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Golden Calf

Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

An in-depth exploration of this baffling episode.

"Moses saw the people, that they were exposed, for Aaron had exposed them to disgrace among those who rise up against them." (Exodus 32:25)

The story of the Golden Calf still reverberates to Israel's shame after a lapse of nearly 4000 years. Israel's detractors inevitably point to it. Quite apart from the disgrace, the story of this sin is surely one of the most perplexing incidents related in the Torah. A mere 40 days before they served the Golden Calf, the Jewish people stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard the command: "You shall have no other gods before Me" from God Himself. Even wishy-washy people such as we have more powerful short-term memories than that!

The fact hat they disobeyed the commandment is not the most incomprehensible aspect of their behavior. The truly perplexing question is this: How is it possible that people who experienced the miracles of the Exodus, who spoke to God personally at Mount Sinai, who were subsisting on manna, and living under God's cloud even as they built the Golden Calf – how was it possible for such people to believe that the idol they built had any power?

We shall attempt to plumb the mystery in this essay; we shall retell the story the way that Nachmanides and the other medieval Torah commentators present it. With their assistance, we shall attempt to place ourselves on the scene and see if we can empathize with the thoughts and feelings of the Jewish people of 4000 years ago. We hope to demonstrate that all of us would probably have done exactly what they did had we been there with them.


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"The people saw that Moses had delayed in descending the mountain, and the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, 'Rise up, make for us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt - we do not know what became of him!'" (Exodus 32:1)

Rashi explains that the sin of the Golden Calf originated in a misunderstanding. Moses ascended Mount Sinai on the 7th day of the Jewish month of Sivan with the stated intention of being gone for forty days and returning on the morning of the forty-first day. The people interpreted this statement to include the day of the ascent in the count of the forty days, and therefore expected Moses to return on the morning of the 16th of Tamuz. Moses actually meant that he would be away a full forty days and nights. The day of his ascent could not be counted as part of the forty days since he left in the morning (in the Jewish calendar the day starts in the evening and part of the day had already passed by the time of his departure), and the day of his projected return was the 17th of Tamuz, the day on which he duly arrived, right on schedule.

We must approach the misunderstanding that occurred here in Jewish cultural terms to appreciate it fully; the misunderstanding concerned the proper way to interpret spoken words. The interpretation of scriptural words is a rabbinic function par excellence. There is no doubt that the greatest rabbinic authorities of the desert generation, including Aaron himself, were consulted. Many people are aware that rabbinic decisions always reflect the majority consensus. This means that according to the best rabbinic authority available at the time, the correct interpretation of Moses' words was that he would be back on the 16th. Torah tradition teaches that the best rabbinic authority is the true Torah position. The conclusion: the Jewish people were fully justified to conclude that Moses was late.

The next issue: if he was late what could account for the delay? After all, Moses was not on an ordinary journey. He went to heaven to visit with God. His tardiness could not be attributed to delayed buses or trains, airplane crashes or similar calamities that generally account for tardiness. If he did not return on schedule as he had foretold, he was obviously not returning at all.

The inevitable, inescapable conclusion arrived at by the Jewish people: they were stuck in the desert, with no one to lead them to their destination and no one to act as a go-between with God.

If we found ourselves stuck in such a situation, we would be helpless to help ourselves out of it. We would be forced to sit still and await developments, which might be an unpleasant state to be in, but conflict-free. Unlike us, the Jewish people of the desert generation possessed the spiritual technology to manufacture a go-between with God. Their very superiority to us placed them in the grip of a dilemma we would never have to face.


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A very widespread Jewish maxim states: "one should not rely on miracles" (Talmud, Shabbat 32a) – we know it in our vernacular as 'God helps those who help themselves'.

As God gave the Jews the spiritual technology to replace Moses He would arguably expect them to use it. If you know how to manufacture your own miracles there is no obvious reason why miracles should not fit under the umbrella of the prohibition to wait for God's miracles. God would surely have contacted them if He had not already given them the skill to contact Him. Under the circumstances, the temptation to help themselves out of their dilemma by employing the spiritual technology in their possession must have been enormous.

