The Golden Calf - Part 1

  • Rav Zvi Shimon





The Golden Calf (Part 1)

By Rav Zvi Shimon



            This week's parasha, parashat Ki Tisa, recounts the story of the golden calf, surely one of the worst sins committed by the people of Israel in their travels in the desert. While Moses is on top of Mount Sinai receiving the two tablets, the people of Israel, thinking Moses will not return, demand from Aaron that He make them a god:


When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, "Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt - we do not know what has happened to him."  Aaron said to them, "Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me."  And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.  This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf.  And they exclaimed, "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!"  When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron announced: "Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!"  Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance. (32:1-8)


            The difficulty in comprehending the sin which was perpetrated stems not only from its gravity, but also from its timing. The Torah recounts the sin of the golden calf at a point at which the people of Israel seem to be at a spiritual high. They have just received the ten commandments, witnessing God's incredible descent on to Mount Sinai and hearing His awesome voice commanding them.


            All readers of the narrative are perplexed by the same questions: How could the people of Israel commit such a transgression? How could they commit this act of idolatry after having been miraculously freed from Egyptian bondage, witnessing the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, the providing of the manna and water, the column of fire at night and the cloud leading them in the day? Even more puzzling is Aaron's role in the sin of the golden calf. How could Aaron, who shares with his brother, Moses, the responsibilities of leading the people, and who is destined to be the 'Kohen Gadol,' the High Priest, the holiest of positions, how could he, of all people, agree to make an idol, thereby paving the way for the people's act of idolatry?  To answer this question, we must first understand the exact nature of the sin of the golden calf. What were the people's intentions in making an idol for themselves?


            Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) understands the sin of the golden calf to be an act of idolatry. The transgressors actually related to the calf as a god:


            "[Make for us gods] that shall go before us" (32:1)- "Many gods they desired for themselves."


            How could the people of Israel of Israel, after all they had seen, really believe in an idol? Rashi gives the following explanation:


            "These are YOUR gods" (32:4)- "It is not stated, "This is OUR god;" hence it was the mixed multitude [non-Jews (see 12:38)] that had come up from Egypt who had assembled against Aaron, made it [the calf] and afterward led Israel astray after it [the calf]."


            It is inferred from the idolater's pronouncement, "YOUR gods," that they were not from the people of Israel but rather from the foreign peoples who latched on to Israel in their departure from Egypt. This interpretation explains how the people could have desired an idol; it was the foreign idolaters who were the originators of the treacherous idea. How is it, however, that Aaron complied with this request? Rashi cites a midrash which offers several explanations:


"And Aaron saw it and built an altar before it"(32:5)- "Aaron saw many things; he saw Hur the son of his sister who rebuked them and they killed him... Moreover he saw and said, "Better that the transgression be ascribed to me and not to them [people of Israel]."


            The first explanation posits that Aaron's life was endangered by the mob and that he was coerced by them into making an idol. Moses designated both Aaron and Hur (24:14) responsible for leading the people while he was on the mountain. The midrash infers from the absence of any mention of Hur in the episode of the golden calf or elsewhere in the Torah that he must have been killed while attempting to prevent the rebellion against God. After seeing what had befallen Hur, Aaron could not but acquiesce to the demands of the violent mob. According to the second explanation, Aaron's behavior was motivated by a desire to limit the people's fault and take upon himself the brunt of God's wrath. Aaron saw that sin was inevitable, and therefore decided to shift the blame onto himself. (We will return to these explanations later.) According to both explanations, Aaron was opposed to making the calf but did so out of necessity.


            Rashi, throughout the whole narrative, explains Aaron's behavior as one continuous attempt to stall and delay the perpetration of the sin:


"Take off the golden rings that are on the ears of your wives"(32:2)- "Aaron said in his heart: "The women and the children cherish their ornaments; perhaps the matter         will be delayed and in the interim Moses will come."


Rashi explains Aaron's construction of an altar before the calf in a similar vein:


'If they themselves build the altar one will bring a clod and the other stones, and thus the work will be done at once, whereas if I build it, and I tarry in my work, Moses will in the meantime arrive."


As for Aaron's suggestion to have a feast, Rashi explains:


"And Aaron proclaimed and said a feast to the Lord TOMORROW"(32:5)- "But not Today, perhaps Moses will arrive before they worship it."


