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The moment the Jews sabotaged their relationship with God

If you had heard the Ten Commandments yourself, there's no way you would have worshiped the Golden Calf a few days later
The Adoration of the Golden Calf, by Nicolas Poussin, c. 1634. (Wikipedia)
The Adoration of the Golden Calf, by Nicolas Poussin, c. 1634. (Wikipedia)

When it comes to the Sin of the Golden Calf, I believe that the most inconceivable element actually serves as the key to unraveling the sin’s essence. The baffling mystery surrounding the Sin of the Golden Calf is: How could the people possibly worship a Golden Calf a mere 40 days after seeing God Himself on Mount Sinai and hearing Him explicitly declare, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt.” I would like to suggest that it is precisely the people’s experience at Mount Sinai that causes them to worship the Golden Calf.

The essence of the Sin of the Golden Calf is that the Children of Israel are not ready for a covenantal relationship with God that entails rules and self control. The giving of the Torah is not merely an inspirational sound and light show; it contains binding laws and obligations.[1] At this point in their development, the people are simply not ready for such a monumental commitment. All of Parshat Beshalach, the parshah that serves as the bridge between the Exodus and the giving of the Torah, consists of test after test[2] that the Children of Israel seem to fail. They complain about the lack of water in Marah (Exodus 15:22-26); they grumble again in the Wilderness of Sin about the lack of food (16:1-4); they leave over manna until the morning against explicit instructions (16:19-20); they go out to collect manna on Shabbat (16:25-29); they complain about the lack of water again in Refidim (17:1-7); and they are accused of testing whether God is in their midst (17:7).

Furthermore, as Rabbi Yonatan Grossman points out,[3] Parshat Beshalach is a chiastic structure:[4]

1a) external enemy (the Egyptians at the crossing of the Red Sea)

2a) water complaint (Marah)

3) bread and meat complaint (manna and quail)

2b) water complaint (Refidim)

1b) external enemy (Amalek).

At the end of the parshah, the Children of Israel are right back where they started from at its beginning. Though the parshah has brought them to the foot of Mount Sinai, they are spiritually no further along than they were immediately after the Exodus from Egypt.[5] They have not inculcated the lessons that the tests of Parshat Beshalach were supposed to have instilled. Nevertheless, God continues with His plan and bestows upon them the Torah.[6]

Within this context, it is clear that the Israelites do not possess the spiritual maturity necessary to receive the Torah. They are not ready for the obligations that God demands of them on Mount Sinai. Thus, they are in a high state of panic in the aftermath of receiving the Torah, overwhelmed by the magnitude of what they have just committed themselves to.[7] It is not surprising, therefore, that they jump at the slightest opportunity to return to their lives of no rules, no obligations, no laws.  Upon Moses’ delay, they immediately construct an idol. At first glance, this seems incomprehensible — how could the nation that experienced God on Mount Sinai worship an idol that they fashioned themselves. However, with the above background in mind, it begins to make sense: the Golden Calf’s attraction lay precisely in its being a man-made god. They control it; it does not have power over them.  It cannot make demands of them, nor impose rules or laws upon them. The Children of Israel cannot possibly believe that the Golden Calf is the God that took them out of Egypt. But they desperately try to convince themselves that it is[8] because this god will not insist upon anything in return. Thus, the answer to the question of how the people could have committed the Sin of the Golden Calf so soon after receiving the Torah is that they committed the sin precisely because of the events at Mount Sinai, and the overwhelming obligations receiving the Torah entailed.[9]

Consequently, the essence of the Sin of the Golden Calf lies in the people’s attempt to return to a rule-free life. This underlying motivation is clearly evidenced in the verses that describe the people’s worship of the Golden Calf. Over and over again, the Torah emphasizes the spirit of revelry and the lack of self-restraint that characterized the worship.[10] This wanton spirit is captured in the phrase “ויקמו לצחק” — they arose to make merry, to party, to let loose.[11] In fact, when Moses is first approaching the camp, he declares to Joshua that the tumult they hear coming from the camp is “kol anot,” which Rashi translates as the noise of defamations and blasphemies. The sounds that assault Moses’ and Joshua’s ears are those of utter chaos.

Furthermore, immediately before Moses shatters the Tablets, it says in 32:19, “וירא את העגל ומחולות” — he saw the calf and the dancing. It is the dancing that pushes him over the edge. Some commentators[12] explain that what upset Moses was the pleasure that the Children of Israel were taking in worshiping the statue. But I would argue that the significance of this phrase is that Moses totally understands what is going on — that the people want to dance wantonly; they crave no rules.

I would even suggest that, subconsciously, the Israelites are trying to sabotage their relationship with God. They are terrified of what they have committed themselves to, but even more terrified of backing out of it themselves. Deep down, they actually want God to get angry with them so that He will be the one to renege on their covenant.