What about the possible violation of the prohibition against idol worship that they heard on Mount Sinai? Well, what about it? Surely that prohibition was addressed to people who wanted to escape from God or worship Him in some perverted way, not to people who were using their spiritual skills to re-establish their contact with God!

Nachmanides points out that the Jewish people never said of the Golden Calf, "Look Israel this is your God who created the heavens and the earth!" They did not even say "This is the God that brought you out of Egypt and sent you all those miracles!" Instead they said, "This is the manifestation of the Divine Spirit that rested on Moses and guided you through the desert since leaving Egypt."

To actually carry on conversations with God, the Jewish people realized that they must wait for God to contact them first; it is beyond human capacity to manufacture something that can replace Moses entirely; but the Golden Calf can replace Moses the Guide and continue to show them the correct path through the desert.

The prohibition against idol worship in the Ten Commandments literally states, "You shall have no other gods in My Presence." How can such a prohibition apply to people who are desperately seeking to place themselves once more in God's Presence, who missed this Presence so desperately that they could not tolerate being bereft of contact with it even for a single day!?

The preceding is a fairly accurate presentation of the commentators' explanation of the sin of the Golden Calf. But if this is an accurate picture of what happened why is the Golden Calf considered such a great sin? "...and on the day that I make My account, I shall bring their sin to account against them." (Exodus 32:34) Mercifully, God consented not to punish the entire nation at that time, but He declared that whenever they would sin in the future, they would suffer some of the punishment that they should have received in retribution for the sin of the Golden Calf. (Rashi)


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It is apparent that despite all the good intentions, the sin of the Golden Calf is still characterized as the sin of idolatry, the greatest sin in the Torah, a violation of the second of the Ten Commandments. Good intentions clearly do not have the power to transform the quality of an action. When the Torah defines an act as a transgression, the pureness of the motivation of the violator cannot render it permissible. You are judged by your deeds, not by the quality of your motivations.

Let us clarify the point with the aid of the following reference from the Talmud:

A sin performed with purity of motive has more merit than a mitzvah that is done with an ulterior motive, as it is written: "Yael, the wife of Chever Hakeni is more blessed than the women of the tent." (Judges 8) Who are the women of the tent? Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. (Talmud, Nazir 23b)

The Talmud explains that this passage compares the commission of sins out of pure motives to the performance of good deeds with selfish motives. Yael committed the sin of adultery with the purest of motivations. She had adulterous relations with Sisra, a Canaanite general, in order to wear him out and put him to sleep. She then assassinated him in his sleep thereby ending the war and saving many Jewish lives.

The passage declares that the commission of Yael's sin is more praiseworthy than actions of the Matriarchs who are offered as the example of people who perform Mitzvoth with ulterior motives. The Matriarchs gave their maidservants to their husbands when they were barren - an apparently unselfish action. For the sake of bringing Jewish children into the world they voluntarily elected to share their husbands with other women - but they had an ulterior motive - they were hoping that in the merit of their act of self sacrifice they would be allowed to bear children of their own.


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Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (Nefesf Hachaim, Gate 1) explains that this rule regarding the power of good intentions to redefine actions that would ordinarily be sins as mitzvoth applied only before the Jews formally accepted the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Once the Torah became binding as law, every Jew is obligated to observe the commandments to the letter. No longer can pureness of heart elevate sins and turn them into mitzvoth.

If we regard the sin of the Golden Calf objectively, and strip away the motivation behind its commission, it is quite clear that it would have to be considered idolatry committed with full awareness. The enormity of the lesson we must learn from its commission is clear. All of us would instinctively adopt the response of the Jewish people of the desert generation under similar circumstances. It seems that we have learned very little in the interim. We are still inclined to evaluate our moral behavior in terms of our motivations instead of objective criteria.

The essence of Torah observance is contained in accepting the Torah's dictates as the objective standard of behavior. Observant Jews do not evaluate the moral correctness of their actions on the basis of the purity of their motivations. On the contrary; the purity of their motivations is judged by whether the Torah defines the action they are driven to implement as a mitzvah or a sin.


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But the story of Golden Calf has a powerful positive side as well:

R' Joshua ben Levi taught: "The Jews only made the Golden Calf to open the way for repentance. It is written, 'If only they would retain this feeling in their heart, to fear Me and observe all My commandments ... forever.'" (Deut. 5:26) (Talmud, Avoda Zara 4b)

The Maharal of Prague (in Tiferes Yisroel and Gvuros Hashem) gives us the key to penetrate to the depths of this passage:

One of the first requests that we make to God each day is to preserve and protect us from having to face tests. "...Do not bring us into the power of error, nor into the power of transgression and sin, nor into the power of challenge, nor into the power of scorn...." It is possible to fail tests, and we beseech God to preserve us from such failures. Why should God test us against our will when we feel that we are unprepared?

"And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham..." (Genesis 22:1)

Nachmanides explains; tests are relative. God only tests the righteous; when He gives them the test He knows they will pass. It is we people who feel tested; it is only by going through the character building experience offered by God's test that we can actualize the potentials in our characters that we ourselves are totally unaware of. God does not test people who have a serious chance of failing the test. Why would He? It is clearly not to their advantage.

The passage of Talmud that links the sin of the Golden Calf to opening the gate to repentance is a response to a question that begs to be asked. Why didn't God prevent the whole situation that led to the sin from ever arising? He knew the dangerous misinterpretation that the Jewish people had reached regarding the meaning of the forty days. He could easily have sent Moses down a day early, or He could have contacted Aaron or Miriam, both prophets, and informed them that Moses would only be returning the next day and thus eliminated the whole problem. Why did God allow a situation to develop that led to Israel committing such a tragic error?

The Talmud answers; this great error paved the route to a greater good, a brand new world: the World of Repentance.


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God passed before him and He proclaimed, "YHVH, YHVH, God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth; preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error..." (Exodus 34:6,7)

The Divine qualities listed in this passage are known as the "Thirteen Attributes of Mercy."

Rabbi Yochanan taught: "If it would not be expressly stated in the Torah, it would be sacrilegious for us to think it. God wrapped Himself in a prayer shawl like a cantor, and showed Moses how to pray. He told him, 'Whenever Israel sins, they should pray before me in this fashion and I will forgive them.'" (Talmud, Rosh Hashana, 17b)

This commitment to listen to prayers couched in terms of the principles of mercy amounts to a special covenant. A prayer that includes the recitation of the thirteen principles of mercy will never go unanswered. (Yalkut, Ki Tisa, 398)

But there is a serious conceptual problem behind the very notion of these principles of mercy. God has been practicing His attribute of Mercy since the moment of creation. The Torah states at the beginning of Genesis:

"These are the unfolding events of the heavens and the earth at creation - on the day that YHVH Elohim made earth and heaven." (Genesis 2:1)

The name YHVH refers to God's attribute of mercy; the name Elohim refers to His attribute of justice. Rashi (ibid.) informs us that whereas initially God had planned to create the world using only the attribute of justice, He realized that the world could not endure under such a regime and therefore He not only added the Attribute of Mercy to the creation mix, He even gave it precedence over the attribute of justice.

The attribute of mercy was applied to the affairs of the world from the very first, so what quality of mercy is being added by this new covenant that our Torah portion speaks of? What exactly are the "Thirteen Attributes of Mercy"?


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In his work Derech Hashem, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, a well known medieval Jewish thinker and Kabbalist explains that God had certain non-negotiable goals when He created the world. One of these goals was the establishment of a relationship with humanity that would be sufficiently intense to justify the maintenance of a visible Divine Presence in the physical world. Even if it required the intervention of His attribute of mercy to maintain this relationship with humanity, the world could continue as long as the relationship was possible.

But when God is compelled to withdraw His Presence from the physical world, one of the basic goals of creation is frustrated, and the world must therefore come to an end. This is the situation that requires the application of the thirteen Principles of Mercy. These principles are in the nature of emergency measures. Through their application the world and its purpose are redefined and life can continue past the crisis point on a lower level. At this point the measures of the regular Attribute of Mercy kick in once again and help to keep the world functioning at the newly defined lower level.


