Timeline and Basic Outline
The sin of the golden calf is widely regarded as one of the most disgraceful moments in Jewish history. In Exodus, chapters 31-32, theTorah tells how three months after leaving Egypt, and a mere 40 days after receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people created an idol and worshipped it. Having miscalculated the date of Moses’ promised return from the mountain, the Jewish people thought their leader had died. They decided to replace him, and with the help of Aaron, formed a golden calf and worshipped it.
On the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, the Jewish people left Egypt and began traveling through the desert. After 49 days of travel, on the 50th day, the sixth (or the seventh1) of Sivan, G‑d gave them the Torah. Standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, they witnessed G‑d’s glory descend upon the mountain, and they heard the Ten Commandments. The next day, G‑d commanded Moses to ascend the mountain for 40 days, where He would teach him all the laws and present him with the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were carved.2 Moses took leave of his people, promising to return in 40 days.
When Moses told the people 40 days, he meant 40 full days—nights and days. And since Moses left in the morning, that first day was not included in the count. However, the Jews miscalculated, and expected Moses to return on the 16th of Tammuz. In vain the Jews waited for Moses on the 16th, and when he didn’t show, they began to worry. The biblical commentator Rashi3describes how Satan made the sky grow dark and caused a feeling of gloominess to descend upon the camp, further unnerving the people.
As this was happening, the erev rav (“mixed multitude”)—a ragtag group of Egyptian outcasts4 who had tagged along with the Jews when they left Egypt, and who were insincere in their commitment to G‑d—convinced the people that Moses was dead and that they needed a new leader. Terrified, the Jewish people gathered around Aaron, Moses’ brother, and demanded that he make them a new leader. (The commentators note that, at this point, the people only wanted a new leader in place of Moses, not a new G‑d.5) Aaron told them to go home and collect their wives’ jewelry and bring it back to him. Crazed, the men ripped off their own jewelry and threw it into a fire. And out of the fire a golden calf emerged.
As to who actually formed the calf, there are three opinions:
- Aaron formed it by molding the form of a calf from the molten gold.6
- Sorcerers from the erev rav formed it using magic.7
- Micah, a member of the erev rav whose life had been saved by Moses, created the calf. When the Jewish people were leaving Egypt, Moses went to collect Joseph’s coffin to fulfill his request that his remains be redeemed together with the Jews. However, in an attempt to stop the Jews from leaving, the Egyptians had sunk Joseph’s coffin in the Nile. Moses took a plaque, wrote on it the words “alei shor” (“rise ox”), and threw it in the river, causing the coffin of Joseph (who is compared to an ox) to rise to the surface. Micah had stolen this plaque and now used it to create the calf by throwing it into the blaze.8
Then the erev rav called out to the Jewish people, “These are your gods, O Israel, who took you out of Egypt!”9 Aaron built an altar and instructed the Jews to go to sleep, saying that “tomorrow there will be a festival to G‑d.”10
The next day, the people rose early and made their way to the golden calf, where they offered sacrifices and started worshipping. The Torah tells us, “The Jewish people sat to feast and rose to play,” which Rashi explains to mean that, in addition to idolatry, they also committed acts of immorality and murder.11
There is a lengthy discussion among the commentators as to why Aaron involved himself in the construction of the golden calf. How could Aaron, prophet of G‑d and future high priest, take such an active role in blatant idolatry? Rashi and most other commentators explain that Aaron was trying to stall the people. He knew that they wouldn’t listen to him anyways, but he hoped that if he delayed them enough, Moses would return before any major damage was done. That is why he told them to collect their wives’ jewelry. It is also explained that Aaron knew that the Jewish women had too much faith in Moses to be roped into such mutiny, and that they would further delay their husbands.12 Building the altar himself was also a delay tactic.13
- Before the Jews came to Aaron, they went to Chur, Aaron’s nephew. Chur rebuked them and refused to help them, so they murdered him. Aaron witnessed this and thought, “If I don’t help them they will kill me, too. Chur was G‑d’s prophet and I am G‑d’s priest. If they murder the prophet and the priest their sin will be unforgivable.” He therefore decided to help them, to minimize their sin.15
- Out of his great love for the Jews, Aaron decided that it was “better that the sin be placed on me than upon them.” The Midrash brings a parable for this idea. There was once a prince who grew angry at his father and decided to overthrow him. He grabbed a sword and went to attack his father. The prince’s teacher passed by and saw what the prince was doing. He said to the child, “I will help you. Give me the sword.” When the king uncovered the plot, he recognized the good intentions of the teacher and how he only helped the prince so that he would bear the blame instead of the prince. The king rewarded the teacher, promoting him to high office and presenting him with many gifts. Like the teacher in the parable, Aaron was awarded the position of high priest as reward for taking responsibility for the golden calf.16
