The Golden CalfBy Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
When last we left Moshe, he had ascended Mt. Sinai to get the Torah. We then flashed forward to the instructions for building the Mishkan. (See our introduction to last week’s parsha, Tetzaveh.) We now resume with the Moshe narrative.
When Moshe came down from the mountain, he carried two Divinely-inscribed tablets that bore the law. But all had not been well down below. The people had gotten impatient waiting for Moshe’s return and they stormed Aharon, demanding that he make them an idol to serve as intermediary to G-d for them. As a stalling tactic, Aharon told them to bring him gold and he’d make one for them. Imagine his dismay when they were actually pretty zealous and brought the gold quickly. Aharon threw the gold into the fire and it became a golden calf, which the people then worshipped.
G-d told Moshe, still on the mountain, to get down there and see what was happening because the people had lost it. He intended to wipe the nation out and start over with Moshe, but Moshe wouldn’t have it. “If you do that,” he said, “the Egyptians will think that You took them out just so you could kill them in the desert!” Moshe successfully lobbied G-d to spare the nation, but the idolators still had to be punished.
Moshe descended, carrying the two stone tablets that had been engraved by G-d. He met Joshua, who had been waiting for him.
“What’s that noise coming from the camp?” Joshua asked. “Sounds like a battle!”
“Battle, my eye!” Moshe replied. “That’s a party!”
They reached the camp and saw the people dancing before the golden calf. Moshe caught their attention by smashing the two stone tablets. (The Israelites’ reaction is not recorded, but it was no doubt along the lines of, “Uh oh, we’re in trouble now!”)
Moshe burned the calf and ground it to powder. This he sprinkled over water, which he gave the people to drink. (This is similar to what is done with a woman suspected of adultery, since the people were “cheating on” G-d.)
Moshe confronted Aharon, who explained that he had acted under duress. Moshe realized that Aharon had done all he could to stall the people and to minimize their actions.
Moshe stood up and called out, “Whoever is for G-d, come to me!” The Levites flocked around him. Moshe instructed them to take up arms and strike down those participating in the idolatry, no matter who they may be. That day, 3,000 people were killed. Because they stood up for G-d, the Levites were separated for special sacramental role in the nation.
The next day, Moshe went back up the mountain in an attempt to effect atonement for the people. “If You won’t forgive them,” he told G-d, “then You can just strike my name out of Your book!” G-d replied, “Not you, but those who sinned against Me will be stricken from the record. I’ll still send my angel to lead the people into the land, but don’t think that this incident doesn’t change things.” He then sent a plague among the people as punishment for the golden calf. (While the Jews were forgiven, Moshe’s words were partially realized in that his name does not appear in parshas Tetzaveh. That is the only parsha since Moshe’s birth in parshas Shemos not to include a mention of him.)
G-d told Moshe that He would send His angel to lead the Jews to the land and drive out the Canaanite nations, but He would not lead the nation Himself, lest they provoke Him and He destroy them. This news caused the Jews to mourn; they also forfeited the spiritual heights they had attained at Sinai.
Moshe pitched his tent outside the camp and called it the Ohel Moed, the tent of meeting, a name later associated with the Mishkan. This is where G-d’s Presence would manifest in a cloud when He communicated with Moshe, a sight that inspired awe in the people. Moshe was unique among prophets in that He could talk to G-d “face to face,” rather than in dreams and visions. Joshua, Moshe’s attendant, would stand by “on call” throughout.