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When the Jews made the Golden Calf, in violation of the commandment, "You shall have no other gods in My Presence," the only way to continue to maintain the relationship with man was to withdraw this Presence. As the maintenance of the Presence was one of the goals of creation, the world had to be recreated on a lower level in order to continue. The Thirteen Principles of Faith had to be applied. This redefinition is described in the following passage;

'I shall not ascend among you, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I annihilate you on the way.' (Exodus 33:3)

The world can continue despite the Golden Calf but on a lesser level without direct contact with God's Presence. When God's Presence is removed, the violation of the commandment forbidding 'other gods in My Presence' assumes a lesser degree of severity.

But the Jewish people refused to accept existence on this lower level; despite the commission of the sin they wanted to continue living in what is called 'My Presence'. This can only be done if the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy - which were meant to be applied only to get us past emergencies - became an integral part of our everyday interaction with God.

God's intention to withdraw His Presence was not punishment oriented but the direct result of the application of the Principles of Mercy. If the intensity of relationship that allows God's Presence to be manifest is attempted with people who are not up to it spiritually, crisis points will crop up so frequently that the Thirteen Principles of Mercy, intended to be emergency measures must become a part of everyday life to keep the world on track.

To maintain God's Presence among them despite their sin the Jewish people had to persuade God to change his policy regarding the role of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. They had to be transformed from emergency measures to becoming a part of everyday life.


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How did the Jewish people persuade God to adopt this change in policy? They repented.

What does repentance mean?

The Hebrew word for "repentance" is teshuva, which also means to "return." Return to what?

Seven things were created before the world; the Torah, repentance, Gan Eden, Gehenom, the Heavenly Throne, the Holy Temple and the name of the Messiah. (Talmud, Pesachim, 54a)

Repentance rightfully belongs to a prior world, a brighter reality where the Divine Presence is less hidden. Someone who has access to this brighter world basks in the Divine Presence regardless of the quality of his deeds.

In Hebrew, a "world" is an olam, a word that literally means "concealment." There are many such worlds according to Jewish thought because there are many levels of concealment of the Divine Presence. The seven things that were created before our world have a common factor. In each of them the Presence of God is exposed to open view. Gan Eden, Gehenom, the Heavenly Throne....Our own level of reality is the level of free will and must contain a greater degree of concealment. Were we sensitive to the Divine Presence that permeates existence, we would be conscious of the fact that our existence is drawn from constant inputs of Divine Energy and we would lose our free will.

To make our existence possible a curtain of concealment had to be drawn between the world of 'repentance' and our own. In our world the attachment to God's Presence is not automatic; it depends on man's free will actions.

The bridge between these two worlds is the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. The Attributes are the curtain. They connect our world to the prior hidden world of repentance where restoration to the Divine Presence is a matter of course.


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A covenant is a two-sided agreement. Both sides have to surrender something precious to them to make it work. The Jewish people were willing to pay the ultimate price to obtain the covenant of the thirteen principles of mercy. They were willing to surrender life itself to retain their access to the Divine Presence. They said:

"If Your Presence does not go along, do not bring us forward from here." (Exodus 33:15)

Knowing the level of this sacrifice, knowing that there is nothing more precious to a human being than his very life, God was also willing to make a sacrifice. He consented to abandon His original plan and allow the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy that were placed behind the curtain that conceals the world of repentance to be exposed to plain view and thus move over to our side of the curtain and become a part of our everyday reality.

As long as the bridge exists as part of everyday life it is possible for God to maintain His presence in the physical world after all. Whenever the mercy of creation runs out we can draw on the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy by the terms of the covenant and keep the world going.

Yet everything still depends on one's deeds. The inclusion of these attributes in the everyday world is in return for man's willingness to surrender life itself to achieve the 'return' of repentance. To repent is to return, but one cannot return to the place where one started. The way back involves going higher, closer to the point of origin of all being, to the reality of the Divine Presence that lies concealed behind the curtain.

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