No look of disappointment compares to that which appears on the faces of students when a teacher arrives to a classroom ten minutes late. All of the hope and anticipation built up in those moments after the bell rings about the 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 can ask a similar question by the Jewish people and their sin with the Eigel HaZahav. How could Bnei Yisrael have worshipped idolatry so quickly without having waited a little more to see if Moshe was just running late? The quick turn to idolatry must have been caused by something more sinister—it couldn’t possibly have merely been impatience.
If we look more closely we will find that the sin of the Eigel reveals that more severe issues are at play.
Indeed, the very nature of the sin 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 Asher Yeilechu Lefaneinu,” “Elohim that will go before them” (Shemot 32:1). Initially, this seems like idolatry. But they rationalize this behavior by saying that that this “Elohim” is needed because the whereabouts of Moshe who took them out of Egypt are unknown (32:2). Apparently, the Jewish people aren’t replacing God; they are replacing Moshe Rabbeinu. They still believe in God. What they sought to do was introduce an intermediary. They didn’t violate the prohibition of “Lo Yihiyeh Lecha Elohim Acheirim,” “Do not have any other gods.” Instead, they violated its secondary manifestation, “Lo Ta’aseh Lecha Pesel,” “Do not make any graven image” (20:2-3).
Why, then, does Hashem believe that the Jewish people deserve to be destroyed for this sin? If they are not replacing God, why does Hashem see no way to salvage them as a people?
If we carefully examine the episode, we discover that there exists an even greater issue than creating graven images. After the Eigel is made, the Jewish people commence a party during which they engage in corrupt levity. The Rabbis understood this behavior to be a descent into utter moral corruption. In essence, once they are rid of Moshe, God’s representative of moral responsibility, the Jews rapidly descend into decadence. They replace Moshe with an inanimate object that made no expectations of them and whose material consisted of that which was solely materially desirable. The very constitution of the Golden Calf represents their true ambitions. Hashem wants to eliminate them, because they abandoned all connection to the standards He introduced to them. When God first alerts Moshe of the proceedings going on in the camps, 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. The Torah emphasizes how Moshe only casts down the tablets after he sees the calf and “the dancing” at the bottom of the mountain. He saw the making of the Golden Calf representing the corruption displayed by the dancing.
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 the moral corruption 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 often faced with situations in which it is tempting to “replace Moshe” with indifference, and to avoid religious responsibility by not thinking about it at all. To make sure this does not happen is to correct the sin of the Golden Calf. To make sure that our moral and religious sensibilities always play a role in our decision making in all situations is to ensure that God is not put into a box.