- Aaron figured that if he was the one to make the calf, later on he could tell the people that it had no substance and was mere foolishness. If someone who actually believed in it’s power fashioned it, then the people would be drawn to follow. But if the one who formed it would deny its power, people would recognize its worthlessness.17
Moses Smashes the Tablets
Meanwhile up on Mount Sinai, G‑d told Moses to descend. ”Your people have become corrupt. Already they have strayed from the path I set for them. They created a golden calf, worshipped it and offered sacrifices to it. Now, I shall destroy this nation for they are a stiff-necked people. I will rebuild a nation from you (one that will not disobey or rebel against me).”18
Moses prayed for G‑d to stay His wrath. He then came down the mountain, and together with his disciple Joshua, turned to enter the camp. Utter carnage met his eye. Drunken revelry, blasphemy, adultery and idolatry. Outraged, Moses took the tablets that were given to Him by G‑d, and hurled them to the ground, shattering them. Moses reasoned: “If regarding the paschal offering, which is but one of the 613 mitzvahs, the Torah says a heretic may not partake of it, how much more so the entire Torah should not be given to these heretics.”19
Other reasons given for Moses’ breaking the tablets are:
- Moses thought, “Better the Jews be judged as an unmarried woman (who acts promiscuously) than as a married one.” The tablets were the marriage contract between G‑d and the Jews, so once the tablets were given to them, their punishment would be much harsher. Moses destroyed the marriage contract to minimize the severity of the sin and the consequent punishment.20
- Rabbeinu Bachaye says that when Moses descended from the mountain, the words on the tablets disappeared. These were miraculous letters, engraved through both sides of the stone, and readable from any direction. The tablets containing the Ten Commandments were compared to a body and soul, so when the letters disappeared, the stones, much like a human body after the soul leaves, became incredibly heavy. Moses was unable to bear their weight, so he dropped them.21
The Ultimate Leader
The Talmud states that when Moses broke the tablets, G‑d agreed with his action and praised him.22 But this seems strange: even if Moses’ smashing of the tablets was justified, why was it praiseworthy?
This is made even stranger when we take a look at the end of the Torah. The Torah concludes with a description of Moses’ greatness, and the final words are, “All the great wonders that he performed before the eyes of the Jewish people.” Rashi, concluding his commentary on the entire Torah writes: “This ‘wonder’ that he performed before the eyes of the people was the smashing of the tablets, and G‑d agreed with him and praised him.” Astonishing! The entire Torah ends with the statement that Moses’ breaking of the tablets, a result of perhaps the gravest sin ever committed, was praiseworthy. Why?
In truth, the smashing of the tablets was Moses’ greatest display of love for his people and his crowning moment as a leader. Moses’s entire existence was Torah. His life’s mission was to receive the Torah from G‑d and teach it to the Jews. So intense was Moses’ connection with Torah, it is even called “the Torah of Moses.”23 Yet, he was willing to sacrifice the Torah for his people. When he saw them sinning, and knew that were he to give them the tablets their punishment would be more severe (as explained in the Midrash above), he decided to break the tablets. So great was his love for his people, that even when they were in a disgraceful state, worshipping idols, he was still willing the “smash the Torah” for the sake of his people. As a true Jewish leader, he was willing to put his people before all. This is why G‑d not only agreed with his actions, but praised him, for this was the ultimate act of a dedicated leader. This is also why the Torah ends with an allusion to this incident, for this was Moses’ defining moment.24
Moses ground the golden calf into a powder, mixed it with water and gave it to the worshippers to drink, killing them. He then commanded the tribe of Levi, who had remained faithful to him, to further seek out any worshippers and annihilate them. G‑d brought a plague on the Jews, killing thousands more.
Rashi explains that these three punishments were for three types of sinners. Those who sinned in the presence of witnesses, and were properly warned, were killed by the sword. This is in accordance with the law that if the majority of the inhabitants of a city commit idolatry, their punishment is beheading. Those who sinned with witnesses but were not warned perished in the plague, and those who sinned without witnesses or warning died when they swallowed the waters.25
Moses returned to the mountain two more times for 40 days each, finally descending on Yom Kippur bearing the second set of tablets and having secured G‑d’s forgiveness.
Enigmas and Answers
The episode of the golden calf elicits many fundamental questions. How could the Jews commit such a terrible sin a mere 40 days after receiving the Torah? The giving of the Torah was the most spiritually uplifting moment in our history, and the Jews were on an incredibly high level. How did they fall so fast, transgressing the first two of the Ten Commandments? Additionally, what exactly was the point of the golden calf? Did the Jews really think that an inanimate statue could replace Moses, pray to G‑d on their behalf and lead them through the desert? If they needed a leader, why not appoint Aaron, Joshua, or one of the elders? Why did they immediately fashion an idol?
