G-d instructed our ancestors to construct a Golden ark topped by two golden cherubs. Only several months earlier, the Jews were severely punished for fashioning a golden idol. When G-d finally invited them to build a real home for Him as a sign of His forgiveness for the golden calf, He instructed them to fashion golden cherubs. Cherubs that would become channels through which G-d would speak to Moses and for G-d’s manifestation in the world. Why did the Jews not balk at this?
All Things Holy
The truth is that it is not incorrect to say that a golden calf is a manifestation of G-d. After all, nothing exists outside of G-d. The entire world only exists because G-d channels His Creative power through it. It is true of trees, rivers, mountains, and stones. It is true of gold, copper, iron, and tin. It is true of animals, birds, insects, and people. Everything channels and manifests G-d’s Creative power.
It is, therefore, not terribly shocking that G-d would instruct us to fashion an image from the most beautiful substance in the universe. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 35:1) teaches that G-d Created gold to be used in His temple. G-d’s home must be of the most beautiful materials and rarest metals. It is true that everything is a manifestation of G-d. It doesn’t need to be beautiful to embody G-dliness. But G-d selected beautiful and rare materials to represent Him to inspire and awe us in their presence.
The Torah refers to Moses as a man of G-d. We are all people of G-d, but it is not evident in our lifestyles. Moses lived in a manner that made His G-dliness obvious and evident. When Jews were in His company, they sensed G-d’s presence. Similarly, the Torah tells us that when the Jews left Egypt, G-d led the way in a cloud. It was a cloud, not G-d. But G-d made His presence obvious in the cloud. When they saw the cloud, they perceived G-d within it.
A Substitute for Moses
When Moses climbed Mount Sinai and Jews observed that he neglected to take along food, they began to worry that he would not survive. Mana did not fall over Mount Sinai, and they could not imagine that Moses would go forty days without food. They began to worry about him and wondered who would inspire and lead them. Surely G-d could lead them without an intermediary. That was not a question. But they felt they needed an intermediary to enhance their relationship with G-d.
(This is especially true according to the teaching (Rashi, Exodus 26:15) that the Jews knew in advance that G-d would have them build a tabernacle with a golden ark and cherubs. They knew that this would serve as a symbol that would make G-d feel real to them. That would make G-d real and visceral to them.)
Think of it this way. Judaism teaches that we must both believe in G-d and know G-d. One does not require faith for something one knows. You don’t need to believe that you exist, you know it. If G-d wants us to believe and know Him, He must be referring to two dimensions. We must know all that can be known about G-d. And we must believe all that transcends our finite ability to know.
Belief is necessary lest we limit G-d to what can be known by a finite mind. Knowledge is necessary lest G-d become a lofty exalted being that is impersonal and irrelevant to us. To the Jews, Moses was a revealed manifestation of G-d that made G-d real for them. He made it possible for them to relate to G-d.
With the possibility of Moses’ passing, they balked at losing their representation of G-d. They, therefore, cast about for something new to replace Moses. They turned to Aaron and said, “Make for us a G-d because we don’t know what happened to this man Moses who brought us out of Egypt.” They were not looking to replace G-d. They were looking to replace Moses. It is true that they said, make us a G-d, but the Torah often uses the word Elokim in a non-deified context. It often means a person of power and leadership. They asked Aaron to provide them with another leader.
Of course, the rational choice would have been for them to ask for a human substitute. Perhaps even Aaron himself. But they balked at this for two reasons. (A) They were wary of anyone but Moses because humans have free choice and strange impulses. One never knows if one can trust a human in the long run. (B) They thought that if G-d would manifest Himself in something tactile and concrete, not just an exalted spirit like Moses, it would make G-d even more real to them.
Think about how close we feel to G-d when we take in a beautiful vista of His magnificent nature. Think about how much we tremble when we absorb His awesome power in a terrific storm. These are visceral reactions to His power. Maimonides teaches us to study the science of nature so that we would appreciate the awesome magnificence of the Creator. This is what the Jews were seeking in the calf.
It is true that not all Jews thought this way. Nearly three thousand Jews were looking for an idol to replace G-d. These were the Jews that were later executed by Moses. But the majority wa looking for something very similar to the golden cherubs that G-d would later instruct them to make.
Not Our Choice
Yet, this was sinful and punishable. Because when we choose an object as a symbol of G-d, it doesn’t represent G-d, it represents us. It is something of our choosing, our design, and our fashion. Every object channels G-d’s Creative power. We can’t just choose one that inspires us. When G-d selects an object, tells how to fashion it, and turn it into a symbol of His presence in our midst, it represents G-d’s manifestation in our world. When we choose it, it represents a human choice. Not a Divine presence.
It is like a novice taking over a pharmacy and handing our medications nilly willy. Rather than healing people, he would cause all kinds of illnesses. Yes, the pharmacy carries healing medications, but one must know what to dispense to whom. Only G-d can choose the precise objects and designs to represent His presence among us.
When we choose one object out of many, it is heresy. When we accept G-d’s choice, it is transcendence. When Jews made a golden calf they were punished appropriately. When G-d forgave them and invited them to build a home for Him, he communicated His forgiveness by instructing them to make a golden ark and cherubs. It was His way of saying; you have returned to me. I trust you now to channel my presence rather than to decide for yourself what inspires you most. This was the greatest sign that the people had repented and G-d had forgiven.
We can learn an important lesson from this. G-d gave us many commandments. When we fulfill them, we cement our bond with G-d. When we design our own inspiring ways to be spiritual or change G-d’s laws because we think we know better, we don’t grow closer to G-d. The path that leads to G-d, is the trail that G-d blazed. No other trail can lead us to that destination.