            Aaron knew that sin was inevitable. His only hope was to try and delay the people until Moses' return. His request to bring the jewelry of the wives, his building of an altar and his proclamation of a feast are all ploys to gain time. Do you agree with this interpretation of Aaron's actions?


            The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167) rejects several components of Rashi's interpretation. First, he finds the explanation that Aaron made the idol in order to save his life untenable. Aaron would have surely been willing to die rather than commit idolatry. If Hur did so, wasn't Aaron sufficiently committed to do the same? Many figures of much lower spiritual stature were willing to sacrifice their lives rather than commit idolatry. (Idolatry is one of the three sins for which one must sacrifice his life instead of transgressing, the other two being murder and incest.) The Ibn Ezra also rejects the suggestion that Aaron's behavior was one continuous attempt at stalling. Requesting jewelry from the women is not a delay tactic, since the women were certain to comply with the request of their husbands. The Ibn Ezra therefore offers an alternative explanation to which we will refer later.


            The Rasag (Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon, Persia, 892-942) agrees with Rashi that the sin of the golden calf was idolatry, and that those who worshipped the calf related to it as a god. However, he offers a completely different explanation of Aaron's behavior. (See Rasag on 32:25 and in the Ibn Ezra 32:1.) His interpretation is based on a verse at the end of the narrative:


"Moses saw that the people were out of control - since Aaron had let them get out of control - so that they were an object of derision to any who might oppose them." (32:25)


            According to this verse it seems that Aaron not only begrudgingly complies with the people's request for an idol but also actively provokes and generates unruly wanton behavior. Aaron is not passively submitting to the craze of the mob. He is leading them in their mischief! The verse also explains Aaron's motivation for allowing the situation to get out of hand - so that they would be "an object of derision to any who might oppose them" (32:25). What does this mean? Many commentators (see Ramban, Sforno) identify those "who might oppose them" as enemies in future generations who would mock Israel for their unfaithfulness to the God who took them out of Egypt. However the Rasag interprets those "who might oppose them" not as external enemies in the future but rather those amongst the people of Israel who opposed the making of the golden calf. Aaron realized that the people were divided. A segment of the population wanted the idol, but many were opposed. Aaron was not attempting to stall. He wished to accentuate the vanity of those worshipping the calf in order to strengthen the opposition within the camp. The whole nation was concerned over Moses' disappearance and the absence of leadership. However, only a minority would actually revert to primitive barbaric idolatry. Aaron's plan was to regain the faith and support of the majority by invalidating the opposition. The supporters of the calf would deteriorate into such depravity that they would hold no sway among the people. Aaron purposefully chose to make a ludicrous golden calf and abetted the uncivilized behavior of those who wished to rebel against God in order to neutralize their detrimental effect on the masses.


            In contrast to Rashi and the Rasag, the majority of the commentators do not interpret the sin of the golden calf as pure idolatry. When the people requested an idol, they were not so foolish as to think that a man-made idol made from their own jewelry was actually the God who took them out of Egypt.


            What, then, was their intention? Both the Ibn Ezra and his son in law, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (Spain, before 1075-1141) in his philosophical work, the Kuzari (a polemical work directed against Aristotelian philosophy, Christianity, and Islam), explain that the worshipers did not believe the calf to be an actual god but rather they saw in the calf a physical manifestation, a symbolic representation of the one God. The calf was not a rebellion against God, a worshipping of an alternative power, but was rather an alternative, more corporeal and palpable form of worship:


"God forbid that Aaron should commit idolatry! Also Israel did not request idolatry... [they wished] the divine presence manifested in a corporeal manner" (Ibn Ezra, long commentary 32:1)


"Some individuals were prompted to request for a tangible object of worship in the manner of the other nations without rejecting God who had taken them out of Egypt, merely asking that it should be placed before them to gaze upon when relating to God" (Kuzari section 1, chapter 97).


            While waiting forty days for Moses' return, the people began to fear that God had abandoned them. They could not tolerate worshipping the intangible. So long as Moses was with them they were confident that God was watching over them. However, without Moses, they required a physical image of God to convince them of His presence and through which they could relate to Him.


            Shadal (Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto, Italy, 1800-1865) offers textual support for this interpretation. When God informs Moses of the transgression of the people He states: "they [the people of Israel] have been quick to turn aside from THE WAY that I enjoined upon them" (32:8). God does not state that they have turned away from Him. They turned aside from God's ways, from his prohibition of making an image of Him.


            Next week we will continue to analyze different approaches to the sin of the golden calf.