The sin of the golden calf described in Parashat Ki Tisa comes as a great surprise considering what all the Jewish people had just witnessed. How could a people who Hashem led out of captivity to the world’s most powerful nation, and who witnessed Him send His plagues against the Egyptians and then split the Yam Suf possibly participate in this egregious sin?
In his Sefer Sichot Mussar, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, the late Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir in Yerushalayim, states that to understand the answer to this question we must first understand a seemingly strange statement made by Chazal. Chazal tell us, "At the splitting of the Yam Suf, even a maidservant was able to perceive of the Divine what Yechezkel ben Buzi was unable to grasp (Mechilta Beshalach 3)." If a maidservant was capable of such clarity, why refer to her as a maidservant? Wouldn't "prophetess" be a more appropriate title? Rav Shmulevitz answers that a person may experience a clear perception or incredible awareness for a moment or have an experiential uplifting from a specific event in his/her life. Nonetheless, if a person doesn't commit to allowing that moment to change his/her thinking forever, then he will remain completely unchanged no matter how great the experience was at the time. Similarly, we often learn new things or realize how bad habits might hurt us, but it is still difficult to translate that information into concrete, substantive changes in our lives. A maidservant at Keriat Yam Suf may have experienced prophecy during those moments, but after the excitement subsided she remained but a maidservant.
When I was learning in Eretz Yisrael for the year, I went with my Yeshiva to Poland on a trip called Heritage. The purpose of the trip was to see and learn about the calamities which befell our people in Poland as well as to remember the great Torah that was cultivated in many communities and Yeshivot there. While singing and dancing with a group of about 100 boys in what had been the Gerrer Yeshiva, our Rabbis told stories about the great Jews who had lived and learned there before the Holocaust. Standing there feeling that we were connecting with our heritage was incredibly inspiring. Rav Moshe Taragin from Yeshivat Gush Etzion spoke to us as we stood in a circle moments before davening Maariv. I remember being surprised at what he chose to tell us at that very intense moment. He said that feeling connected to our people and Hashem at that moment was nice, but that in truth many of us would leave and remain unaffected by our trip. We would have an important memory to reminisce about, but the feelings would die. He told us that it was important to learn lessons and ideas from these moments in order that the experience and messages never get lost. Rav Taragin was expressing the same idea as Rav Shmulevitz. If we were to grow, it would be through ingraining within ourselves over and over again all of the lessons we had taken out of our inspiring trip.
Similarly, the Yalkut Shimoni (74) states that the statue of Michah crossed the sea with Israel, and yet the sea split. We all sometimes act contrary to what we know to be true. A Chassidic Rebbe once said that his job was to help Jews connect their heads to their hearts. Despite the awesome miracle of Keriat Yam Suf, the statue of Michah remained.
My father-in-law told me that when he was a student at the Albert Einstein Medical School there was a world-renowned oncologist who would smoke a cigarette while lecturing on the harmful effects of smoking! The sixth of the Mitzvot Temidiot (constant Mitzvot) is "VeLo Taturu Acharei Levavchem VeAcharei Eineichem," "Don't stray after your heart and your eyes" (Bemidbar 15:39). The Torah is telling us to allow our knowledge and beliefs to guide us as opposed to our impulses dictating right from wrong.
Now we can answer our original question. The Jewish people fell prey to their momentary feelings as opposed to internalizing the great miracles they had witnessed. The intellectual knowledge of the events did not translate into concrete changes which would have precluded such a sin.
We must all work at aligning our impulses with our thoughts so that making the right choices in life becomes closer to being completely natural. Through learning Torah and working on our Middot, we can connect our heads and hearts and live in harmony with our ideas and goals.