Remembering the Golden Calf

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley






Remembering the Golden Calf


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



One of the challenges that we face while reading Sefer Devarim is understanding how the various subjects connect to one another.  As Moshe Rabbeinu speaks in a stream of consciousness, he does not present his rebukes and warnings in chronological order, but rather in an associative manner.  R. David Z. Hoffman, in his survey of chapters 9:1-11:25, suggests the following connections for the opening of Sefer Devarim:


A)  The first part of the general commandments, chapter 6:4 - chapter 7:11 - The portion opens in a festive manner, "Hear O Israel," and addresses the entire nation in the singular. 

B)  The second part of the general commandments, chapter 7:12 - chapter 8:20. 

C)  The third part of the general commandments, chapter 9:1 - chapter 11:25.


Like the first part, the third opens with "Hear O Israel," and it, too, is comprised of five parts, each of which is either an open or closed portion, excluding the first which is written in the Torah as two portions, apparently because of the length of the historic story contained in it.  This historic narration begins in chapter 9:7 and continues until 10:11, which is the end of the first chapter.  The second chapter, which exhorts greatly for the love of God and the fear of God, is also quite lengthy, but it is not written in the Torah as one portion. 


In our weekly study, we will investigate how Moshe presented the sin of the Golden Calf to the new generation.  Indeed, one question that we should ask is why anyone would think that the people would in fact revert to the sin of the Golden Calf.  Surely, the generation that lived with Divine Providence for forty years could be trusted not to repeat the sins of their fathers, fresh out of slavery and still attached to their sinful ways! R. Moshe Alshich explains what message Moshe wished to convey with this reference:


Indeed, here we wrote that Moshe told them be not certain of yourselves that you will inherit the land for eternity without interruption, since you are a stubborn nation.  Through this quality, there is no impediment to your being destined to transgress in a way that the land will be taken from you.  You may say, what did I see in you that I said that your righteousness cannot be trusted? Was it not [stated] "Remember, do not forget, that you provoked, etc., from the day you came out of [Egypt] etc." Do not say that this applied to the generation that preceded you, the one that ended in this wilderness, but not for you, since you left Egypt as children and not one of you had reached [the age of] twenty at the time of the spies.  Indeed, your provoking of God was from the beginning "until your coming to this place." This is forty years after the episode of the spies.  The majority of you are close to sixty years old.  How much time has passed since you turned twenty? From then, as now, transgressions have not been lacking amongst you in such a way that you cannot be certain of yourselves…


You may say, that they [who left Egypt] did not reach the level of achievement we [the second generation of those who left Egypt] have now.  We, however, who have reached this level, will not be afraid of regressing and spoiling (as [if] we are destined to transgress).  On this he said, "And in Chorev you provoked, etc." That is to say, [even though] it is possible to achieve ability and righteousness to the measure that you achieved them in Chorev (where you spoke with God face to face, in proximity and cleaving to God) with all that you provoked [Him] there, etc.  to the point that "God became angry with you [and wanted] to annihilate you." If so, what more do you have to say? There is no doubt that you do not now reach this level.  If so, on what will you rely so as not to return to your stupidity? The previous verse came first even though it also encompassed the generation of that time then being spoken to.  After that, the subject of discussion is adduced by inference from minor to major as stated.  (Torat Moshe, Devarim 9:7-12)


From the words of the Alshich, we see that the fear that provokes Moshe’s warning is not that the people will revert to idolatry, but that the inner characteristics that caused them to sin still remain.  The Abrabanel uses this idea to explain the apparently random mention in verse 22 of other places where the Jewish people angered Hashem in the desert:


“…at Tave’erah, and at Massah, and at Kibrot Ha-Ta’avah, you angered Hashem” (9:22): Here, they said after this (verse 22), "And at Tav'erah and at Massah…" This was to say to them: If you have doubt in the matter and you say that Aharon caused you the transgression and that [it did not come from] you, here you have for witness and proof that you were the transgressors as were your leaders in the other places.  Behold, in Tav'erah you were complaining.  The first time was in Massah when you attempted [to know] if God is in your midst or not, and also in Kivrot Ha-Ta'avah.  In all of these places, you were provoking God.  Not only that, but also when God sent you from Kadesh Barnea saying, "Go up and inherit the land that God has given you," you disobeyed God's word and did not believe in Him.  You did not listen to his voice and set for yourselves generations of weeping - Did Aharon cause you all of this?? If so, it should appear that you, yourselves, without any instigator, were contrary with God.  It is not fitting to attribute corruption to anyone but the corrupt!


It is possible that he recalled their transgressions in Massah and in Tav'erah and in the other places in order to say that with everything they saw and that was done unto them [because of] the sin of the Golden Calf, they did not learn rectitude.  [On the contrary], they immediately continued to transgress in all of the places that he recalled. 


The sin of the Golden Calf, according to Moshe, is not the idolatry involved, but that it reflects an inner stubbornness that remained latent within the Jewish people.  That mistakes were made is acceptable, failure to internalize the lessons represents the grave danger. 


