 1000 I found, but not a single woman did I find.” The Medrash elucidates that he is referring to the sin of the golden calf, in which 1 out of each 1000 men sinned, yet not a single woman participated. However, we know that there were roughly 600,000 men, and if only one out of 1000 of them transgressed, that translates to only 600 sinners.
The Medrash is therefore bothered how our verse could relate that 3000 people died if only 600 participated. To that, it answers that when the sin occurs through forbidden actions involving a cow – in this case, the golden calf – the Torah prescribes that the punishment must be five times the actual crime, and in this case five times the 600 sinners is precisely the 3000 people who were killed!