The sin of the Golden Calf and its repercussions today


by Rabbi Avi Matmon

 This article was constructed with the help of either writings, lectures or shiurim of Rabbi's Yissachar Frand,  Asher Herzberg, Yossi Bilus, Pinchas Winston, David Etenoff  and Dr. Abba Goldman

The sin of the golden calf remains to be a blemish on the "score card" of the Jewish nation that won't go away. Indeed, as Rashi points out, there is no punishment inflicted on the Jewish people that does not carry with it a measure of "payment" for the sin of the golden calf (Rashi on Shemos 32:34). Seems like this "little mistake" carried a lot of mileage.

There are much questions raised, including the most obvious one. How can the children of Israel do such a thing? This parsha leaves many scratching their heads. This is one of the most difficult parts of the Torah to understand. The Jewish people... fresh from the Exodus... fresh from witnessing the splitting of the Red Sea... fresh from receiving the Torah... -- go and make themselves an idol! This is the chosen nation? It's pretty absurd!!

As a matter of fact, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there were periods of great dispute between Christianity and Judaism, and the many public debates and disputes directly affected the Jews' status, personal safety, religious observance, and degree of assimilation. Christianity claimed that while indeed the Jews had been the Chosen People, God had removed that status from them. The Jews had sinned, and thus God had now conferred that status on the Christians. They are obviously wrong, but the point remains: What could be worse than a nation who commits treason against its God the very moment it received His Law?

Perhaps we should give a little background before we analyze one of the most intriguing incidents in our holy Torah.


After G-d revealed Himself to the entire nation at Mount Sinai and told them the Ten Commandments, Moses ascended the mountain where he remained for forty days. Moses studied the Torah and received the Tablets. The Jews then miscalculate when Moses is supposed to return, and when he doesn't appear on the day when they anticipate him, they grow impatient and demand of Aaron to make for them a new god. Aaron seemingly cooperates, but really all along he is intending to postpone them and buy time until Moses' return. Despite his efforts, a Golden Calf emerges from the flames. The festivities and sacrifices start early next morning. Moses pleads with an incensed G-d to forgive the Jews' sin. G-d acquiesces and relents from His plan to annihilate the Jews. Moses comes down with the Tablets, sees the idolatrous revelry, and breaks the Tablets. Moses enlists the Tribe of Levi to punish the primary offenders. Three thousand idol worshippers are executed on that day. Moses ascends Mount Sinai again, in an attempt to gain complete atonement for the sin. 


There is a very famous Ramba"n that says that this was not real idolatry. This commentary is accepted by many. The Ramba"n explains that Jewish people felt that since Moshe Rabbeinu was apparently gone, they needed an intermediary -- someone to act as a go-between, between them and G-d. Until now, Moshe had filled that role. The Ramba"n explains that they wanted an object on which the Divine Presence of G-d could descend and so they fashioned themselves this golden image in the shape of a calf.

So the Golden Calf was not there to replace G-d but it was there to replace Moshe. The Golden Calf was there to be the intermediary. If that is the case, one knows from their familiarity in the corporate world, when the head C.O is unavailable what usually tends to happen is they go to the number two man. Why then was Aaron bypassed for the Golden Calf? Furthermore, why did the Israelites choose a Golden Calf in the first place? What's so special of the calf? Why not perhaps a golden football like the one presented to the winner of the Super bowl? There are thousand species and objects to choose from. What then follows is an obvious question upon our opening statement: If the Golden Calf was NOT there to replace G-d but merely an intermediary, then why are we punished with such severity throughout the generations?

***Let's tackle why Aaron, and for that matter, a human was passed over first. The state of mind among the bnai Yisrael was of total fear. They were painted a picture in their psyche that their beloved leader was dead. The last thing they wanted was a mortal leader.

***Secondly, let's shed light as to why the Israelites chose a "calf". We have to understand what a calf, or for that matter the ox it will grow up into, represents. The twelve tribes of Israel were each represented by an animal and the ox symbolized Yosef. In fact they used the same method, for the same plate which Moshe raised Yosef's bones that was hidden in the Nile, bnai Yisrael used to create the Golden Calf by throwing the plate within the forge. What is this plate? Moshe took upon himself the responsibility to take the bones of the ten tribes for burial in the land of Israel. However, the whereabouts of Yosef's bones were unknown. The plate was divine intervention which Moshe used; this plate had upon it the words of the bracha that Yaakov blessed Yosef before he passed away: ALAY SHORE - Rise, ox. This was the power of Yosef. Dr. Abba Goldman mentions Man has the ability unfortunately to take a high level of holiness and drag it into the mud. The Israelites took Yosef's bracha, his ability of leadership and made a mere figure head. They took his powerful restrain of sexual forbidden desires and performed the most decedent behavior.

Yosef was an attractive choice for he represented royalty He also represented Egypt for if it wasn't for him the children of Israel would not have entered Egypt. They outlined exactly what they wanted out of a leader, dictating their choices based on the convenience of their desires. Yosef represented a comfort zone to them. 

Rav Soloveitchik maintained that the entire concept of an intermediary between man and G-d is false from its inception.

