Excerpted by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text-Shmot, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
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!” [Note: Aharon’s role in this difficult episode will be examined in the next study.]
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.
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?
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,6 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.
Some Talmudic authorities mitigate the crime by focusing on the plural tense of the Israelites’ demand upon Aharon: “Rise up, make for us gods who will go before us…” With the sin of the golden calf, these rabbis explain, the Israelites do not attempt a total rejection of God. They instead endeavor to couple their worship of God with that of other idolatrous deities. Rashi reflects this Talmudic position in his commentary when he states, “They [the Israelites] desired many gods.”
Even this softening of the sin, however, does not address the fundamental question: how could the Israelites turn their backs so quickly on all that they had recently experienced and learned? Forty days earlier, amidst the thunder and lightning of Revelation, God’s declarations concerning His “oneness” were crystal clear:
I am the Lord your God…. You shall have no other gods in my presence. You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor shall you worship them….
How could those words now be totally ignored?
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.
The actions of the Israelites at the foot of Sinai are understandable and instructive, Nehama Leibowitz maintains, as she poignantly outlines the lessons to be learned:
Therefore we should not be astonished – but should, rather, learn and take to heart [my italics] – that thousands of individuals from among those who stood at the base of the mountain and heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of the fire, forty days later created the golden calf.
A one-time proclamation will not change man…even a clear Divine Revelation will not turn him from idolatry to the worship of God.
Only prolonged exposure to a life of Torah and mitzvot…surrounding an individual on all sides – ordering his days, nights, weekdays and festivals; his life within the home and his existence outside; his dealings with his family and his interactions with others; his toil at home and his labor in the field; guiding him day by day, hour by hour – only such immersion will change a person and guard him from sliding back into the depths of darkness.”
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 (see Teruma 4). 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.
[Note: As will be explained in the next study, Hirsch maintains that while the nation’s initial intent is not idolatrous, they quickly and inexorably do descend into actual idol worship.]
Finally, a puzzling passage rooted in the aftermath of the chet ha’egel may well provide the key towards a concrete understanding of the sin and its continuing relevance to our lives.
After punishing the perpetrators of the crime, God turns to Moshe and says:
Go, rise up from here, and the people whom you brought up from the land of Egypt – to the land which I promised to Avraham, Yitzchak and to Yaakov…. And I will send before you an angel, and I will drive out the Cana’ani, the Emori, the Chitti, the Perizi, the Chivi, and the Yevusi [the nations inhabiting the land of Canaan] – to a land flowing with milk and honey, for I will not go up among you, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I destroy you on the way.
The Israelites’ reaction to this news is swift and emphatic:
“And the people heard this bad tiding and they fell into mourning…”
At first glance, this interchange is bewildering.
What exactly is the nature of God’s threat? He maintains that He will not “go up among the people.” And yet, what will be the practical impact of His absence? Everything seems, on a concrete level, to stay the same! God’s angel will go before the nation, the people will enter the land of Canaan, the current inhabitants of the land will be driven out…
What, then, exactly is the problem?
Furthermore, why does the nation respond so powerfully by descending into “mourning”? Given the possible eventualities that could have resulted from the sin of the golden calf, the news delivered by God to Moshe does not seem so devastating.
The answer to these questions lies in understanding that God, intent upon educating the people to the nature of their failing, responds to the nation’s sin “measure for measure.” In effect, He says to the people: Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it!
From the very beginning of Revelation, the Israelites consistently respond to God’s presence with a desperate desire for “distance.” Awed by the overwhelming scene accompanying the Ten Declarations, the people’s reaction is clear – retreat:
And the entire people saw the thunder and lightning and the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain and they trembled and stood from afar. And they said to Moshe, “You speak with us and we will listen; and let not God speak with us, lest we die.”
As we have noted before (see Bereishit: Bereishit 3, Approaches D), this reaction stands in stark contrast to the nation’s response just a few weeks earlier after the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Reed Sea. There, on the banks of that sea, the revelation of God’s power is greeted with song and dancing, not with fear and retreat.23 Why do the people react so differently now?
The Israelites are responding to two very different messages from God.
The message at the Reed Sea is “God will take care of you.”
The message of Sinai is “God demands from you.”
Faced with demands upon their behavior from a thinking God, the people opt for personal comfort rather than self-confrontation. They desperately seek distance from God and from His demands by insisting that Moshe speak in their stead.
And when, forty days later, Moshe apparently fails to return from the summit of the mountain at the expected time – and the people face the fact that they will now be required to interact with God directly, without the benefit of Moshe as their intermediary – this desperate desire for distance from God becomes an overwhelming fear. The Israelites create a golden calf to take Moshe’s place, to stand between them and their Creator.
Now, in the devastating aftermath of that crime, God responds to the nation’s failing. He turns to the people and says, “I will send before you an angel…” If it’s distance you want, it’s distance you will get.
