No look of disappointment compares to that which appears on the faces of students when a teacher gets to a classroom 10 minutes late. All of the hope and anticipation built up in those moments after the bell rings about the real possibility of a free period are dashed in one swing of the door. But couldn’t students just wait a little longer? Couldn’t they wait and see what happens before getting their hopes up?
We find ourselves this time of year asking a similar question of the Jewish people and their sin with the Golden Calf. Couldn’t they have waited a little longer for Moshe? How could they have worshipped idolatry so quickly without having waited a little more time to see if Moshe was just running late? That terrible sin didn’t have to happen if they were a little more patient. Clearly, this is the issue that the Midrash is grappling with when it presents the story of the Satan confusing them. The quick turn to idolatry must have been caused by something more sinister, such as the Satan, and not just a little impatience.
If we look more closely, though, we will find that the sin of the Golden Calf is based on more severe issues.
Indeed, the very nature of the sin of the Golden Calf is a matter of discussion. When they first notice Moshe’s absence, the Jewish people turn to each other and decide to make an “Elohim that will go before them” (Shemot 32:1). Initially, this seems like idolatry. But they explain themselves that this “Elohim” is needed because the whereabouts of Moshe who took out us of Egypt are unknown (32:2). Apparently, the Jewish people aren’t replacing God; they are replacing Moshe. They still believe in God. What they sought to do was introduce a new intermediary. They didn’t violate the prohibition of “Do not have any other gods.” Instead, they violated its secondary manifestation, “do not make any graven image” (20:2-3).
The question becomes, then, why does Hashem want to destroy the Jewish people? If they aren’t replacing G-d, if they ostensibly still believe in Him, why does Hashem see no way to salvage them as a people?
If we look closely at the language of the episode we will find that there is more going on here than the making of graven images. After the Golden Calf is made, the Torah describes, the Jewish people settle into a party during which they engage in corrupt levity. The Rabbis understood this behavior to be a descent into complete moral corruption. In essence, once they are rid of Moshe, God’s representative of moral responsibility, the Jews are able to rapidly make such a descent. They replace Moshe with an inanimate object that made no expectations of them and whose material consisted of that which was materially desirable. The very constitution of the golden Calf represents their true ambitions. And this is why Hashem wants to get rid of them, because they abandoned all connection to the standards He was introducing to them. When God first alerts Moshe on the top of the mountain to what’s going on down below, the first thing He says is “Go down because your nation has become corrupt.” God doesn’t mention the Golden Calf first; He instead refers to the ultimate, underlying issue – their apostasy to moral corruption. When Moshe finally sees the scene at the bottom of the mountain the Torah emphasizes how he saw the calf and “the dancing” before casting down the tablets. He saw the making of the Golden Calf representing the corruption displayed by the dancing.
The story of the sin of the Golden Calf isn’t a story about a grand betrayal of God. It is a story of what happens when one simply disconnects from God or puts Him in a box. By replacing Moshe, the Jewish people were replacing moral responsibility for moral indifference. While many of us don’t feel like we are the verge of a total descent into moral corruption such as found in this episode, we should nevertheless be wary of the temptation to turn off that voice inside of us that may challenge us to avoid something we want to do but know we shouldn’t. On a micro level, we are faced often with situations in which it is tempting to “replace Moshe” with indifference, to avoid responsibility by not thinking about it at all. To make sure this doesn’t happen is to correct the sin of the Golden Calf. To make sure that our moral and religious sensibilities are always talking to us and always play a role in our decision making in all situations is to ensure that God isn’t put into a box.