Many who read the section of the Torah describing the creation of the Eigel HaZohov wonder how this episode could actually occur. After all, Hashem gave Bnai Yisrael so much by saving them and caring for them that it is hard to imagine that Bnai Yisrael could turn around and worship a golden calf, especially after they had just received the Torah. How, then, could this mistake ever have happened?
A closer examination of the text reveals, however, that the story of the Eigel HaZohov is not just a matter of wrong-doing on Bnai Yisrael's part. Granted, Bnai Yisrael made a terrible mistake in creating the golden calf , but their motives may not have been so radical. What caused this unfortunate act, according to Chazal, was actually a miscalculation on the part of Bnai Yisrael. Moshe had told the people that he would be on Har Sinai for forty days and forty nights, and after this allotted time he would return. However, when Moshe left in the middle of the day, Bnai Yisrael mistakenly counted that as a full day. As a result, they expected Moshe to return exactly thirty-nine days later. However, when he did not return on what was in their minds the fortieth day, they panicked. Their fears were uncontrollable. Influenced by their own Yeitzer HoRa and the "Eirev Rav," the mixed multitude of other people who had come out of Egypt with them, the people became convinced that Moshe had actually died. Consequently, they called for a new, visible leader in whom they could place their full trust. This led them to create the Eigel HaZohov which they would use as a liaison between themselves and Hashem.
Their aim, then, was not at all to find another god, but rather, without consulting Hashem, to choose another leader. They decided themselves what was good for them. However, they forgot that being the Chosen People meant that they must live by the will of Hashem, and only Hashem knows what is proper for the well-being of the Jews. Their error was one of method, not of motivation; although we can not justify their actions, we can perhaps understand how they could have done what they did.