After opening his speech warning the Jewish people against over-confidence and a sense of entitlement to the land of Israel due to an innate sense of righteousness, Moshe begins to recount the failure at Har Sinai (Chorev) as follows:


7 Remember, forget not, how you made Hashem your God wroth in the wilderness; from the day that you went forth out of the land of Egypt until you came unto this place, you have been rebellious against Hashem.  8 Also in Chorev you made Hashem wroth, and Hashem was angered with you to have destroyed you.  9 When I was gone up into the mount to receive the tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant which Hashem made with you, then I abode in the mount forty days and forty nights; I did neither eat bread nor drink water.  10 And Hashem delivered unto me the two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them was written according to all the words, which Hashem spoke with you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly.  11 And it came to pass at the end of forty days and forty nights, that Hashem gave me the two tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant.  (Devarim 9:7-11)


Interestingly, Moshe feels the need to mention twice within the space of two verses that Hashem gave him the tablets.  Here is how the Abrabanel phrases the question:


The eighth doubt in his statement (verse 11), "And it came to pass at the end of forty days … that Hashem gave me the two tablets of stone …" This verse is obviously repeated.  It has already said above (verse 10), "And Hashem gave me two tablets of stone…" Why, therefore, does it return and repeat itself saying, "and it came to pass at the end of forty days … Hashem gave me"?


R. Yehuda Tzvi Mecklenberg, in his book Ha-Ketav Ve-Ha-Kabbala, notes that the tablets in verse 11 are called "the two tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant," whereas in verse 10 they are simply referred to as "two tablets of stone."  As such, he suggests the following reason for the change:


It appears to me that the teachings in these two givings [of the tablets] are not identical in their instruction: the second one is material - something that is given from hand to hand, and this was after forty days, [when] He gave Moshe the tablets.  The first giving [of the tablets] is spiritual, this is [representing] study.  One who teaches another a concept which [the latter] could not have understood himself is a teacher, giving and influencing.  The Torah is therefore called a "doctrine" (LikKHi, from the Hebrew root LaKaH, meaning to take) (Devarim 32:2): "My doctrine shall drop as the rain" - "For I give you good doctrine, forsake not my Torah (Mishlei 4:2).  Behold, after he had said, "then I abode in the mountain forty days and forty nights," he came here to announce the intended purpose of his having been on the mountain for that time.  He said, "And the Lord gave me two tablets of stone…" That is to say that during this time the Holy One was teaching me the true intention of the writing on the tablets.  Within these ten precepts, the 613 mitzvot are included.  This that is what Moshe learned from the mouth of the Almighty during the forty days.  This then is what they [the Sages] said (Shemot Rabba, parsha 47, verse 5): "He did not eat bread" - but he ate the bread of Torah, "and he did not drink water" - but he drank the water of Torah…


In other words - At the time when Moshe was engaged in studying the Torah and had not yet completed his studies, the tablets were mere stone tablets.  When he completed his studies, the stone tablets became the tablets of the covenant.


R. David Hoffman settles the Abarbanel's difficulty in a different manner.  Based on the Ibn Ezra’s comment to Shemot 12:51, R. Hoffman argues that verse 11 notes the time when Hashem said the things written in verse 12 and after.[1]  The Abrabanel states similarly:


"And it came to pass at the end of forty days…," is connected to, "And God said to me, Arise, get thee down." He said that at the end of the forty days when Israel was already soiled with the transgression of the calf, God gave him [Moshe] the tablets and told him when He gave them to him: "Arise, get thee down…for thy people have become corrupt." The giving [of the tablets] therefore and the statement of the rebellion were together."


To conclude, we see the following division in Moshe’s speech regarding the sin of the Golden Calf:


9: 7-8 = introduction "you provoked God…from today…until this place. 

9:9-10 = the first tablets. 

9:11-17 = the sin of the Golden Calf and the breaking of the tablets. 

9:18-21 = the supplication and the atonement.

9:22-24 = recollection of additional transgressions. 

9:25-10:5 = prayer and the second tablets.


In the speech, Moshe allows for no excuses for the generation that sinned – they cannot claim that the transgression of the Golden Calf occurred as the result of Moshe's absence or the intervention of Aharon, since these "above-mentioned excuses" did not exist at other times when they transgressed.  Instead, the people have to recognize that they too are liable to repeat the errors of the past – and they stand on the edge of the Land not due to any inherent goodness but because God did not want to see His name profaned, and the purpose of their existence, to know God, believe in Him, and be a light unto the nations would not be achieved.

[1] Ibn Ezra explained on Shemot 12:51: "And it came to pass on that selfsame day:" In my opinion, this verse is connected with the verse that comes after it, wherein God tells Moshe to sanctify the firstborn.  In the middle of the night, the plague of the [slaughter of the] firstborn struck.  With Israel's leaving of Egypt in the day, God immediately commanded the sanctification of Israel's firstborn and the firstborn of their cattle.