A Sin for the Ages

Context

Rooted at the base of Sinai, the Israelites grow restive as they wait for Moshe to descend from the mountain’s summit. Turning to Aharon, they demand, “Rise up, make for us gods who will go before us, for Moshe – this man who brought us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what has become of him!”

Aharon responds by instructing the people to contribute gold, which he fashions into a molten calf. He then proclaims, “A festival for the Lord tomorrow!”

Rising early the next morning, people bring offerings and celebrate with food, drink and revelry.

Even before Moshe descends from the mountain, God informs him of the sin of the golden calf and threatens the nation with immediate extinction, only relenting after Moshe’s impassioned pleas.

The perpetrators of the sin are punished and the rest of the nation earns forgiveness through repentance. The sin of the golden calf remains, however, according to rabbinic thought, a seminal transgression that continues to affect the Jewish people in countless ways across the centuries.

Questions

No event within Jewish history is more puzzling or more frightening than the chet ha’egel.

How could the people who experienced the Exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Reed Sea, the defeat of Amalek, the gift of the manna and the powerful Revelation at Mount Sinai fail so completely in the very shadow of that mountain?

Forty days earlier, against the dramatic backdrop of God’s manifestation at Sinai, the Israelites heard the clear commandment against idol worship. How could they now, at the first sign of difficulty, create and deify a golden calf?

In a different vein, the rabbis maintain that the sin of the golden calf reverberates across the ages, affecting each era of Jewish history. And yet, the chet ha’egel seems irrelevant to our lives – an ancient event rooted in idolatrous practices distant from our experience. What possible eternal message might be contained in what the rabbis clearly perceive to be a formative, instructive tragedy?

Approaches

A.

In spite of the apparent disconnect between the chet ha’egel and the backdrop against which it occurs, initial sources do view and identify this sin as an outright case of idol worship.

“By worshiping the calf, the Israelites clearly indicated their acceptance of idolatry,” the Talmud proclaims, mirroring a position which finds even earlier voice in a passage of Tehillim: “They exchanged their glory for the image of a bull that feeds on grass.” Similar opinions are found in the Midrash, as well.

A powerfully insightful approach to the behavior of the Israelites at the foot of Sinai can be gleaned from the writings of the Rambam. In his Guide to the Perplexed, this great scholar develops the principle that human behavior does not change abruptly and that a people cannot journey immediately from one extreme to the other: “It is not in man’s nature to be reared in slavery…and then ‘wash his hands’ and suddenly be able to fight the descendents of giants [the inhabitants of the land of Canaan].”

The Rambam goes on to explain that the full transformation of the Israelites eventually requires a forty-year period of wandering and “schooling” in the wilderness – a period during which they acquire the traits necessary for successful nationhood.

Abrupt events, no matter how miraculous and awe-inspiring, do not carry the power to make fundamental changes to human nature. True behavioral change is gradual. In spite of all they had seen and experienced, the Israelites standing at the foot of Sinai were unable to make the leap beyond their idolatrous origins. Battered by the fearful forces surrounding them, bewildered by Moshe’s apparent disappearance, they return to the comfort of the familiar – and create an idol of gold.

B.
In stark contrast to those who view the actions of the Israelites at Sinai as classically idolatrous, numerous scholars offer radically different approaches to the chet ha’egel.

Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, for example, maintains that the Israelites are actually motivated by a desire to worship God effectively. Reared among religions that make extensive use of physical images, the Israelites feel unable to approach their God in the absence of a tangible symbol towards which to focus their devotion. The people fully expect that Moshe, with his descent from Mount Sinai, will bring such a symbol: the Tablets of Testimony (inscribed with the Ten Declarations). When they conclude that Moshe has failed to return with the tablets, the Israelites turn to Aharon and demand a substitute.

Rabbi Yehuda goes on to explain that the nation’s transgression lies not in their fundamental intent or assumptions, but in their methods. Symbols are certainly critical to Judaism, as can be seen from the extensive use of symbolic ritual in the building and operation of the Mishkan. Only symbols that flow from God’s law, however, are acceptable. The Israelites have no right to devise and create their own mechanism through which to approach God. Their sin can be compared, says Rabbi Yehuda, to an individual who enters a doctor’s dispensary and prescribes drugs – thereby killing the patients who would have been saved had they been given the proper dosage by the doctor himself.

Numerous later authorities follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s interpretation, some with attribution and some without.

In his work the Beis Halevi, Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik offers a slightly variant approach. The Israelites know that the ritual service will be performed by a specific individual, Aharon, and will be conducted in a specific location, the Mishkan. They therefore believe that they have the right to create their own “Tabernacle” as they see fit. They fail to realize, however, that each detail of the Sanctuary is purposeful, filled with divinely ordained mystery and meaning.

Other commentaries, including the Ramban, Ibn Ezra and Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, focus on the wording of the Israelites’ demand of Aharon: “Rise up, make for us gods who will go before us, for Moshe – this man who brought us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what has become of him! ”

The Israelites, they say, are not attempting to replace God. They are, instead, attempting to replace Moshe. Deeply frightened by Moshe’s apparent disappearance (their fear exaggerated, the rabbis say, by an error they make in computing the days of Moshe’s absence), the people feel unable to approach God without the benefit of the only leader they have known. They therefore demand of Aharon that he create a new “leader.”

The sin of the Israelites, says Hirsch, lies in the “erroneous idea that man can make, may make, must make a ‘Moses’ for himself…” The grave error in their thinking is their belief that in order to bridge the unimaginable chasm between man and the Divine, an intermediary is required. This suggestion is diametrically opposed to the fundamental Jewish belief in man’s ability to forge his own direct and personal relationship with God.

Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.