“The people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Make us a shrine which will go before us. We have no idea what became of Moses, the man who brought us out of Egypt…” The people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron, who cast them into a molten calf. Some of the people began to say, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:1-4)
The question is obvious: If the Jews just witnessed God’s awesome power in the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the revelation at Mount Sinai, how could these same people turn around a worship a Golden Calf?
The answer is that the Jews never built the calf with the intention it should be worshipped. Rabbi Shraga Simmons explains: “Here’s what happened: When Moses said, “I’m going up the mountain for 40 days,” his intent was 40 full days. The people, however, mistakenly included in their count that first day – thus expecting Moses to return one day earlier. So when Day 39 rolled around, the Jews began to wonder, “Where’s Moses?” This caused great anxiety. For although the people knew it was God Himself Who’d orchestrated all the miracles, it was nevertheless Moses who’d raised his staff for the Red Sea to split. They relied on Moses as captain of the team around whom they rallied to get the job done. Their fundamental mistake? They lost patience, the serenity of knowing that life is a process and everything happens in its time. This lack of trust in made them lose touch with reality and – fueled by fear and anxiety – their imaginations began to run wild. On Day 39, the malcontents in the camp began circulating rumors that he wasn’t coming back at all. In fact, they managed to instill so much fear and anxiety, that the Talmud says the people actually saw a vision of Moses dead! (So strong is the power of suggestion.) Then the Jews reasoned: If Moses isn’t coming back, we must craft ourselves a replacement. And so the Golden Calf was born. Not as an idol; not as a rebellion against God. But as a figurehead. A mere shrine to replace the missing Moses. During the incident of the Golden Calf, one man named Chur arose to protest. So how did the crowd respond? Their connection to this “idol” had grown so strong that they lynched Chur to death!
When Moses came down from the mountain and smashed the Tablets, he issued a pronouncement to all Jews:
‘You can now turn back and avoid tragedy. Stop worshipping the Golden Calf and affirm your loyalty to God.’
Only the Tribe of Levi, comprising about 3% of the Jewish population, accepted Moses’ words. The other 97% remained stuck in their failed venture…
The lesson of the Golden Calf is to think about what we’re doing. What starts innocently may turn out tragic…With the right clarity, when we hear the voice, we will stand up and be counted.”
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim