What was the sin of the golden calf?

Among the various explanations of the sin of the Golden Calf, Nachmanides’ explanation appears to be the closest to the plain meaning of the text.

In essence, Nachmanides explains that the calf was not meant to replace G‑d, but rather to replace Moses. This explanation appears to derive from a simple reading of the verse, “Up, make us a g-d who will go before us; for that man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.”1 This is also the simplest explanation of why, when Moses descends from the mountain, takes the calf, and crushes it in front of the entire people, everyone remains silent. If the people had truly felt that their g-d was taken from them, they would surely have protested! Clearly, then, the whole point of the calf was to replace Moses. Now that Moses had returned, they no longer needed the calf.

On a deeper level, the People of Israel made the calf because they wanted a physical dwelling place for the Divine Presence, some relatable, tangible object on which holiness could rest. In lieu of a Tabernacle, an Ark, and cherubim, they took a calf and designated it the dwelling place for G‑d’s glory. In this respect, the basic idea of the calf was not without merit; it was simply an inappropriate application of a legitimate desire.

Our need for tangibility is innate, as it is very difficult to focus on G‑d in the abstract. To be devoted exclusively to G‑d on the most abstract level is very difficult, and not everyone is capable of this task; it may not even be possible for anyone to do completely. This is because life is full of questions. There are big questions – whom do we serve; in whom do we believe? – and small questions – how should we live; how will we die? And how do we, as individuals or as a community, handle all sorts of potentially fateful decisions? To be sure, the rule in all these matters is to “follow none but G‑d.”2 But today, when we are not on the level of, “You will hear a command from behind you, saying: ‘This is the way; follow it, whether you turn to the right or to the left,’”3 this becomes problematic.

If G‑d would tell each and every one of us specifically what is expected of him, everything would be simple. But we do not hear this voice, neither from behind us nor in front of us. All that we receive is very general instruction; as a result, people are always searching for something to hold on to.

It is said that “the Shechina speaks out of Moses’ throat.”4 This is because Moses himself is like the Ark and the Tablets. We receive the Torah not from the tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were written, but from Moses’ throat. Moses is the channel through which G‑d reveals Himself to us in this world. In light of this, when Moses did not come down from the mountain, the People of Israel feared that Aaron, not being on Moses’ level, would not be able to replace him in this role. Because of this, they proceeded to make the calf.

Indeed, when Moses reproached Aaron, saying, “What did the people do to you, that you brought upon them such a great sin?,”5 Aaron answers him, “You know that this people have bad tendencies;”6 that is to say, they pressured me, threatened me, and then “I cast it into the fire and out came this calf.”7 He does not deny having made the calf; he just claims that he had intended something else.

According to this approach, the sin is clear. It is not as grievous as we might have thought – that the people who had just heard “I am G‑d your Lord”8 then proceeded to make an idol. Rather, they began with a legitimate desire for tangibility that grew and developed until it finally became idolatry. If that is the case, however, why is the sin of the Golden Calf mentioned so often and considered so serious?

To answer this question, we must look at the origins of the calf. The whole episode began with the people’s request to celebrate “a festival unto G‑d tomorrow.”9 On the occasion of this festival, a symbolic religious object is made. This is how the calf came into being. But the calf does not remain symbolic; it gradually deteriorates, until it becomes actual idolatry.

Often, spiritual descent does not happen all at once, but in stages, as in the case of the copper serpent, about which the Mishnah asks, “Does a serpent kill or does a serpent keep alive?.”10 The Mishnah answers that the serpent did neither; instead, it reminded the people to look to G‑d for solutions to their problems. But was a serpent truly necessary for this? Let them turn their thoughts above without a serpent! Apparently, it is difficult to turn our thoughts heavenward without any prompting. We need a focal point to help us relate to G‑d, and that is why in the first stage of approaching G‑d we look for something tangible.

This is true of concentration on any subject. When we try to think about something, the more general the thought, the less we are able to focus, to the point that our thoughts become meaningless. Thought must be anchored in something tangible. Hence, when a person is told to think about something, even about something holy, it is always simpler to focus on and deal with something specific.

Pattern of deterioration

The problem does not stem from a lack of concentration; it is simply part of human nature. Since it is so difficult to turn our thoughts heaven­ward for more than a moment, we need some kind of focus, a point that we can grasp. However, once this focus is achieved, it is very easy for it to deteriorate. Instead of using this tangible point simply as a means of looking heavenward, one is liable to begin ascribing religious significance to the thing itself. We tend, increasingly, to forget the goal and remember only the means. Wherever we employ a means to an end in religious life, we must be extremely cautious, or the means itself may become an object of worship.