In fact, the Talmud states that at that point in time, the Jewish people were entirely righteous, insusceptible to sin.26 The sin of the golden calf was a “decree of the King so as to provide an opening for penitents.” G‑d guided them into sinning so that a precedent would be set for future penitents: repentance would always be accepted no matter how grave the sin. For if the terrible sin of the golden calf was forgiven, then all sins could be forgiven.
A deeper explanation of this Talmudic statement is given in chassidic teachings. At the time of the giving of the Torah, the Jews were spiritual giants, and they connected with G‑d from a position of spiritual greatness. However, their connection went only as far as their appreciation and understanding of G‑d. G‑d’s essence, which is beyond the ability of man to appreciate, remained distant from them. To truly connect with G‑d’s essence one must experience oneself as a nothing, a non-existence, creating a vacuum into which the essence of G‑d can be drawn. This is accomplished by repentance. Only when the Jews sinned and subsequently repented did they create this vacuum, becoming receptacles for G‑dliness. “To provide an opening for penitents” does not only mean penitents of later generations. The Jews who stood at Mount Sinai sinned so that they could, through repentance, connect perfectly with G‑d.27
Of Keruvim and Calves
Another explanation, provided by the Rebbe, re-examines the motives of the Jews who created the calf, and sheds much-needed light on the whole story.
As we learn in the chassidic teachings, the purpose of the creation of the world is that we make a dwelling place for G‑d through Torah and mitzvahs. When we learn Torah and perform mitzvahs, we draw G‑dliness down into the world and permeate the physical with spirituality. Before the giving of the Torah, this was unachievable, because “the heavens belonged to G‑d and the earth to man.”28 When G‑d descended from heaven onto Mount Sinai, He empowered us to bridge the gap. From then on, G‑dliness and physicality are able to unite, and thus when we take a physical object and perform a mitzvahwith it, we infuse the physicality with G‑dliness.
The Jews built the golden calf in an attempt to create the ultimate dwelling place for G‑d. They wanted to draw G‑dliness all the way down into the world. They knew that one day G‑d would tell Moses that the Jews should build Him a sanctuary, and that they should construct keruvim. The keruvim, cherubs, two golden, child-like forms, stood in the Holy of Holies on top of the ark and from there, from between the keruvim, G‑d would communicate with humankind. In the holiest place on earth, where only the high priest would enter once a year, stood two golden sculptures, and there the essence of G‑d dwelled.29
The Jews knew this and wanted to build their own version of the keruvim. They also wanted to experience the revelation of G‑d’s essence and achieve the ultimate unity of the sublime with the ordinary. They earnestly wanted to connect with G‑d. However, their approach was wrong. For even though the golden calf was similar to the keruvim, there was a fundamental difference. While G‑d had commanded the keruvim, He had not commanded the calf. True connection with G‑d can be achieved only in the way G‑d desires it, not in how we desire it. The connection must be on G‑d’s terms, not ours. The Jews’ undoing was in their failure to recognise that. Their desire to create a golden calf demonstrated that, in a subtle way, they cared more to enrich their own spiritual experience than to listen to G‑d and experience Him in the way He desired them to.30
Initially, the Jews had no intention of sinning. However, their choosing to connect with G‑d from the self, not in the way that was mandated by G‑d, started them on a downward spiral. Once they began to act in their own interests, their interests became more important than G‑d’s, ultimately leading some to indulge completely in their own desires and commit terrible sins.
1.There is an opinion among the sages that the Torah was given on the seventh of Sivan. However the accepted opinion is that it was given on the sixth.
14.Additionally, from a halachic perspective, Aaron was exempt and and did not commit the sin of forming an idol. There is a halachic principle that “one can not render someone else’s property forbidden for usage.” E.g.: Wine poured for idolatry becomes forbidden for personal use. However, if one pours someone else’s wine for idol worship, the wine remains permissible. This is because the Torah does not assist one in harming his fellow. Aaron was careful never to personally acquire the gold, telling the Jews, “bring it to me,” and not “give it to me.” Since the gold was never his, he did not have the power to render it an idol, forbidden for usage. And since Aaron never personally worshipped the calf, he was not liable for its construction, or for worshipping it. See Likutei Sichot, vol. 11, pp. 149-153. However, the Rebbe does not provide an answer for the question of Aaron being liable for committing the sin of “lifnei iveir,” placing a stumbling block before the blind.
15.Vayikra Rabbah 10:3.