Revisiting the Sin of the Golden Calf
At the beginning of Parshat Ki Tisa, we read about one of the most defining and difficult moments in Jewish history — the sin of the golden calf.
The verses state:
The people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Come! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him.”
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So what exactly was the nature of the sin of the Jewish people in this story? The answer, and its lesson for our times, is most intriguing and inspiring.
Many commentators believe that the sin should be understood according to the simple explanation of the text (i.e., that the masses actually wanted to build an idol, and to worship it instead of God).
However, other Biblical commentators argue that it seems illogical that a nation who so recently witnessed the miraculous Exodus from Egypt would so quickly make a golden calf, and proclaim it to be their god. Surely, they were a nation of greater faith than that.
In this vein, Rabbi Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra (known as Ibn Ezra) offers a fascinating insight that also sheds light on how a Jew should view his or her ability to connect to God.
Ibn Ezra argues that since Moses was delayed in descending from the mountain, the people thought that he had died. Therefore, they wanted to make a golden calf not to replace God, but to replace Moses. The golden calf was to act as their conduit and representative, through which they could achieve closeness to God. From this explanation, we see that the golden calf was not born of a desire to serve a different god, but out of insecurity that the Jewish people could not serve Him directly.
In his book Vision and Leadership, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik offers an insightful explanation as to the deeper reason why the Jewish people felt compelled to construct a golden calf in place of Moses:
They felt that they themselves did not have access to the Almighty. Only somebody of great charisma and ability could have access to him. The people sinned because they were perplexed. … They did not understand that, while Moses was the greatest of all prophets and the greatest of all men, every Jew has access to God… Sometimes it is a sense of one’s greatness that causes sin; sometimes it is a sense of one’s smallness.
The Jewish people did not want to usurp the rule of God by creating an idol; in fact, it was exactly the opposite. The golden calf was their way of connecting to God. In their minds, they could not do it alone. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
The Torah teaches us that every Jew, no matter his or her stature in society, has the same ability to draw close to the Divine. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, put it eloquently: “Every Jew is an equal citizen of the republic of faith because every Jew has access to its constitutional document, the Torah.” From the king to the common man, throughout the generations, every Jew has the capability to cultivate a deeper relationship with God.
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator. He served as a non-commissioned officer in the IDF Rabbinate, and is the author of the book “A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel.”