Moses had told the Jews that he would be spending 40 full days on Mount Sinai, but the Jews mistakenly counted the first half-day as one of the 40. When Moses failed to appear on what they had calculated to be the 40th day, some of the Jews became convinced that Moses had died and that it was necessary to find a substitute for him. They knew that G‑d would later communicate with them through gold figurines in the Tabernacle (the cherubim). They imagined that if Aaron were to make a gold figurine, G‑d would consent to communicate with them through it. Although Aaron was opposed to this idea, he thought that by working slowly, he could calm the people down until Moses would arrive. When the Golden Calf was finished, some people worshipped it as an idol.
The Heights of Repentance
וַיַּעֲלוּ עֹלֹת וַיַּגִּשׁוּ שְׁלָמִים וגו': (שמות לב:ו)
They sacrificed [to the calf]. Exodus 32:6

How could the people who witnessed G‑d’s miracles and experienced His revelation at Mount Sinai commit such a blatant transgression so soon afterward? True, only a small percentage of the people worshipped the Calf, but even this is hard to imagine.

The sages of the Talmud therefore teach us that indeed, the Jews at that point were incapable of sinning. In order to enable the people to rise to the heights of spiritual achievement only attainable through repentance, G‑d “forced” the entire incident upon them.

In this light, we can all focus on our past misdeeds as opportunities through which we can scale spiritual heights that we could not rise to otherwise.1