"And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned: and no man did put on him his ornaments. For the LORD had said unto Moses, Say unto the children of Israel, Ye are a stiffnecked people: I will come up into the midst of thee in a moment, and consume thee: therefore now put off thy ornaments from thee, that I may know what to do unto thee. And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments by the mount Horeb"(Shmos 33:4-6)
There are two obvious problems with these three verses:
a) Right after the text tells us the people took off their ornaments, God then commands them to do so.
b) So they do it again?
The Malbim, with his usual incisive analysis of the fine points of the text, notes something most people miss: "the people" and "the Children of Israel" are not the same thing. If they were, why would the Torah use two different terms, especially in consecutive verses? He notes from his experience that the term "the people" usually refers to the hamon am, the great masses while the term "the Children of Israel" refers to the leading portions of the nation.
In this case he differentiates based on the recent debacle of the golden calf. The Malbim notes that the majority of our ancestors did not worship the calf, but they also didn't protest against it and stop its worshippers from carrying out their foul actions. As a result, God withdrew his decision to allow His presence to rest amongst the people. Instead of building a Mishkan, the Bnei Yisrael would travel from Sinai directly to Israel, guided by an angel, not the presence of God.
The masses who had been eagerly expected the arrival of the Shechinah evinced their disappointment and regret over events by removing their "ornaments", the crowns that the malachei hashares had given them when they said na'aseh v'nishma not so long ago. But the Children of Israel, the leading elements of the people, didn't. Why not?
The Malbim brings an astounding answer - they didn't feel the right amount of regret over the golden calf! Yes they recognized that it had been a bad affair all around but since they had never given up hope in Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, coming back with the Aseres HaDibros and therefore had not participated at all in what had happened, they felt that the God's angery and the subsequent punishment had nothing to do with them. Thus while the average people knew what to do in order to begin the process of teshuvah they sat back figuring that nothing had changed for them.
But it had because when part of our people stumble, the damage affects us all. As Chazal note, all Jews are responsible for one another. The parable is told of the people in the boat where one of them starts drilling a hole under his seat. When teh others try to stop him, he tells them to mind his own business because he can do what he wants under his private seat. The others call him a fool because his private hole will flood the entire boat.
Here the situation was the opposite. It was as if some of the passengers had begun drilling holes while others said "What do I care, it's nowhere near me", oblivious to the obvious, that they would be drowned along with the others.
For me, the lesson can be grimly applied to the frumi community today. We are a minority amongst our people. The majority of our brethren do not observe the laws of the Torah either out of ignorance or an arrogance born of fundemental misunderstandings of how God works in this world. They are the great masses, we are the Children of Israel.
As such, it is our responsibility to reach out to them through personal example. Sitting back, criticizing those who know not better and saying to ourselves "If bad things happen it won't affect us because we're shomrei mitzvos" is not what God would seem to want of us. We must reach out to our brethren through positive expression of the Torah's moral valuese and show them what they are missing. Otherwise, we are just flooding the boat through our inaction and will be drowned with the rest.