Why did the Israelites build the Golden Calf? Barely three months had passed since God freed Israel from slavery, in the course of which they beheld the most extraordinary miracles and wonders: the Ten Plagues, the Splitting of the Reed Sea, and now the thunderous, magnificent descent of God onto Mt. Sinai, certainly not the most awesome of mountains. The most popular of the dozen or so claimants to the title of Mt. Sinai is Ras Musa, the “Head of Moses” in Arabic, which I consider the “most Jewish” of mountains. It is lowly, not lofty, and, over the centuries, the stalwart monks of the Monastery of Saint Catherine at its foot—driven to distraction by the endless ennui of wilderness life, perhaps—have carved out stone steps by which the pilgrim may ascend in Moses’s traces—no pitons, ropes, spikey shoes, or climbing axes needed here! One may scale Sinai in a few short minutes and be greeted by a wilderness vista ‘twixt heaven and earth, but nothing approaching the thunder-and-light show which Moses enjoyed. That is why, perhaps, we Jews have grown accustomed to finding our God in holy books, and not in nature: after the Giving of the Torah, all else on earth is anticlimactic—a barren stage, empty of its principal Actor.
And yet, merely a moment after their devoted leader and rabbi, Moses, disappears into the mists of the mountaintop, the backsliding Israelites demand a visible symbol of the god they claim to worship—and they find it in a calf, sort of a junior Baal, the pagan god of the Babylonians, who rode astride a bull. More importantly, why did Aaron, Moses’s trusted elder brother (and the middle child of their family, with Miriam as the oldest) concede so swiftly to their evil, backsliding request?
The answer is found, not in this week’s parsha/Torah reading, but in a small, obscure verse some three portions ago: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain…and I will give you the stone tablets with…the commandments’….So Moses…ascended the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, ‘Wait here for us….You have Aaron and Chur with you; let anyone who has a legal matter approach them (italics mine).’” When the Israelites insist on their pagan god, Aaron quickly accedes to their request; what impelled him to do this? And what had happened to Chur, he who had faithfully supported Moses’s hands aloft during the earlier battle with Amalek? (Ex. 17:10)
The rabbis were disturbed by these questions, and so concocted a midrash/homiletical legend: the stalwart Chur, trusting in the invisible God and in Moses, his then-absentee prophet, resists the Israelites’ sinful demand for a golden god-vehicle they could see. After Chur’s refusal, the maddened mob attacks and lynches him. Left alone to face the bloodthirsty pack, Aaron, fearful not only for his own life, but trying desperately to prevent God’s ignorant children from having more innocent blood on their hands, comes up with a stall tactic. He deliberately asks them to give up their hard-earned gold and silver jewelry, the four hundred years of “back pay” which they had looted from Egypt, assuming they will never do this. To his surprise and dismay, the people readily surrender their pelf to him, and he has no choice but to fashion the Calf. Ironically, Aaron, when questioned later by Moses regarding his own connivance in the building of the idol, replies, “’I hurled [the gold] into the fire, and out came this calf! (Ex. 32:24)’” thereby implying that neither he nor the Israelites were guilty of its construction; a sort of “negative miracle,” it just occurred, perhaps by demonic powers.
The rabbis ascribe this mollifying statement to Aaron’s great reputation as a peacemaker, but I remain dubious of his poor performance as a leader of Israel, perhaps the worst “substitute teacher” of all time. The middle child, he was flexible by nature, but comes down to us as the first religious leader doomed to learn that “you can’t please ‘em all,” and it is folly to try.