The Jews have sinned by making a Golden Calf. Moses’ prayer narrowly averts destruction.
G-d said to Moses, “Go, ascend from here – you and the nation that you have brought up from Egypt – to the Land that I have promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob… I shall send an angel before you…for I [Myself] will not ascend amongst you [on account of your sins]…”
And the People heard these bad tidings and mourned, and did not don their adornments.
And G-d said to Moses, “Say to the Children of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked People…’”
When the People ‘heard these bad tidings’ – the departure of Divine Providence from them – they mourned what they had lost, and ‘did not don their adornments’ [i.e. the teaching of Torah] which are an adornment.… When they saw that they had lost [their Divine closeness] they thought they had no use for Torah. And this was a second rebellion [after the Golden Calf]. And that is why G-d said to Moses, “You are a stiff-necked People.”
[Commentary of Ralbag]
If the Jews were saddened by their spiritual losses, shouldn’t they have done their utmost to embrace what was left? Why did grief make the Jews lose their appreciation for Torah’s riches?
The Jews were so focused on what they had lost that they failed to appreciate what they still had. Their grief over what had been, caused the Jews to view what remained as valueless by comparison.
Message: The Jews’ yearning for spirituality – a positive drive – actually caused them to reject spirituality. We all suffer setbacks, sometimes unavoidable and sometimes self-inflicted; if the perfection we seek blinds us to the good that we have, we compound our losses. But if we do the best we can in the present, there is never cause for despair.