Dancing Around the Golden Calf
Change is only possible if we truly regret what we did.
One of the most traumatic events in our formative history was the breaking of the tablets by Moses. Having received the tablets from God, Moses descended the mountain in order to give them to the Jewish People. However, when he reached the camp, he saw that the Jews had made the Golden Calf, and judged that they were not worthy to receive the tablets, whereupon he threw them down and smashed them into fragments.
Yet the story is not so simple. While he was still on the mountain, Moses was told by God Himself that the Jewish People had made the calf. He nevertheless took the tablets and began his descent. He was, therefore, apparently of the opinion that the making of the calf was not a critical impediment to the Jewish People receiving them. In that case, why did Moses break the tablets only upon seeing the Golden Calf? If he felt that the people were not deserving of them, he should have left the them on the mountain!
The Seforno, one of the major commentaries on the Torah, explains that Moses was indeed initially informed by God that the people had made the Golden Calf. The verse reads:
“They have strayed quickly from the path that I have commanded them; they have made for themselves a molten calf” Exodus 32:8.
Moses was thus already aware that the people have sinned. However, he reasoned that, as grievous as their sin may be, they could recover from it by him bringing down the tablets. Perhaps their sin was born of a moment of confusion or lack of direction over Moses not being among them. As soon as they would see the tablets, they would snap out of it and be reminded of the correct path for them to be taking. This is why Moshe took the tablets with him. (See Ex 32:15,19)
However, if this is the case, why then did he break them?
When Moses approached the camp he saw the calf, which he had been told about, but he also saw something else that he had not been aware of. The verse reads:
“It happened as he drew near the camp, he saw the calf and the dances, and Moses became angry, he threw the tablets down from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain” (Ex 32:19).
Moses had been told that the people had made a calf. He did not know, however, that having made the calf, they then proceeded to dance around it. This represents a completely different level of identification with their sin. They did not relate to it as a mistake at all. They were happy with it!
At this point, Moses realized that merely seeing the tablets would not have any effect on the people. They were too far invested in their path of sin; with all the dancing they may not even have noticed Moshe or the tablets! The only course of action that could bring them back was to smash the tablets in front of them. The people would then be confronted with a drastic expression of how far they had strayed and what they potentially stood to lose.
This is why Moses broke the tablets.
Throughout the year, we make mistakes, some big, some small; hopefully none as big as the Golden Calf. When the time comes to consider how to correct them, an important question will be: are we dancing around them?
We do not like to go too long feeling that we are doing something wrong. Often, the ego-driven follow-up to a mistake is to justify it, and then idealize it. By the time we are finished, we have produced an elaborate and compelling thesis as to why this act is in fact highly moral; indeed, it is a shining example for all seekers of truth! We have begun to dance around our mistakes, regarding them as mitzvot. Doing teshuvah, repentance, for transgressions is hard enough; doing teshuvah for transgressions that have been glorified to become mitzvot is practically impossible.
An important first step in the teshuvah process is to stop dancing around the mistakes – to recognize them for what they are, and, more importantly, to know that we are capable of recovering from them.
Excerpted from Teshuva: A Guide for the Mind and Heart During Elul, Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur, a new book that explores the depth of wisdom underpinning the High Holy Days.