The Golden Calf: Good or Bad?

Rabbi Ari Ginsberg

This week’s parsha, Ki Sisa, depicts one of the largest blunders in Jewish history, the worship of the Gold Calf. This transgression and its effects were so horrendous that it threatened the very existence of the nation of Israel. However, Moshe Rabeinu displayed his leadership in begging Hashem for mercy, and thereby saved klal yisroel from imminent destruction. Many integral lessons and concepts are gleaned from the dialogue between Moshe and Hashem regarding the fate of klal yisroel. One seemingly peculiar exchange between Moshe and Hashem presents Moshe threatening Hashem in order to procure the salvation of the nation. What right did Moshe have to approach Hashem in a threatening manner? Isn’t it disrespectful to communicate with Hashem in an aggressive way?

The aforementioned exchange between Moshe and Hashem occurred the day after the tribe of Levi had exacted justice on many of those who had worshipped the Gold Calf (Shemos 32:32-33). Moshe says to Hashem, “And now you can bear the burden of their (Bnei Yisroel) sin, and if not, erase me from the book you have written.” Hashem responds, “he who has sinned toward Me, is the individual I will erase from My book.” What is the “book” that Moshe and Hashem are referring to in their conversation? Rashi on these pesukim explains that the “book” refers to the Torah, and Moshe is thereby asking Hashem to erase his name from the Torah. However, many of the other commentators (Ramban, Sforno, Chizkuni) say that the “book” which is referenced, is the book of life. Moshe was therefore asking Hashem to take his life in the event of the destruction of klal yisroel. Thus, Moshe was demonstrating his love and dedication to the nation by tying his fate with the fate of the people. The Sforno gives a slightly different and very insightful understanding of the back and forth depicted in these pesukim.

According to the Sforno, Moshe was asking Hashem to transfer some of his personal merits from his book of life, in order to cancel out the severity of judgment and punishment applied to klal yisroel. Hashem retorts that each person is rewarded and punished for their personal deeds, and furthermore, a positive act cannot replace a transgression. Therefore, Moshe’s request to swap his good deeds for their bad deeds was denied. The perception of reward and punishment presented by Moshe would appear to be foolish at first glance. To say that a righteous person could transfer his deeds to some supremely evil individual would create many uncomfortable and obviously unjust situations. Could a righteous person transfer their merits to Hitler, Haman, Nevuchadnezzar…in order to cancel out their deserved punishment? What then was Moshe’s request?

Perhaps Moshe’s perspective of the sin of the Gold Calf was somewhat different than a typically negative viewpoint. Moshe recognized that his own perfection and closeness to Hashem was elevated due to the event of the Gold Calf. He was able to learn about Hashem’s attributes, perceive Hashem on the highest possible level of mankind, and live on the level of an angel in the presence of Hashem as a result of klal yisroel’s need for a savior. Therefore, Moshe viewed the sin of the Gold Calf as a catalyst for his own perfection, as well as a means of providing the world with valuable knowledge about Hashem. As such, he believed that the Jewish people should be judged in a different light because of the good that had emerged from the event of the Gold Calf. Hashem however responds that reward and punishment is based on an internal evaluation of the person’s soul, and not a recounting of their actions, or the positive effects of those actions. This method of judgment is unique to Hashem, in that no human is able to assess the internal state of another. Only Hashem is capable of looking at each person and realizing the effects of sin and good deeds on the soul. 

The transgression of worshipping the Gold Calf leads to an understanding of reward and punishment on a deeper level. The Sforno points out that the exchange between Moshe and Hashem was a conversation about the nature of reward and punishment. Moshe’s initial perspective was that nature of an action could potentially be viewed differently as a result of its outcome. However, Moshe was shown that actions are merely a reflection of the person’s internal framework. This aspect of man is what is judged and given either a reward or punishment.