The Gold Calf

by, Moshe Ben-Chaim & Dani Roth

FEB. 8, 2016



Those who worshipped the Gold Calf could no longer remain part of the Jewish nation, which follows the one God. Violators were killed in one of three manners. If the worshipper was forewarned and had witnesses, death was by the sword. If there were witnesses but no warning, a lesser crime, one died by a plague. And if one was not warned against worship, nor was he or she witnessed worshipping, the method of death was by drinking a mixture of the pulverized Gold Calf and water.[1] Those who sinned would die through this drink; those who did not sin were unharmed.

The Torah does not communicate it, but apparently, Moses knew God wished to reveal the Gold Calf worshippers through this drink. But is this not a strange method? Additionally, why did Moses melt the Gold Calf before grinding it? He could have immediately ground it, as we see his ultimate intention was to have the Jews drink the gold-dust/water mixture. My close friend and Torah study partner (chavrusa) Dani Roth asked as follows: If Moses sought to expose the Gold Calf as a powerless idol, won’t the punishment of death coming through drinking particles of the Calf actually make it appear that the Calf has powers? A great question indeed. Dani and I arrived at the following conclusions.

Melting disfigures the Calf into an amorphous lump of metal. Moses did this first, as he wished to expose the deified Calf as nothing more than a material substance all would agree is unworthy of worship, as it possesses no powers. Forming a calf from a clearly powerless lump of gold cannot grant it powers. Moses’ reducing the calf back to a mere lump of metal teaches this lesson. The Jews who worshipped the Calf, did so due to its form; they projected imagined powers onto the gold once it was formed into the god of Egypt, a calf. However, the Gold Calf was unveiled as a lie, for it could not defend itself against Moses’ melting. Moses’ intent was to help the Jews see past their projections, and abandon their belief before they would be punished with death. This way they died as one who repented. This explains why Moses first melted the Calf before grinding it.

Moses had ground the Calf into gold dust, mixed it with water, and demanded the Jews drink the mixture.[2] This does not validate the Gold Calf as possessing any power: God was the one who killed the sinners. Rashi teaches that Moses intended to test the Jews for whom there were no witnesses of their suspected idol worship. If affected by the mixture, this exposed them as idolaters. Apparently, Moses felt many Jews attempted to conceal their idol worship. Rashi teaches that Moses was testing the Jews, just as the waters test the suspected wife (the Sotah). What is this parallel? If a wife was warned by her husband not to be with another man, and she violated his warning, but does not confess her sin, the husband may have the priest give the wife a special drink. If she did not confess her sin, the drink would kill her. But let us focus on why the wife would not confess. This is because she feels she could keep hidden from her husband the illicit relationship with the other man. The drink would unveil reality, and that she cannot keep this hidden from God. In connection with the Gold Calf too, the Jews are similarly unfaithful: in this case, un faithful to God. The Jews did not wish to confess their Gold Calf worship unseen by Moses while he was atop Mt. Sinai. Moses therefore forced the Jews to drink, teaching them that what is on their “insides” (their sinful defection from God) cannot be hidden from God. The mixture entering their bodies is a metaphor for an “inner” truth becoming revealed. It ends up there were 2 sins: 1) worshipping the Calf, and 2) denying God’s knowledge of their sin. Just as the waters enter the insides of man’s body, God “enters” the insides of man’s thoughts.

Denying their sin, the Jews wished to maintain their attachment to the Calf. Not admitting a sin is due to the sinner’s failure to view his error: he wishes to remain with his sinful belief. This means he believes the Calf to be a valid object of worship.

Moses desired to help the Jews repent by forcing them to realize that only God knows man’s thoughts; not a golden idol. The distinction between those who died from the drink from those who did not, was a clear proof that something other than the Gold Calf controls nature, and more, this Being knows man’s thoughts.

In the end, the Gold Calf could not defend itself from being melted, it was exposed as simply metal, and worshipping it met with death, not success. The Jews’ esteem for the Calf was a grave error. They ultimately had to answer to the one true Power, the only Being man is to worship, since God alone is the only being who knows man’s thoughts, and can answer our prayers. The Jews drank a mixture that distinguished a sinner from an innocent person, teaching this sublime lesson of one Deity that lives, and possesses knowledge of man; enabling Him to reward man or to punish him.

[1] Rashi, Exod. 32:20

[2] Exod. 32:20