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The Golden Calf

The Golden Calf



Moses had promised the children of Israel that he would return after forty days. The fortieth day had arrived and the people became anxious and nervous. During Moses' long absence, the Egyptian riff-raff that had accompanied the children of Israel since their exodus from Egypt spread the word around that Moses would never return and that they had better choose another leader to be the intermediary between them and G‑d. The children of Israel did not realize that Moses had meant that he would return after the completion of forty full days. Therefore, when the sixteenth of Tammuz, which was the fortieth day since the Revelation, arrived, and Moses had not returned, they stormed against Aaron and Hur, Miriam's son, who had temporarily taken over the leadership of the Jewish camp, demanding that they make an idol to take Moses' place.

In vain did Hur try to talk the excited group of ringleaders out of their plan. His persistent refusal to go ahead with it enraged them so much that they killed him. Now Aaron saw that there was little chance of stopping them. He would only share a similar fate, and the people would have committed the indelible crime of having murdered their own High Priest.

Aaron Plays for Time

Aaron knew that Moses would return the next morning. He therefore decided to play for time. He asked everyone to bring his own and his wife's gold and jewelry for the purpose of making the idol. Thus, he thought, he would delay the whole affair, since he expected that the people would refuse to part with their precious jewelry and ornaments. But contrary to his expectations, the mob willingly parted with their gold, though the women did refuse to be a party to it. Aaron had no other choice but to take the heap of golden rings, chains, and bracelets that had been piled up before him and throw it into the melting-pot. Applying their knowledge of magic, the Egyptian conspirators made the gold assume the form of a calf.

When the children of Israel saw it, they believed that it was to be their representative before G‑d, and they wanted to pay homage to it. But Aaron made another desperate effort to delay the idolatry. He told the people that on the next day he would build an altar, and proclaim a special day of worship.

Meanwhile, G‑d informed Moses of the downfall of the children of Israel, and of the severe punishment that awaited them. They would die, and a new people, descendants of Moses, would take their places, to carry the torch of the Divine Law among the nations of the world.

Moses was greatly distressed. In moving words, he prayed and implored G‑d to spare the Jewish people. Moses recalled G‑d's covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and for their sake begged G‑d's forgiveness. Finally, G‑d's mercy was aroused, and He promised to spare the people of Israel.

Moses Return

Assured of G‑d's forgiveness, Moses descended from Mount Sinai. Exactly forty days had passed since he had gone up, and in his hands he carried the Tables of Testimony, written by G‑d Himself. At the foot of the mountain his disciple Joshua awaited him, and together they approached the camp of Israel.

When they came within hearing distance of the camp, shouts of jubilation and joy reached their ears. Moses soon saw what was going on. In despair, he threw the Tables of Testimony to the ground, shattering them into small pieces. A people who could worship a golden calf so soon after they faced G‑d and heard His voice say, "Thou shalt not make thee a graven image," did not deserve this treasure, Moses thought. Then he took the golden idol, ground it to dust and spread the dust over the water, which he made the people drink. Thus he showed them the impotence of their idol, and the foolishness of their action.

Punishment of the Guilty

Taking up a position near the entrance of the camp, Moses said: "Whoever is with G‑d, come to me!" The entire tribe of Levi gathered about him, and Moses ordered them to slay every one guilty of worshipping the Golden Calf, regardless of his position and relationship to them. That day, the seventeenth day of Tammuz, three thousand men of the children of Israel lost their lives, in punishment for their idolatry.


The next day Moses again told the people that they had gravely sinned against G‑d, and that he would now go to pray for atonement. Moses went up to Mount Sinai, and prayed to G‑d for forty days and forty nights, while the people mourned their dead, and made atonement for their sin.

Second Tablets

After Moses had descended from: Mount Sinai, G‑d told him to hew another pair of tables, similar to the one he had received the first time. Moses was then to ascend Mount Sinai for the third time, when G‑d would inscribe upon them the Ten Commandments, as He had done before.

On the first day of Elul, Moses went up to Mount Sinai and stayed with G‑d for the third time, for forty days and forty nights, neither eating nor sleeping. G‑d inscribed the Ten Commandments on the tables and told Moses He forgave the children of Israel.

G-D Forgives the People

Holding the newly made tablets in his hands, Moses stood on Mount Sinai and

G‑d taught him how the children of Israel could make atonement for their sins through real repentance and prayer. G‑d proclaimed the "thirteen attributes" which the children of Israel were to recite on their days of repentance (Exodus 34:6-7): "L-rd, L-rd, benevolent G‑d, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin; yet He does not completely clear [of sin] He visits the iniquity of parents on children and children's children, to the third and fourth generations."