“For I will not go up among you, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I destroy you on the way.” After all, you are right. If I remain close to you, you will be vulnerable. Therefore, I grant you your wish… You will achieve your national destiny but I will not be there with as you reach your goals.
The question, however, remains: why is God’s absence a problem if the nation’s concrete goals will all eventually be met?
To understand, we must take a step back to recognize that the parameters which define our relationship with God often mirror the universal rules which govern interpersonal relationships.
Inevitably, the closer we grow emotionally to those around us, the more vulnerable we become. The possibility of personal pain increases geometrically as we open our lives to others. Conversely, safety is found in emotional “distance.” An individual who goes through life avoiding close relationships effectively lives in “safety” – immune from potential heartache and pain.
And yet, such an individual never knows the deep beauty that is possible with closeness to another. Absent from his life are the wonders of true friendship and love. In his desire for “safety,” this individual misses out on the very phenomenon that makes life truly worthwhile, the splendor that results when one heart touches another.
Here, then, is the essence of God’s threat. I will be absent from your lives. You will be safe, as you avoid the vulnerability that would inevitably accompany My close connection with you, but you will also miss out on the potential grandeur that would have resulted.
In response, the nation mourns. For now they understand their fatal error. The distant relationship from God which they had so desperately craved might well be safe, but it is also empty; and that emptiness confronts them in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf. Moshe is forced to plead with God that He return to the people – until God ultimately relents.
God’s actions following the chet ha’egel thus prove to be supremely educative, as He forces the nation to squarely face the failure that resulted from their deep-seated fear. Even more, God’s response crystallizes the eternal significance of this seminal sin.As He demanded of the Israelites at Sinai, God demands of us that we create a close relationship with Him in our lives – that we each risk our “safe” existence by drawing near to Him and to His Torah. Over and over
again, we pull away, afraid that too much closeness with the Divine will upset our comfortable lives, afraid that we will be challenged to examine our decisions and actions…
And, when we pull away, we once again create the golden calf.
Points to Ponder
What does it mean to draw close to God – near enough to the fire of Sinai to feel the heat?
While the answers are potentially manifold, one clear manifestation of the tug of Sinai and of our resistance to that pull was driven home to me many years ago.
I had served as rabbi in a Modern Orthodox congregation for a few years, when a congregant approached me with upsetting news: “Do you know, Rabbi, that many of our congregants rationalize and ‘eat out’ certain foods in non-kosher diners? In fact, things have gotten so bad that those of us who want to patronize only kosher establishments feel pressured to relent in order to maintain our friendships.”
Deeply disturbed, I dedicated my next Shabbat sermon to the topic of kashrut, outlining in clear, practical terms the halachic problems of eating even dairy foods in non-kosher restaurants.
I was totally unprepared for the resulting uproar. An avalanche of comments followed my presentation, including:
“Rabbi, don’t you have more important things to speak about?”
“What right does the Rabbi have to tell us where to eat?”
“The Rabbi is only upset that we didn’t invite him to the party at the Italian restaurant.”
And even, bewilderingly: “The Rabbi didn’t say that the food isn’t kosher. He only said that it is treif [the Yiddish term for non-kosher]. If he really meant that it isn’t kosher, he would have said it isn’t kosher.”
The next week, I delivered a second sermon in which I revisited the issue. After humorously reviewing the reactions to my first presentation, I made a simple point: “What you eat,” I said, “is your business. At the very
least, however, be both knowledgeable and honest. If you intend to eat at the diner tonight, then don’t rationalize; don’t call the food that you will eat kosher. Admit to yourself, ‘Tonight I am going to eat treif. ’ If, upon that admission, you still want to go to the diner, go right ahead.”
By all accounts, this second sermon had measurable impact.
More importantly, however, the experience underscored a fundamental truth about our relationship to Judaism.
Most of us choose to practice comfortable as opposed to confrontational Judaism (see Bereishit: Bereishit 3, Points to Ponder). We prefer “distance” from the demands of our tradition. Hiding behind rote ritual and habitual observance, we adhere to a religious structure that does not challenge our lives or test our commitments.
The members of my community reacted so strongly because I had touched a raw nerve. As long as I spoke about issues that demanded no change on their part, they did not object. As soon as I raised a concern, however, that directly challenged their ongoing behavior, a firestorm erupted.
My congregants and I relearned an important lesson on those Shabbatot. For Jewish belief to be a valuable component of our lives we must allow that belief to challenge and shape our existence. A dean of the American rabbinate, Rabbi Leo Jung, is quoted as having said, “The job of the rabbi is to comfort the afflicted – and to afflict the comfortable.” In truth, that is not only the job of the rabbi, but the job of Judaism itself.
As God taught the Israelites centuries ago at Sinai: comfortable Judaism eventually becomes, like every “distant” relationship, meaningless and empty. Only confrontational Judaism – only drawing near enough to God to risk change and growth – adds real meaning to our lives.