Targum Yonasan makes an intriguing statement: “Yehoshua heard the sounds of the nation as they wept amid joy before the (Golden) Calf.” Apparently, Targum Yonasan translates b’reio as being derived from teruah, which is the most broken sound of the shofar, like a yevavah, whimper/wailing, but definitely not a joyful expression. How does one weep joyfully? The two are opposites. How were they filled with joy, yet cry at the same time? Horav Moshe Shternbuch, Shlita, cites an incident that occurred with the Alter, zl, m’Novardok, Horav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, which is illuminating. The Alter visited a town which was home to a former student who had gone rogue and turned his back completely on religious practice. Not only was he personally a chotei, sinner, he was also a machati es harabim, caused others to sin. The members of the community asked that the Alter speak with his ex-student; perhaps he could convince him to change the ignominious trajectory of his religious life.
The Alter agreed and met with the fellow for an hour – which, for the Alter, was a precious amount of time. Sadly, his pleas fell on deaf ears; the student refused to change. The Alter’s students felt bad and asked their revered Rebbe if he regretted spending so much time with that fellow. The Alter replied that, indeed, it had not been a waste of time, because he did have a measured amount of success. How successful could he have been if the fellow continued with his sinful behavior? The Alter explained that after his conversation, the sinner would no longer have a good taste/enjoy his sins. The Alter showed him how his sins were affecting his spiritual dimension. Despite his claim that he did not care, his base desires had to be satiated; he really did care! He would continue to sin, but he would feel a profound sense of failure and bitterness concerning his actions.
Rav Shternbuch extrapolates this idea to explain the term “joy amid tears,” which is how Targum Yonasan refers to the manner in which Klal Yisrael celebrated the Golden Calf. On the one hand, they danced and sang, for all intents and purposes expressing and presenting a joyful demeanor. On the other hand, internally, they were in pain, knowing full-well that what they were doing was iniquitous and disgraceful. In their hearts, they were well aware of the truth. True simchah, joy, is to be found only when one celebrates a mitzvah. This is an inner experience which is outwardly expressed. What we often see is hollelus, perverse joy, founded more in libertinism than in intellect. The people’s celebration of the Golden Calf was profligate – no positive direction, no sense of purpose, fun for the purpose of base enjoyment. They knew this; thus, they wept at how quickly they had plummeted to such a nadir of depravity.