Conveying the Sin of the Golden Calf

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

The fate of the Jewish people hung in the balance in parshas Ki Sisa, as Moshe pleaded the case of the nation before the melech elyon, High King. As this story unfolded, we see an interesting initial assessment by God of the dreadful sin committed by the Jews. This is expressed in the first communication between God and Moshe, and it is one that is vague and confusing at first glance. 

The final verse surrounding the sin of the golden calf paints a troubling scene (Shemos 32:6):

On the next day they arose early, offered up burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and they got up to make merry.”

With this complete, the Torah now turns to God’s discussion of the current state of affairs with Moshe (ibid 7-8):

And the Lord said to Moses: "Go, descend, for your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly. They have quickly turned away from the path that I have commanded them; they have made themselves a molten calf! And they have prostrated themselves before it, slaughtered sacrifices to it, and said: 'These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt.'

We can see various interpretations of these verses offered in both Midrashim and by commentators, all focusing on various complications in understanding God’s message to Moshe.

One Midrash (Midrash Aggada 32:7) in particular zeroes in on the strange reference to the Jews as “your people”, implying somehow they were Moshe’s nation. According to this Midrash, Moshe immediately questions this re-designation of the nation’s status. Previously, God made it clear to Moshe that they were His people; for example, God says He will take “My nation” out of Egypt. Yet now He was referring to them as Moshe’s nation. Moshe takes God to task for this assessment, emphasizing that the Jewish people were God’s nation in both good and bad times. Interestingly enough, the Midrash does not present a reply by God.

Indeed, Moshe’s question is a powerful one. What is meant by the shift from “My nation” to “yours”?

Rashi is bothered by this reclassification as well. He explains (citing a different Midrash) as follows:

It does not say, “The people have acted corruptly,” but “your people.” Those are the mixed multitude (eirev rav) whom you accepted on your own initiative, and whom you converted without consulting Me. You said, “It is good that converts cleave to the Shechinah.” They have acted corruptly and have corrupted [others].”

Rashi’s explanation is difficult to understand as well. It would seem Moshe was guided by noble intentions in bringing these Egyptian converts into the fold. They were privy to the same miraculous experiences as the Jews in Egypt. Clearly, God is saying Moshe was incorrect in his assessment, although there is no indication he was punished for this. What was Moshe’s error?

The Ramban offers a completely different explanation, based on his comprehension of how many people were involved in the sin. According to the Rambam, a very small percentage of the nation actively participating in the sin of the golden calf. Yet, as we know, the entire nation was judged for this event. This leads to his understanding of these two verses. In the first, God is describing to Moshe how, for the majority of the Jews, the sin committed was one purely contained within their minds. He explains that the term “corruption”, or “shiches”, refers to some type of undermining of a foundation (harisas binyan). As this was contained within the minds of the Jewish people, only God has knowledge of what was taking place. The second verse, which is more descriptive of the performance of the sin, was referring to those who actively participated. 

What idea is being conveyed by the Ramban?

Following the order of questioning above, let’s begin with the Midrash. Moshe asks God what would seem to be a powerful question, and yet there is no response by God. It is plausible to assume that Moshe considered God’s initial designation as conveying an incorrect idea. What was Moshe’s thought process? It could be that he saw God “violating” the concept of hasghacha that He established. In calling the Jewish people “My nation”, God was establishing a unique type of relationship based on hashgacha, providence. This meant that the Jewish people would always be treated differently, not subject to the normal laws of chance that humanity is normally subject to. The Rambam writes (Hilchos Taanis 1:1-3) we have no right to say that a tragedy which befalls the nation is one that is “mihag haolam”, part of the natural order of things. Moshe’s quandary, then, is trying to understand this seeming contradiction in the idea of hashgacha. How could God return the Jewish people back to the natural order, while sticking to the concept of hashgacha?

As noted above, God does not answer Moshe. It is possible that the answer is actually the second verse itself. In other words, the second verse is a clarification of God’s initial communication to Moshe. In giving more detail regarding the heinous sin committed by the Jews, God was in a sense explaining how the Jewish people were now “your nation”, in a more categorical manner. God’s choosing of the Jewish people presented an opportunity for a unique type of life. A path had been opened for them, where if they adhered to the derech Hashem, they could achieve the highest levels of perfection. This opportunity was dependent on the correct belief in God. If they eschewed said belief, they would be closing off this path. Therefore, God was in fact not commenting on the hashgacha. Instead, he was demonstrating to Moshe that the Jewish people were, in a national way, like every other nation when they engage in idolatry. In this case, “your nation” means they could not be viewed as God’s nation at this point. 

Rashi, as noted, focuses on a different issue. Moshe seemed to have made an error, God pointing out his apparent “naiveté”. At first glance, Moshe’s thinking seemed to be the correct, even laudable, approach. Everyone in Egypt was privy to the miracles and wonders God manifested. There was no reason to assume that the effect of experiencing these events would be restricted to the Jewish people alone. If someone were truly moved by what took place with the Exodus, this person would naturally want to become more knowledgeable of God and to adhere to the system He was putting into place. This would seem to buttress the assumption that Moshe was indeed following sound reasoning.

However, the evidence that this contingent of the people were responsible for the sin of the golden calf is the clearest indication Moshe was incorrect. God certainly points this out as an error on the part of Moshe. What was the mistake? The answer should lie in understanding some type of intrinsic differentiation between the Jewish people and these Egyptians who joined up with the group. A critical part of the Exodus was the transformation of the Jewish people from a mentality of slavery to one that would free them from that bondage and allow them to turn to God. Obviously, this experience was limited to the Jewish people. It could be that the Egyptians, lacking this component, related to the experiences in Egypt on a more emotional level. They were awed by the miracles, swept up by the euphoria accompanying the Jewish people. As is the case with most of these types of cursory attitudes, the emotions wore away, leading to them instigating the sin of the golden calf. Moshe failed to appreciate this differentiation, leading to the tragic outcome.

Finally, there is the opinion of the Ramban. Without question, a driving force to his opinion rests on his calculation that only a small percentage of the Jews were involved in this sin. Why was it necessary for God to reveal the fact that most of the nation was mentally engaged in this sin? It could be that the Ramban is alluding to an important idea in the ideology of Judaism. One might suppose that harboring an incorrect idea about God is nothing more than a thought. The tolerance of competing concepts of God, where one can balance different views of the Creator, is somehow plausible in Judaism. It is at this point that Judaism veers away. One cannot straddle the theological line in Judaism. One cannot support differing views of God. Once the thought of idolatry enters into the mind, the notion of God as God cannot exist anymore. Therefore, this thinking was in fact beyond harmful. On an ideological level, it was not really much different than the actual performance of the idolatry. It was critical that Moshe understand this, in order to objectively evaluate the totality of this sin.