Ultimately, Moses gives the people exactly what they want. He smashes the tablets, thereby nullifying their covenant with God and the obligations it entailed. The people are now free from the mitzvot and responsibilities that a committed relationship with God demands. But instead of feeling relieved, the Children of Israel are shocked into realizing that it is not what they really want at all. They are filled with remorse and desperately beg God to forgive them. They remove their ornaments from Mount Horev (33:4,6) and enter into a mourning period (33:4), during which God dwells outside their camp rather than in it (33:7). They look longingly after Moses every time he goes out to communicate with God (33:8), something to which they are no longer privy. After much pleading and negotiation on Moses’ part, HaShem agrees to completely forgive the Children of Israel and forge yet another covenantal relationship with them. The shock and pain of their first failed relationship has matured them, and when God calls Moses up to receive the second tablets, the people are finally ready to enter a committed relationship with God – laws, tablets, and all. As we read this tragic chapter of our nation’s history this week, it is an appropriate time to look within and assess whether we too can more fully and genuinely commit ourselves to a covenantal relationship with God.

[1] This is especially true according to the Ramban’s understanding that the detailed laws of Parshat Mishpatim constitute the “sefer habrit” over which Bnei Yisrael bind themselves to the covenant (see Exodus 24:3-7). Matan Torah consists of them agreeing to abide by many detailed, practical laws that will govern every aspect of their lives.

[2] Note that words containing the root נ.ס.ה., test, appear a surprising number of times throughout the parshah:

15:25 – “שם שם לו חק ומשפט ושם נסהו” – There (in Marah) He placed for him a statute and a law and there He tested him.

16:4 – “למען אנסנו הילך בתורתי אם לא” – so as to test him, will he follow My laws or not (regarding the mann).

17:2 – “מה תריבון עמדי מה תנסון את ה’” – Why are you fighting with Me (Moses)? Why are you testing God?

17:7 – “ויקרא שם המקום מסה ומריבה על ריב בני ישראל ועל נסותם את ה’ לאמר היש ה’ בקרבנו אם אין” – He called the name of the place Masah U’Merivah because of the fight of Bnei Yisrael and because of their testing of God saying, ‘Is HaShem in our midst or not?’

17:15 – “ויבן משה מזבח ויקרא שמו ה’ נסי” – Moses constructed an alter and called his name ‘HaShem nisi’ – God is my banner, my miracle, my tester.

[3]The Manna and the Paschal Sacrifice.

[4] In a chiastic structure, the topics in the text appear in the order ABCBA, so that the first topic also appears last, the second appears again second to last, etc. This structure can be used to emphasize the topic in the middle which serves as the focal point. It also creates the impression that there is progression at first but then regression back to the beginning.

[5] Rashi famously comments on the use of the singular, “ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר” (19:2), that at Mount Sinai, Bnei Yisrael were unified כאיש אחד בלב אחד. This might have seemed to indicate that Rashi thinks the people have made tremendous progress. However, that very Rashi continues by pointing out that all the other encampments were filled with resentment and dissension.

[6] Why God continues with His plan despite all of Bnei Yisrael’s shortcomings and failed tests is an interesting question. Perhaps because He had promised Moses at the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:12)?

[7] This approach fits nicely with the “כפה עליהם הר כגיגית” midrashim (Rashi to Exodus 19:17; Shabbat 88a). God had to coerce them to accept the Torah because they were not ready to do so themselves.

[8] “אלה אלהיך ישראל אשר העלוך מארץ מצרים” (Shemot 32:4)

[9] See Rabbi Chanoch Waxman’s article, “The Jewelry and the Tent,” in which he suggests that the Sin of the Golden Calf is the “anti-covenant.” In worshiping it, Bnei Yisrael do everything from Exodus, chapter 24 (the chapter in which they forge their covenant with God as part of Matan Torah), but instead of performing these actions as part of a covenenat with HaShem, they are doing them to celebrate around the Golden Calf.

[10] For example, the atmosphere of anarchy is highlighted by 32:25, which states,”וירא משה את העם כי פרע הוא כי פרעה אהרון לשמצה בקמיהם” — Moses saw the nation, that it was in disorder, for Aaron had made them disorderly to be a disgrace among their enemies. This verse focuses on the wild unruliness of the people. In addition, it is significant that the word chosen to describe their lack of control is “פרע.” This is an obvious allusion to Pharaoh, who represents the life they claim to still want, in which there are no divine demands made upon them.

[11] Exodus 32:6

[12] See the Alshich, Seforno, and Rav Hirsch (all are cited in Nehama Leibowitz, 603-4)

About the Author
Dena Freundlich teaches Gemara and Halachah at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem. She also teaches Halachah at Midreshet Torah v'Avodah, and has lectured in many schools and institutions on topics related to Tanach, Halacha, and Gemara. Prior to making aliyah in 2010, she served as Talmud Department Chair at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck, NJ. She holds a BA in Biology and Jewish Studies from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, an MA in Bible from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and was a member of the first graduating class of YU's Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS). She lives in Efrat with her 3 children.
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