Moses bowed down before G‑d and said: "If I have now found favor in Your eyes, O Lord, let the Lord go now in our midst [even] if they are a stiff necked people, and You shall forgive our iniquity and our sin and thus secure us as Your possession"

In reply, G‑d told Moses: "Behold, I will form a covenant; in the presence of all your people, I will make distinctions such as have not been created upon all the earth and among all the nations, and all the people in whose midst you are shall see the work of the Lord how awe inspiring it is that which I will perform with you."

It was the tenth day of the month of TishreiYom Kippur — when Moses returned to the camp of Israel, with the new Tables of Testimony in his hands. Moses' face shone with a Divine light that frightened Aaron and the children of Israel. They drew back in awe when Moses approached them. On learning of this, Moses covered his face with a veil. Without delay, he proceeded to teach the children of Israel the entire contents of the Torah which G‑d had given him on Mount Sinai.

From Our People by Jacob Isaacs published and copyrighted by Kehot Publication Society 1946-1948
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Avraham Salt Lake City December 17, 2015

actual percentage With due respect 3000 out of 600,000 is 1/2 of 1 percent - not 5 percent. So it is much less. Reply

Hessel Meilech Cape Town RSA February 12, 2014

The Golden calf If 600,000men left Egypt only 3000 were punished. That is 5% of the total or out of 100 men only 5 died. Therefore the men who worshiped the calf was very very few.
The craftsmen that came out of Egypt were used to working with Gold and therefore copper was added to give the calf strength. It would have taken at least 2 days to rebuild the kiln to turn the gold into powder. The gold on water would have done no harm. In fact there are gold tablets that is used against rheumatism. Why was Aaron not punished? Reply

Baruch Shalom Davidson for via July 8, 2010

re: being in the presence of G-d This is definitely an important topic of discussion. I am sure it was difficult for Moses to leave this special environment. But as is evident throughout the Biblical narrative, Moses is constantly putting aside his own benefit for the sake of his people. In fact, in the very discussion while on the mountain where G-d inform Moses that the people sinned, Moses tells Gd that if the Jews are not forgiven, his own name, Moses, should be erased from the entire Torah, his life's work. For as a true leader, he puts his own comfort and growth - even true spiritual bliss - aside for the sake of his people.

This yin and yang exists in our lives as well. The Kabbalists call these two modes Ratzoh (run) and Shov (return).

Man is commanded to search for G‑d with all his soul, to desire to strip himself of all worldly wishes and gratification in an effort to "run" towards the Truth. But just before he completely rids himself of the burden of corporeality he is told to stop and "return." The purpose of the soul's descent into this world is to affect the material; not escape it. And then, once he is knee-deep in elevating the dirt of the farce we call materialism, he is told to "run" once again. Don't get too caught up in it, or you will be influenced instead of influencing.

This idea is expressed in the final passage of the fourth chapter of Avot (4:22): "Against your will you live; against your will you die." The soul searching to cleave to G‑d is instructed, "They shall not come in to see…lest they die"—against your will you live. And just as the Jew gets comfortable with his physical surroundings, he is torn away and told, "Seek My presence" (Psalms 27:8)—against your will you die, figuratively referring to the abandonment of the hubbub of Wall Street or Collins Ave. in an effort to discover the Divine.

Where does one find G-d's presence like that today? In absorbing his wisdom and will into our minds, as it is expressed in the Torah, and through cleaving to his ways, by observing the commandments with which the human being becomes the extended arm of G-d to perpetuate His will in this world. Reply

Rosaiah Madison, WI June 28, 2010

..being in the presence of G_d I just finished reading the entire article. I was really moved by the thought that Moses became immortal in the Divine presence of G_d because he had no need for food, and other carnal affections for 40 days and forty nights. Wow...I wonder if Moses ever wanted to leave the Divine presence and go back down the mountain? We know he went, but did he really want to leave? Where is G_d's Divine presence like that today for us, Rabbi? Reply

Chris Tomlinson Ashburn, VA April 19, 2010

Question about Atonement I came across this article and read the following statement:

"G-d taught him how the children of Israel could make atonement for their sins through real repentance and prayer. G-d proclaimed the "thirteen attributes" which the children of Israel were to recite on their days of repentance (Exodus 34:6-7)."

I am struggling to see how the proclamation of G-d's name here is instruction about how the people could make atonement for their sin. Could you help illuminate the source for this statement? Reply

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