Remaking of the Golden Calf
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s Parsha, Ki Tisa, continues the account of the most egregious sin the Jewish nation could commit, the Golden Calf. As we read the story, there are many complexities, and it is difficult to fathom how matters could have reached this point. We must remember the central place that the crime of idol worship occupies in Judaism.
Abraham was selected as the father of G-d’s chosen people precisely because he discovered the spiritual corruption of idolatry and dedicated his life to liberating mankind from its grip. According to the Rambam, “It is the object and center of the whole Law to abolish idolatry and utterly uproot it.” The sanctity of the Jewish people resides in the fact that they proclaim the true idea of G-d and categorically reject any falsification of the pure notion we must have of the Supreme Being. We must be prepared to sacrifice our lives, rather than succumb to this dreadful sin.
Indeed, the miracle of Purim that we will soon be celebrating was necessitated by Mordechai’s defiance of Haman. He put the entire nation at risk when he refused to bow down to Haman, who had assumed the status of a deity. Thus, we are perplexed by the terrible story in our Parsha. How could this people, which had been elevated to the status of prophets on Mount Sinai, and who had heard G-d proclaim, “Thou shalt have no other gods besides Me,” so very soon afterward beseech Aaron to “make a god for us who shall go before us, because Moses, the man who took us out of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him”?
In studying this matter, we must be very cognizant of the warning of the Rabbis not to judge someone “until you have been in his place.” The people who left Egypt were referred to as a “knowledgeable generation.” It is easy and tempting to be critical from the comfortable vantage point of hindsight, but we must reject the temptation. We have a right and an obligation to study, so that we may learn the lessons of historical mistakes, but we must do so with an attitude of humility.
In seeking a deeper understanding of this sin, we can’t help but notice that Aaron allowed himself to become an “accessory” to the crime. While he made a serious mistake, none of the commentators accuse him of aiding or abetting idol worship. All maintain that he would have sacrificed his life rather than violate the second commandment. Indeed, the fact that he was subsequently chosen by G-d to be the chief Kohen confirms that, while his decision was wrong, his motives were pure. What was the sin of the Golden Calf?
The great Biblical commentator Nachmanides asserts that the sin described in our Parsha was not that of overt idolatry. The Jews were on a high level and did not imagine that a calf crafted from the gold they had worn as ornaments was the Creator of the world. They did not relinquish their belief in the true G-d who was the Master of the Universe and who had taken them out of Egypt and spoken to them on Mount Sinai.
However, the failure of Moses to return at the expected time threw them into a state of severe panic. An inordinate amount of their sense of security was invested in the person of Moses. After all, he was the “vehicle” through which all of the miracles had been performed in Egypt and in the wilderness. They lacked the confidence that G-d would continue His providential relationship with them, now that Moses was gone. They erroneously believed that they had to construct something concrete that would become the means through which Hashem would continue to guide them. The purpose of the Golden Calf was not to be an object of worship, but rather one that would facilitate their ongoing relationship with G-d.
The people put a great deal of pressure on Aaron to cater to their desire. His purpose, clearly, was to stall for time, for he knew that when Moses returned, the problem would be eliminated. He asked them to contribute their fine jewelry in the belief that this would slow things down. Apparently, he miscalculated the great power of their urge for an “object to guide them.” Proof that Aaron’s intention was righteous can be gleaned from his proclamation after the construction of the calf, “Tomorrow we will observe a festival unto Hashem.” His intention was to use the golden image as an instrument that would retain the people’s allegiance to the Creator.
He erred grievously, for the Calf opened the emotional floodgates that led the people to idolatry. Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that the difference between the Mishkan and the Golden Calf is that the former was commanded by G-d, while the latter was a product of man’s emotional desires.
My understanding of his view is that man has no right to invent objects of worship. All the articles we use in the Divine service must be ordained by G-d. Only these represent true ideas of religious perfection and lead us in the right direction. Those invented by man are the products of his desires and fantasies masquerading as spiritual impulses. They lead to religious subjectivity in which man deifies the “works of his hands” and worships a deity of his own making.
Today, Judaism is challenged by many so-called rabbis and theologians of various denominations, including Orthodoxy, who seek to deviate from the eternal norms of Torah and replace them with a form of worship that “He has not commanded.” These are times that try our faith in Hashem, but we must be firm in our commitment to His unchangeable Torah and not yield to those who seek to repeat the sin of the Golden Calf.