There is much we can learn from the episode of the Golden Calf and the disastrous snowball of events that led to it.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
This week’s Torah portion is “Ki Tisa” (Exodus 30:11–34:35), and in it we read the infamous story of the Golden Calf: the greatest national sin committed by the Jewish People.
A mere three months after leaving Egypt, having witnessed the power of God before, during, and after the Exodus, and even after the Revelation at Sinai, the Jewish people blew it. Having thought that Moses had died due to his not having returned yet from the mountain, they created a Golden Calf and worshipped it.
The disaster and confusion lay in the following miscalculation: Moses told the people that he would be on the mountain for 40 days. He meant 40 full days! Since Moses ascended the mountain in the morning, that first day was not meant to be included in the count (a Jewish day starts at night). As such, the Jews miscalculated and expected Moses to return on the 16th of Tammuz. When midday had passed and Moses did not return, the people panicked, and the rest is history.
Although the Jewish people were guilty of the sin of the Golden Calf, many commentators place most of the blame on a group known as the “Erev Rav,” a term meaning “a mixed group.” This group is said to have been composed of Egyptians and other foreign nationals who joined the Jewish people before, during, and even after the Exodus. In simple terms: they became the troublemakers that got the Jewish people into trouble over and over again throughout the 40 years of wandering in the desert.
It is said that the Erev Rav were the ones who really got the ball rolling in the Golden Calf fiasco. They convinced the people that Moses was dead and that they needed a new leader. Indeed, according to some interpretations, the calf was intended to be a leader, not a God. According to this approach, it was a much lesser sin than generally believed.
This is how it unfolded: The people gathered around Aaron, Moses’ brother, and demanded that he help them with a new leader. Aaron told them to go bring him their wives’ gold jewelry. They did so, and the Golden Calf was born.
There are a number of interpretations as to exactly how the Golden Calf was formed. According to one approach, the gold was thrown into a fire and a golden calf magically emerged. According to another approach, Aaron formed it by molding the form of a calf from the molten gold, and another opinion is that sorcerers from the Erev Rav formed it by using magic. It was the Erev Rav who then called out the infamous words, “These are your gods, O Israel, who took you out of Egypt!” Aaron then built an altar and instructed the Jews to go home, saying that “tomorrow there will be a festival to God.”
The next day, the people rose early and made their way to the Golden Calf, where they offered sacrifices and started worshipping. The Torah tells us, “The Jewish people sat to feast and rose to play,” which the commentators say means that in addition to idolatry, they also committed acts of immorality and murder.
There is much discussion as to how Aaron could have involved himself in the construction of the Golden Calf. How could it be that the High Priest and holy man be led into one of the worst sins imaginable? Most commentators judge Aaron favorably, suggesting that he was only trying to stall the people. He knew that Moses would return as promised, so he just needed to “buy” 6-12 hours of time.
As such, his involvement was a continuous series of delay tactics. For example, he intentionally told the husbands to get jewelry from their wives for constructing the Golden Calf because he knew that women wouldn’t quickly give up their jewelry for an idol. Indeed, the woman were far more righteous than the men were and on the whole were against the idea in the first place. That was surely expected to buy some time.
Another reason given for Aaron’s involvement with the calf was that he feared for his life. Before the Jews went to Aaron demanding that he build them an idol, they first went to Chur, Aaron’s nephew. Chur refused to help them, so they murdered him. Aaron was certain that they would kill him too if he didn’t comply. Furthermore, he wanted to save the people from the “double sin” of killing both a prophet (Chur) and a priest (Aaron) in a single day.
Moses, upon his return, ground the Golden Calf into a powder, mixed it with water, and gave it to the sinners to drink. It killed them. He then commanded the Levites, who did not participate in the Golden Calf, to seek out any remaining sinners and kill them. Finally, God brought a plague into the camp, killing thousands more.
There is much we can learn from this episode and the disastrous snowball of events that led to it. One thing we learn is to have faith in God. God is faithful. God always fulfills His promises. He told us that Moses would be back, and so it was. Unfortunately, the people miscalculated the timing, and their lack of faith led to the disaster. We have to remember to keep the faith and not to stray when something doesn’t go the way we expected it to go.
An even more important message we learn from the Golden Calf is to keep away from the “Erev Rav”..In contemporary terms, that means to keep away from troublemakers! Keep away from bad influences! There is nothing more toxic than negative influences. You can bet your gold on that!
For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.
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