The sin of the Egel was, in contrast, to the Original Sin, the consequence of man's denial and self-downgrading. The awareness of their smallness actually motivated them to sin... the people could not visualize the fulfillment of the great promise without Moshe's leadership. In essence they were saying: We don't have to reach that level. We relinquish our responsibility. This was their mistake; it was no matter that Moses was the greatest prophet, the greatest of all men. Every plain Jew has access to the Ribono shel Olam (The Master of the Universe.) 


Rashi says much later on in Parshat Chukat that, though the Red Heifer was used to purify a person from spiritual defilement resulting from contact with the dead, it also atoned for the sin of the golden calf (see Bamidbar 19:2). After all, death is the result of the golden calf, for the rabbis teach that after accepting Torah, the Jewish people returned to the level of Adam before his sin, regaining immortality. Creating and worshiping the golden calf was tantamount to a repetition of the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil all over again, bringing with it the consequence of death. Therefore, as Rashi says, the heifer comes to "clean up" after the mess of its young (i.e., the calf).

Rashi develops many parallels between the Ref Heifer (the ashes of which were used to purify the impure) and the Golden Calf. For example, just as the Golden Calf was fashioned by fire, the body of the Red Heifer was to be consumed by fire. Rabbi Goldwasser points out an interesting contrast between these two cows. The making of the Golden Calf involved a transformation from an inanimate object (gold) into something that became alive, through fire. On the other hand, the ashes that were needed to carry out the Red Heifer sacrifice came about in a reverse process: something alive would, through fire, become inanimate (ashes). Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Bifus comments (Lekach Tov) that one can see that the power of fire (and other elements of nature such as water, wind, and earth) can be used to build the world or destroy it.

Rashi also points out that the mitzvah of the Red Heifer is not a commandment, but a statute. (The actual Hebrew word for this, chok, cannot be defined in the English language, so we will use the term statue. The more complex meaning of the word is a mitzvah whose logic defies us). For these statues, the yetzer hara-evil and nations of the world laugh at us, asking, "What purpose does that serve?"

Our answer to the question, "Exactly. You answered the question with your question."

Rashi says that a statute is a law of which G-d says, "It is a decree from Me, and you have no permission to think into it." Implicit in this statement is that, though we may be brilliant, and capable of so much, our brilliance has an upper limit. We can be like G-d, but we can't be Him, and therefore, we certainly can't second guess Him. Many mitzvot may make sense to us, and Western society has adopted many as its own, such as "Don't steal," and "Don't murder," etc. But that is only because Western society sees the value in such ordinances, and how they make life more secure for the average individual. But what value does the Red Heifer have for the average working man? How does abstaining from eating meat cooked in milk make mankind more civilized? What damages does wearing clothing woven from a mixture of wool and linen cause?

The answer: it prevents golden calves. This is the answer to our earlier question on the severity of the sin. 

Aside from the actual, non-visible spiritual impact on creation mitzvot have, statutes remind us that Divine logic is divine, and mankind's is not. They remind us that our decisions can barely take into account the past and the present, let alone the future. They remind us that there is a master plan for creation, one that you have to be G-d to see from beginning to end in a single eyeshot. Statutes inform us that G-d is privy to knowledge that we are not, knowledge that provides invaluable perspective on the events within our lives, and our long history.

They tell us: Don't second guess G-d.

The Talmud states that the people allowed the golden calf to be built initially as a replacement for Moshe, whom they had thought had died on the mountain (see Rashi on 32:1). Darkness had descended on the whole world, and they felt left out in the cold, in the middle of desert within which survival was only possible through miracles. They didn't know WHY this had happened, or what G-d had wanted from them, but they didn't wait to find out either. They panicked. They second guessed G-d, and did they ever pay a price for it...

Thus the Red Heifer, the quintessential statute, truly does "clean up" for the calf. And according to the Brisker Rav, it is the mitzvah of the Red Heifer that will play a major role in the final redemption from the "red" nation called Edom. Maybe it is time to stop second guessing God, to increase our faith in His master plan, and to hang in there to see how the whole thing will unfold. We have it on faith from very reliable sources, that we will be quite pleasantly surprised

By creating the Golden calf what essentially they are saying is: We are denying G-d. We are doing it ourselves as we see fit.

Now we can also understand how the people fell so quickly. The issue here was not choosing actual idol worship, but rather the method of serving the same God whom they had seen throughout the previous year. In the Ten Commandments, God said they should worship Him directly, not through any intermediaries or representations. When the people perceived that Moses was not returning, they were unable to remain on the level of closeness to God they had attained during the revelation. So they co-opted part of that great Sinai prophecy, and worshiped the calf they had seen in the heavenly image. This, then, is the conflict of a nation that has reached great heights, not of the conflict of a people who have sunken to a new low.

What does the parah adumah truly teach us? Ultimately, it teaches us to live with the impossibility of understanding everything, or, perhaps, even anything. It teaches us to live with the question, with doubts. Moshe Rabbeinu was a great leader of the nation; again and again, he showed his caring and devotion for them. The nation knew that they were blessed with Moshe as their leader. Moshe would always protect them. But then came this moment when they did not know what happened to Moshe and thus, what would happen to them. They had a challenge of insecurity, a challenge of not knowing. They went for the easiest answer, which was the wrong answer. The real answer, though, is that we ultimately always live in a situation of not knowing. That is the human condition. The challenge for us is to live with the question. This is the message of the parah adumah and why Moshe himself had to be seen within its gamut.

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