Maimonides maintains that this is precisely how idolatry first developed. In his view, the starting point is always belief in G‑d’s unity, but at a certain stage we begin to relate to the intermediaries more than to G‑d Himself, until finally the center point is completely forgotten and we focus exclusively on the intermediaries.11

From the chain of events that led to the sin of the Golden Calf, we learn of another characteristic of idolatry. Aaron declares, “There will be a festival unto G‑d tomorrow,”12 and the people respond to this important announcement enthusiastically: “They got up early the next morning.”13 The next stage involves bringing burnt offerings. This kind of offering is burned in its entirety; those who bring them do not partake of them. Afterward, however, they bring peace offerings, some of which are burned but some of which are eaten by those who bring them. After bringing peace offerings, “the people sat down to eat.”14 Then they began to drink and so forth, until “they got up to revel.”15 This is a clear sequence of events: It begins with “a festival unto G‑d,” which already contains a certain element of personal dissolution, and at each successive stage things become more and more relaxed, until the whole framework deteriorates.

This is the essence of idolatry – taking a heavenly form and corrupting it, bringing it down to the physical realm. But idolatry takes this notion one step further. Not only is a divine construct brought low, the converse occurs as well: An earthly entity is elevated to a lofty position. Man himself, in various ways, becomes an exalted figure, an object of worship. When our sages say that “when someone becomes angry, it is as though he worships idols,”16 or that “anyone in whom there is haughtiness is as one who worships idols,”17 they are making this same point – that a person can deify himself. A person deifies himself when he rejects bounds and limits and begins to consider himself, to a certain degree, the king of the world.

In the sin of the Golden Calf, “they got up to revel” as a result of the convergence of both factors: lowering the exalted and exalting the low. We are constantly beset with base drives, whether it is the drive to engage in forbidden sexual relations or the drive to commit acts of violence, and we can usually keep these desires in check. But the moment one invests a base drive with lofty meaning, it becomes, in one’s own mind, not only permissible but a mitzvah. Even if ordinarily, one would be embarrassed to commit a certain act, once it is wrapped in a lofty mantle, that same act becomes exalted. When the two factors converge, the idolatry appears in its full force, to the point of “they got up to revel.”

This calf was not Aaron’s calf; it was a calf produced by the people, by the lowest individuals of Israel, and elevated to a position of holiness.

From a high peak to a deep pit

Even after this explanation, a major question regarding the sin of the Golden Calf still remains. How could it be that the holy People of Israel, who just now received the Torah on Mount Sinai, and who, forty days earlier, heard the voice of G‑d speaking directly to them, fall so far as to make the calf, dance around it, and “get up to revel”?!

To a certain degree, there is a causal connection between the receiving of the Torah and the sin of the Golden Calf. To explain this connection, let us examine the condition known as “baby blues,” a mild form of depression that many women experience following childbirth. In most cases, this sense of depression passes after a short while without becoming serious. In other cases, it becomes more serious and develops into full-blown postpartum depression, and there are even rare cases where the woman does not recover from it.

What is the cause of this phenomenon? At the moment of birth, the mother’s whole body is mobilized for a tremendous effort. Massive releases of adrenaline and other hormones advance the labor vigorously to enable the birth of the child. All of the body’s systems speed up dramatically, so the birth is, in every respect, an incredibly intense experience. Shortly after the birth, all of this intensity subsides, and suddenly all that remains is a void. The disparity between the preceding emotional high and the new reality in which all of this has dissipated creates a subjective sense of having fallen from a high peak to a deep pit. Before, there was heightened tension; now, all of this has vanished.

This phenomenon can be explained in more spiritual terminology as well. The Talmud says that the key to the mother’s womb remains in G‑d’s hand alone,18 and according to our early sages, this is what creates the tumah of childbirth. The fall from the high of childbirth, where G‑d Himself is present, to the low of the emptiness that follows it creates the tumah.

The People of Israel experience the revelation at Sinai, and for a moment they ascend to a level so high that they hear G‑d speaking. Without any preparations an entire nation ascends to this level, and immediately afterward everything disappears; even Moses is gone. So what remains? At first glance, it would appear that the situation has reverted to the pre-Sinai reality. However, the depression that followed the exaltation of the giving of the Torah was so deep that a serious crisis developed. In light of this, it is not at all surprising that the giving of the Torah was followed by the sin of the Golden Calf. For Moses, the Ten Commandments were followed by forty days and forty nights of Torah. For the People of Israel, the Ten Commandments were followed by a vacuum. When this vacuum was not filled with spiritual content, it became filled with tumah instead.

