In this week’s parsha, Parshat Ki Tisa, the Jewish people do the unthinkable…they worship the Golden Calf. What could possibly compel a people who experienced the Exodus from Egypt firsthand to worship an idol? What force could possibly persuade the very nation who walked through the Sea on dry land to place their trust in the work of human hands? To help explain the unconscionable actions of the Jewish people, we must understand their fragile emotional state. According to the Talmud, while waiting at the foot of Mount Sinai for forty days, the Satan came and convinced the people that the reason why Moshe had not yet come down was because he had died (B. Talmud, Shabbat 89a). As a result of grappling with the loss of Moshe, the people turned to his brother, Aharon, and said, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moshe, who brought us up from the land of Egypt –we do not know what has happened to him” (Shemot 32:1). What are the Jewish people really asking for? Are they asking for a new “God,” or are they asking for something else? While the Sforno and others suggest that indeed, the Jewish people were looking for a new Divinity, the Ramban maintains, “They were seeking another Moshe. They said, ‘Moshe, who showed us the way from Egypt until here…is now lost to us! Let us make for ourselves another Moshe, who will show us the way according to the word of God.’ This is the explanation for mentioning [that they were lacking] ‘the man’ who brought us up and not ‘the god’ who brought us up, for what they felt they needed was a ‘man of God’” (Commentary of Shemot 32:1). Thus, the people felt driven to create the Golden Calf, not because they wanted a new God, or because they lacked faith in God, but because they wanted a new Moshe, a new leader to guide them.
However, we must ask the question, “If the Jewish people desired a replacement for Moshe, why didn’t they ask Aharon to guide them? Why build an idol?” The Abravanel answers this question by saying, “They were afraid that [Aharon] would die like his brother. Therefore, they did not desire a person, born of woman, short in years and unpredictable. Rather [the people thought] a molten icon endures and remains, it will not withhold itself [from them] like a person who climbs mountains and travels from here to there like Moshe did, and [as a result] no one would know what could happen to him.” According to the Abravanel and the Ramban, the people never lost faith in God – they lost faith in humanity. Because they felt that Moshe, a man of flesh and blood had abandoned them, they wanted to make sure that their next leader would never perish, they wanted a permanent object to hold onto. But what’s more, they wanted something they could control. The whole reason behind the building of the Golden Calf had less to do with the people’s desire to betray God, and more to do with their feelings of being betrayed by a man.
Now, in the end, the Jewish people’s actions were completely wrong and misguided, but now we can more deeply appreciate and understand their plight: people crave stability, and when that sense of stability is shaken, people will always look for it elsewhere, even to the limits of self-destruction, in order to find it. The sin of the Golden Calf is a sin from which the Jewish People have never fully recovered. Almost every national catastrophe that befell the Jewish people in ancient times has some element of this sin embedded within it. Nevertheless, now we can better comprehend the otherwise incomprehensible actions of our ancestors. The need to feel in control, to feel stable and secure can be overwhelming, and when we feel like our sense of stability is threatened, we search for it, sometimes in desperate, unhelpful ways.
This Shabbat, as we reflect on the sin of the Golden Calf, let us also reflect on the motivations that compelled our ancestors towards feeling like they needed it in the first place. This Shabbat, let us consider that feeling that we are cared for and looked after is a very powerful emotion, and sometimes, when we feel that security leave us, our better judgment may leave us as well. So, let us learn an important lesson from our ancestors, that even though we may feel abandoned, bereft of hope in the moment, our greatest hope resides in the belief in God, and in the ultimate good in humanity to care for one another, to be there for one another, to always seek the best for our fellow and try our hardest to ensure safety and happiness for all.