This week’s Parashah retells the story of Cheit HaEigel, the Jewish worship of the golden calf. In reference to its construction, the Torah states (Shemot 32:4) that Aharon “fashioned [the gold] into a molten calf.” How can this be? How can we believe that Aharon, the Kohein Gadol of the Jewish people, built a golden calf for the Jews to worship? Did Aharon not know that the punishment in the Torah for idol worship is death? At the same time, we see later in the Torah that the only sin for which Aharon is punished is when he helped Moshe in hitting the rock; the incident of the golden calf is not mentioned. What really happened when Aharon created the golden calf?
There are two ways to answer this question. The first is that the idol was made as a “replacement” for Hashem, but it wasn't Aharon who made it. As explained by the Or HaChayim, “Although Aharon did not fashion the calf in the literal sense, he is described as its maker since he was the one who threw the gold into the fire, the act that resulted in the creation of the golden calf.” In truth, it was the Eirev Rav, the Egyptian sorcerers who joined the Jews when they left Egypt, who took the gold and fashioned it into a golden calf.
Another answer is that Aharon did make the idol, but it was not as a replacement for Hashem; rather, a replacement for Moshe. This explains why, when Moshe came down from Har Sinai, the people did not protest when he destroyed the golden calf. Since it was a replacement for Moshe, once he returned, they didn’t need it anymore. Therefore, since the Jews’ sin did not involve idolatry, Aharon felt that he should appear to help them until Moshe would return the next day. He told them that he would build the calf tomorrow hoping that by that time, Moshe would return.
According to this second approach, two further questions need to be addressed. First, what led the Jews to think that Moshe would not return? Second, why did the Jews believe they needed a replacement for Moshe? The Ibn Ezra explains that the Jews did not see the Man fall on the top of Har Sinai, but only around the mountain. They knew that a human could not survive without food for 40 days and nights, and therefore assumed that Moshe had died. Feeling that they were left without an intermediary between themselves and Hashem, Bnei Yisrael thought that without Moshe they wouldn't be able to connect with Hashem.
This can be compared to the following story. A wealthy man had a servant who did everything for him. He washed his feet, combed his hair, fed him his food, etc. But one day, the servant died. The man was devastated. He thought to himself, “What am I going to do without a servant?” The man did not know how to live without a servant, because the servant had done everything for him. Although a normal person can live without a servant, this man was so used to having a servant do everything for him that he didn't know how to live without him. So too, the Jews had been so used to Moshe speaking to Hashem on their behalf that once Moshe wasn't there, they felt they needed some tangible presence to take his place. The Jews thought that they were not able to connect with Hashem by themselves. The golden calf was going to be their new “Moshe," who would represent them before Hashem. This is where the Jews failed. We must firmly believe that we can connect to Hashem on our own, without the help of an intermediary. Although we may feel incapable, we truly have the power to connect and don’t need to rely on others to make that connection. As opportunity awaits, it’s our job is to take advantage of it.