In this respect, the sin of the Golden Calf was a normal phenomenon; it was the natural reaction to the giving of the Torah. This is what often happens when someone attains spiritual exaltation that is not built progressively, stage by stage, and then experiences a sharp descent, where everything suddenly disappears. Baalei teshuvah often experience this very problem. These individuals attain a certain level of exaltation that can often feel like a burning flame. When this flame inevitably goes out, the void that remains can be devastating.

Do not tarry

High, uplifting points in one’s life can thus be very dangerous times, because they present the latent danger of a serious fall – to the point of making a calf or worse. The proper way to deal with this danger is not to tarry but to immediately begin a process that will enable one to maintain the spiritual high. We engage in this kind of process each week, in the Havdalah. During the Havdalah at the end of Shabbat, we not only drink wine, as we do in the Kiddush at the beginning of Shabbat, but we also inhale the fragrance of spices. We do this because “woe, the soul is lost”19 – the neshamah yeteirah (additional soul) of Shabbat departs from us. By inhaling the spices, we guard ourselves against the danger of a precipitous fall, to which we are vulnerable following the spiritual high of Shabbat.

The spiritual high of Yom Kippur is likewise often followed by a fall, not because we become worse than we were beforehand, but because the sense of the disparity between the holy day and the days that follow it leads to a feeling of lowliness and descent. For this reason, as soon as Yom Kippur ends, the custom is to immediately begin building the sukkah. Similarly, on Simchat Torah, after the reading of the entire Torah has been completed and the celebration is finished, we immediately begin reading the Torah anew. For this reason as well, we always try to attach the beginning of one mitzvah to the conclusion of another. By doing this, we allow ourselves to continuously serve as instruments for performing mitzvot, thus guarding ourselves against a great fall.

When a person experiences major changes in his life and does not have the capacity to absorb these changes, the effects of these changes can be ruinous. The story is told of a French millionaire who, when informed that almost his entire fortune had been lost and what remained was only 100,000 francs, had a heart attack and died. This millionaire had an heir, who was very poor his entire life, and when he heard that he had inherited 100,000 francs, he, too, had a heart attack and died. Neither of them had the capacity to absorb the news.

For this reason, it is precisely in times of ascent that one must always try to engage in activities that foster spiritual growth, even if it is for the sole purpose of avoiding the creation of an opening for the entry of tumah. As we read in Numbers Rabbah, we have not yet removed ourselves from the sin of the Golden Calf.20

The period between the giving of the Torah and Moses’ return lasted only forty days, but that was all that was needed to ignite the entire situation. But let us imagine that Moses had communicated the messages of Parshat Terumah and Parshat Tetzaveh not after descending Mount Sinai but beforehand. If he had done this, all the silver and gold that people gave to make the calf would have been channeled to holiness. The problem was that right after Sinai, the people were forced to return to a normal course of life, and this transition is what led to their fall.

Times of transition are times of real trial, times of true mortal danger, and there is only one remedy for this: to take action. The saying goes that Satan accuses a person when he makes a siyum, meaning that he denounces a person who completes a unit of Torah study without beginning something new. The denunciation is not for having completed a unit of study but for failing to channel the points of ascent into some new action.

Sins like shanim

This understanding of the sin of the Golden Calf allows us to judge our ancestors favorably, as we can argue that their sin was only a result of human nature. The Yerushalmi expounds upon the verse, “If your sins are like shanim,21 they will be as white as snow,”22 explaining that G‑d only grants atonement for certain kinds of sins: “If a person’s sins are in accordance with his years, they will become as white as snow.”23 When a young man commits adultery or an old man steals, G‑d grants atonement; but when the opposite is the case, He does not grant atonement. There are ages at which a person is prone to certain sins but not to others. When a person commits a sin that befits his age, there is an explanation for it. While the explanation obviously does not justify the sin, it does provide the possibility for atonement.

It can indeed be said that the sin of the Golden Calf was in the category of “sins like years”; it has a natural explanation according to the chain of events that we outlined above. And in fact we see that, after the sin, G‑d not only forgives Israel but also gives a new set of Tablets, instructs the People of Israel to build the Tabernacle, and eventually brings the nation into the Land of Israel.

Although the sin of the Golden Calf seems more serious than the sin of the spies, the People of Israel were forgiven for the former but not for the latter. The reason for this is that the sin of the spies is a different type of sin. When a person commits a sin that cannot be mitigated by appealing to human nature, there can be no atonement. By contrast, the sin of the Golden Calf can be explained: It is part of human nature and therefore can also be rectified.