Joshua Gerstein

The sin of the Golden Calf revisited- Thoughts on Parshat Ki Tisa 5774

“God is near to all who call unto Him.” Psalms 145:18

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion we learn of one of the most defining and difficult moments in Jewish history, the Sin of the Golden Calf. The verses state, “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! 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 32:1) The question arises: what exactly was the nature of the sin of the Jewish people in this story? What were they hoping to accomplish? The answer, and its lesson for our times, is most intriguing and inspiring.

Many commentators are of the opinion that the sin should be understood along the simple explanation of the text, i.e. that the masses actually wanted to build an idol and worship it in place of God. However, there are other Biblical commentators who counter that argument and instead posit that it seems illogical that a nation who witnessed the miraculous Exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea should immediately after receiving the Ten Commandments make a Golden Calf and proclaim it to be their God. Surely they were a nation of greater faith than is accredited to them.

In this vein, Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra, in his work the “Ibn Ezra,” offers a fascinating insight to the biblical text which also sheds light on the ideal of how a Jew should view his inner potential and his ability to connect to God. The Ibn Ezra is of the opinion that the Jewish people had no intention of making an idol in order to proclaim it as their God. Rather, since Moses delayed in descending from the mountain the people thought that he had died, and they were therefore asking to make an idol to lead them in his place. The Golden Calf would act as their conduit and representative through which they could achieve closeness to God. And though this entire episode would seem to stem from a place of good intentions, the people still violated the precepts “You shall have no other gods besides Me.” (Exodus 20:3) and “Do not make gods out of metal, for yourselves.”(Leviticus 19:4) From this explanation we see that the Golden Calf was not borne of a desire to serve a different God, but out of an insecurity in their ability to serve Him directly.

Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, one of the preeminent Jewish thinkers of the 20th Century, offers an insightful explanation as to the deeper reason why the Jewish people felt compelled to construct a Golden Calf in the place of Moses. Writes Rav Soloveitchik, “They felt that they themselves did not have access to the Almighty. Only somebody of great charisma and ability could have access to him. The people sinned because they were perplexed. Moses has been gone for a long time… They did not understand that, while Moses was the greatest of all prophets and the greatest of all men, every Jew has access to God… Sometimes it is a sense of one’s greatness that causes sin; sometimes it is a sense of one’s smallness.” (Vision and Leadership pg 131). The Jewish people did not want to usurp the rule of God by creating an idol, in fact, it was exactly the opposite; it was in their desire to come close to God that they created the Golden Calf. But along the way, the people misunderstood the role which Moses served in their relationship with God, and they mistakenly thought that only he could approach God on their behalf – in their mind, they could not do it alone.

But nothing could be further from the truth. At the end of Deuteronomy, The Torah relates to us the proper approach that a Jew should have when viewing his ability to draw close to God. The verses write, “For this commandment that I command you today, it is not hidden from you… it is not in Heaven… nor is it over the sea… for it is very near to you, in your mouth and your heart to do it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). The chapters continue, “The Torah that Moses commanded us is a legacy for the congregation of Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 33:4) The acquisition of knowledge is not for the privileged few but rather it is the inheritance and belongs to the entire Jewish People. Maimonides, in his Laws of Torah Study, writes that the first thing a father should teach their child is the above verse from Deuteronomy. In this way, a father instills from the very beginning the idea that every Jew, no matter their stature in society, has the same ability to draw close to the Divine. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, puts it eloquently, “Every Jew is an equal citizen of the republic of faith because every Jew has access to its constitutional document, the Torah…”(Radical Then, Radical Now; pg.129) From the king to the common man, throughout the generations every Jew has the capability to cultivate a deeper relationship with God.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator, and is the author of the Two Volume book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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