THE GOLDEN CALF
Rabbi Yisroel Chait
Moses ascended the mountain to have a rendezvous with G-d to learn first
hand the teachings of the Torah and then to transmit them to the Jewish
people. Instead Moses descended to a nation of idolaters rather then a
people committed to accept a moral law based upon their intellectual conviction.
The Torah explains the reason for this transformation. In Exodus chapter
32 verse 1 the Torah tells us that the people saw that Moses tarried from
coming down the mountain and that this precipitated their desire to build
a golden calf. Rashi explains that the nation miscalculated the day of Moses's
descent. He advised them that he would return in forty days. Moses was not
counting his departure as day one. He meant forty complete days, thus his
return would be on the forty first day, which is the seventeenth of Tammuz.
Therefore their calculations were erroneous by one day. Rashi teaches us
that as a result of this miscalculation, on the sixteenth of Tammuz, Satan
came and brought confusion to the world, and showed the Israelites a vision
of thick darkness. This caused them to say, Moses is definitely dead and
it ignited their desire to serve other gods.
Upon analyzing this Rashi, two basic questions must be asked. What compels
Rashi to utilize Satan as the vehicle for their confusion. Their mistake
in determining Moses's return was based upon their erroneous calculations.
This alone should have been sufficient justification for their concluding
that Moses was dead and was not returning. Furthermore, Aaron devises different
schemes to hinder their attempts to serve different G-d's. Why didn't he
simply advise them of their mistaken calculation? Aaron certainly was aware
of the proper count or at the very least recognized their mistake.
We must appreciate that the Israelites had recently been liberated from
Egypt. In Egypt they were exposed to, and influenced by, the pagan practices
of the society. Therefore, they still had an attraction to the primitive
and were still subject to the insecurities of the instinctual part of their
personalities. The entire event of Moses ascending the mountain to speak
to God was a mystical phenomenon. They were in great awe of this unique
experience. Thus, when they saw the thick darkness, rather then attributing
it to bad weather conditions, their emotions overwhelmed them. They had
visions of Moses failed mission which image was bolstered by their miscalculation.
The Satan, as Maimonidies teaches us, is the same as the yetser harah, mans
evil inclinations. Their emotions, which were fostered by their insecurities
and primitive proclivities, caused them to conjure these fantastic ominous
visions. Chazal teach us that they saw an image of Moses in a coffin. This
manifests, that they were regressing into the depths of their imagination.
They were so overwhelmed by the mystical, that Chazal felt compelled to
point out this image, to demonstrate that their total perception of reality
Upon their concluding that Moses had died, the Israelites expressed
their desire to make many Gods that would lead them. Their need for a God
was simply a need for security to fill the void that Moses ostensible departure
Rashi notes that they desired many Gods. This again reflects the primitive
emotion they possessed. They had desires for different Gods, to cater to
each of their diverse needs. Their basic insecurities and trepidationís
were expressed by their desire for different Gods, that would satisfy all
their personal whims and grant them a sense of security.
The insight the Torah affords us in delineating the story of the Golden
Calf is extremely relevant. Modern man might think that these are paganistic
emotions to which he is not susceptible. However, one need only observe
Christianity to recognize the strong hold the emotion for idol worship
has, even today. They idolize a physical statute which represents a human
being whom they view as God. Objectively, it may seem absurd , but yet its
appeal attests to mans primitive desire for the security of the physical.
Chazal appreciated the strength of these emotions. Rabbi Akiva did not
want to learn that the "Et" of Et Hashem Elokecha teerah, as including
Talmidei Chachamim because of this emotion. The deification of man is idol
worship. Rabbi Yishmael argues and states that is includes the Talmid Chacham.
The respect the Torah envisions for a scholar, is not for the individual
per se, but rather the Chachma which he acquired. He is the embodiment of
an individual who utilized his Tzelem Elokim for its true objective.
It would seem that Aaron also underestimated the strength of these emotions.
Aaron recognized their clamor to create new Gods as reflective of their
primitive emotions. He recognized the futility in trying to demonstrate
the error of their calculations. The nation was no longer operating under
their intellectual faculty. The primitive behavioral patterns which they
were subject to in Egypt, was exerting its influence on the nation. The
mixed multitude whom departed Egypt with them, provoked much of their regression.
Rashi advises us that the Mixed Multitude used their magic to create the
calf. In fact, they initiated this entire service and the Israelites followed.
The Mixed Multitude had a greater yearning for the security of the physical
as a means to relate to G-d. They therefore utilized the magic they learned
in Egypt. Magic is not some supernatural force. It too requires a discipline,
where one learns to switch the apparent relationship between cause and effect
to which we are accustomed. It therefore is fascinating because it distracts
the observer who is amazed since it does not function in accordance with
standard causal relationships.
Aaron took an active role in the making of the Golden Calf. However,
the role Aaron played was really a result of careful analysis. In reality
he did not try to facilitate its construction but rather attempted to hinder
its completion. He analyzed the behavior of the Israelites and tried to
deal with them based upon their state of mind. He recognized a step by step
regression in their rational faculty as they became under the grip of this
overwhelming emotion. Aaron's observations are expressed in a Midrash quoted
by Rashi. Aaron observed several things. He saw the Israelites kill his
nephew Chur, who tried to rebuke them. He observed and concluded that it
would be better if the Israelites transgression was ascribed to him rather
than to them. He also concluded that if they built the alter on their own,
it would be finished immediately. He therefore undertook its construction
hoping to tarry in his work, in order to delay them until Moses arrived.
Aaron had recognized that their behavior patterns reflected the powerful
sway of their emotions. The first thing the Israelites sought was a substitute
leader. This reflected their need for the security of the physical. He
requested their ornaments in an effort to appeal to their greed. This was
essentially a delay tactic. He assumed that they would be reluctant because
he thought that their greed would deter their actions. However, the Torah
teaches us "Vayitparku" they readily removed all their jewelry.
He thereby recognized and appreciated the overwhelming and dominating
effect of these emotions as evidenced by the alacrity with which they responded
to his request for their valuables. Thereafter, he observed that they killed
Hur. This represented that they were no longer functioning with even a scintilla
of rationality. They could not tolerate Hur's rebuke and their murderous
actions evidenced their total identification with the calf. He thus observed
and concluded that at best, he could only slow their progress. Any attempt
by him to have halted the construction of the calf would have been futile,
and surely would have caused them to regress to the depth of their primitivism.
A precursory review of his actions would indicate that he was helping
them, however a more scrupulous investigation as articulated, reveals his
true intentions. He desired that their guilt be ascribed to him in order
to assuage the guilty feelings they would experience upon Moses's return.
If the Israelites felt absolute culpability because of their actions, their
feelings of guilt would render them incapable of doing Teshuva.
God still finds fault with Aaronís action. Exodus chapter 32
verse 23 states "And when Moses saw that the people were broken loose
for Aaron had let them loose for a division among their enemies." This
criticism is lodged against Aaron for one can not make compromises with
idol worship. The emotion is so powerful that if one allows it to be expressed
in his behavioral patterns, it will ultimately dominate his actions and
destroy him. Moses upon his return took extremely drastic measures. He openly
expressed outrage and threw the tablets to the ground and shattered them.
He thereby gathered to his side the Levites, who killed three thousand men.
Moses extreme actions were purposeful to demonstrate that one can not compromise
nor tolerate with the emotion for idolatry. The basic philosophy of Judaism
is antithetical to these type of emotions.