Moses was summoned to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, stone tablets that would define the Israelites’ commitment to G-d. And while he was on Sinai something happened far below.
Some people claimed that Moses had gone missing. He was supposed to have returned from the mountain. They looked up in the sky and claimed that they saw the body of Moses. Panic ensued.
Then these same people rushed to Aaron: Build us somebody who could replace Moses. We will make that into our guide in the desert.
Who were these people? The sages say they were the so-called mixed multitude, known in Hebrew as Erev Rav. They were Egyptians who left their ruined country after the 10 Plagues and followed the Israelites into the desert. Many of them had been sent by Pharaoh to sabotage the exodus of Israel.
The Egyptian exiles did not have the numbers to force the Children of Israel to stop their advance toward the Land of Canaan. But they exploited every opportunity to sow dissension and fear among the former slaves. The absence of Moses marked a golden opportunity.
When the people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don’t know what has become of him.” [Exodus 12:1]
The Egyptians wooed the Jews by claiming that they worshipped the same G-d. Their problem was the absence of Moses, who had accepted the mixed multitude and didn’t question their sincerity. They mobbed Aaron and demanded he follow their wishes immediately. When Aaron’s nephew Hur objected, the mob killed him. Aaron and the Israelites fell back. This was now bloody and suddenly the Egyptians seemed powerful.
Aaron told the Egyptians to bring gold to make a replacement for Moses. He declared a holiday to G-d. But he became a puppet in the hands of a small but violent minority. Now, the Egyptians no longer pretended they had anything in common with the Israelites.
He took [them] from their hand[s], fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it into a molten calf, upon which they said: “These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!” [Exodus 12:4]
The Egyptians followed up their idolatry with debauchery. They led a giant orgy, accompanied by random killings. They pushed the Jews to follow them in sin. It was Egypt all over again, the very place G-d took them out just months earlier.
And the Lord said to Moses: “Go, descend, for your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly. [Exodus 32:7]
The subjugation of the majority by the minority is often swift. The process relies on deception, desperation and finally brutality. The Egyptians invented the lie that Moses was late in descending from Mount Sinai. Actually, he had never told anybody when he would return. Then, their spin doctors generated mass hysteria and convinced the Israelites that Moses was dead and you could see his lifeless body in the sky. The Israelites looked up, and some of them thought they saw such an apparition. Finally, G-d told Moses to go back to the people and halt the chaos.
Now it came to pass when he drew closer to the camp and saw the calf and the dances, that Moses’ anger was kindled, and he flung the tablets from his hands, shattering them at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the calf they had made, burned it in fire, ground it to fine powder, scattered [it] upon the surface of the water, and gave [it to] the Children of Israel to drink. [Exodus 32:19-20]
The Midrash in Psalms quoted Moses as saying, “Master of the Universe, you have put down the voice of the Torah and your house and raised the voice of the wicked.” This was the divine test: Whom among the Israelites would follow the mixed multitude? Who would abandon G-d for an idol? Moses knew the Egyptian instigators; his job was to find the Israelites who had been tempted. Their sin could not be ignored.
The temptation of Israel would remain throughout history. On Purim, the Jews heard how the Persian king Ahasuerus made an elaborate party with every delight available. Why? Because he was celebrating the failure of the Jews to return to their land and rebuild the temple. Amazingly, many Jews would attend. It didn’t matter that they had come for free food and drink. Their attendance marked an abandonment of the prophecy that the Jews would return to the promised land. This angered G-d and Haman emerged. He would rise rapidly up the ladder to win permission for genocide.
Moses and Mordechai responded the same way: The return to salvation would require repentance. The Jews would first need to remove themselves from the source of the sin. Then, they could take the road back. Those who were tempting the Jews must be swept away. Their lies must be demolished. There must be an accounting. Then, the journey to Israel could resume.
The Lord spoke to Moses: “Go, ascend from here, you and the people you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land that I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying: ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ [Exodus 33:1]