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Jewish World Review
17 Tamuz (2448)
Sin of the Golden Calf: Understanding the how and why and resulting Divine punishment
Rabbi Yonason Goldson
I am the Lord, your G-d, Who has taken you out from the land of Egypt ... declares the First Commandment, enjoining us to use our powers of intellect and observation to recognize the hand of the Almighty in the plan of creation and the workings of nature. The Second Commandment decrees that, You shall have no other gods before Me, warning us that our relationship with the Almighty is personal and intimate, neither requiring nor allowing any intermediary. (Exodus 20:2-3)
In both Commandments, the Almighty addresses the Jewish people using the first person "I," or "Me." We find a difference, however, in the Third Commandment, which states that, You shall not take the Name of the L-rd, your G-d, in vain, abandoning the first person for the third person voice. (Ib. 20:7)
The Talmud describes how the first two times that G-d spoke to the Jewish nation, the spiritual intensity of the moment so overwhelmed the people that their souls flew from their physical bodies in an attempt to cleave to their Creator. The people literally died in one instant, only to be resurrected in the next, as the Almighty returned their souls to their bodies so that they might receive the next Commandment.
It happened once, then it happened again, and the people cried, "Enough!" The trauma of falling dead and returning instantaneously to life demanded more from them than they were willing to endure, and they protested that they could not go on. "Let Moses hear You speak," they pleaded to G-d, "and he will bring Your word down to us."
This request in itself was not sinful, but it became the seed from which transgression and disaster would soon sprout forth. For however traumatic or even painful their experience may have been, had they fully appreciated the exalted status G-d had conferred upon them by speaking to them "face to face," any discomfort associated with the process would have paled to insignificance. By seeking to distance themselves from G-d and requesting an intermediary, the people implicitly rejected the responsibility for which G-d had chosen them, forfeiting the priceless benefits their Creator had intended for them to have.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF INGRATITUDE
So Moses ascended the mountain alone to bring G-d's Torah down to the Jews. Through some miscommunication, the people understood that Moses was to return on the fortieth day, whereas he had meant that he would return after forty days. When Moses failed to come down from the mountain as expected, the Jews began to panic. Having discarded the direct relationship that G-d had offered them, they now felt lost without Moses as their intermediary.
Where would they find a replacement for Moses, and what would become of them without one?
At the height of their panic, a solution was proposed by members of the mixed multitude, the Egyptians who had joined the Jewish people as converts, not from purely spiritual motives but from a desire to attach themselves to the winning side. Since our intermediary, Moses, is gone, they argued, let us create another in his place. And, because they found themselves lacking the spiritual strength to connect with G-d on their own, they chose to fashion a representation of a young ox, the symbol of strength engraved upon the Almighty's holy throne.
Aaron, the brother of Moses, agreed to help them in an attempt to stall for time, hoping to forestall an even greater transgression until Moses could arrive and put a stop to the people's frenzy. But the people had worked themselves into such fervency that the project took on a life of its own. The next day, while Moses remained upon the mountain, 3000 of the mixed multitude began to worship the Calf.
If only 3000 actually worshipped the calf, why was the whole nation castigated and punished? Quite simply, because they didn't put a stop to it. In their hearts, the Jews sympathized with the worshipers of the Golden Calf. They too feared what would become of them without the leadership of Moses. And they too wanted desperately to entrust their fate to the hands of a new intermediary. Their knowledge of right and wrong withered before their fear and ultimately failed them. Consequently, because they knew the worship of the Calf was wrong, they shared in the sin for not preventing it from happening, even though they themselves did not take part in it.
And so, when Moses did return on the 17th day of the month of Tammuz, he realized immediately that he had only one way of impressing upon the Jews the gravity of what they had allowed to happen: he smashed the tablets of the Ten Commandments upon the ground, as if to tell the Jews that, in one impetuous moment, they had trampled upon the Torah, the word of G-d, the crown for which the Almighty had taken them out of slavery to set upon their heads, as if it were mere dust beneath their feet.
Even so, the sages teach that our response to sin is far more important in the eyes of G-d than whether or not we live free from sin. And so, in the moment of stunned silence that followed his smashing of the tablets, Moses cried out, "Whoever is for G-d, join with me!" (Ib. 32:26) Yet so profound was the people's sense of shame and guilt that they found themselves unable or unwilling to declare their loyalty to G-d, effectively refusing His invitation to repent. Only the tribe of Levi rallied to Moses and, upon his command, they put to death the 3000 who had worshipped the Golden Calf.
For this reason, G-d designated the tribe of Levi as the priestly tribe, to tend the tabernacle in the desert and minister in the Temple in Jerusalem. But for the rest of the people, the consequences of their complacency and their inaction would haunt them until their deaths. Indeed, the 17th of Tammuz would mark the first major rift between G-d and the Jewish people, the day when the nature of the relationship between G-d and His nation ceased to be primarily one where He reached down to them and become one where they must reach up toward Him.
The sin of the Golden Calf set the stage for the Jews' refusal to enter into the Land of Israel, for they lost confidence in their own merit. It became also a day associated with Jewish tragedy, from the cessation of the daily offering during the Babylonian siege of the First Temple to the breaching of the city walls during the Roman siege of the second. It remains a day of fasting, commemorating the suffering the Jewish people have brought upon themselves through their sins. But it contains a hopeful message as well, serving as a reminder of the redemptive power of sincere repentance.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School in St. Louis. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2006, Rabbi Yonason Goldson