It was a tense moment. Moses had climbed mount Sinai and had promised to return in forty days. It was now the fortieth day and there was no sign of his return.

The people had been skeptical about his survival on the mountaintop with no food or water. But Moses had a reputation of G‑dliness and they knew him as a miracle worker: they watched him smite the Egyptians, part the Reed Sea, guide them through an uncharted desert, deliver manna from heaven and water from a stone. They saw him stand unflinching on the mountain as G‑d's awesome presence descended.

But now it was the fortieth day — the day of his promised return — and there was no sign of their leader. Obviously, he had perished on the mountain.1

The people turned to Aaron, knowing that he, too, was a G‑dly person, destined for the high priesthood, and beseeched him to "make for us a G‑d." Aaron complied and fashioned a golden calf, which they promptly worshipped.2

This was an astounding betrayal of the Second Commandment, "You shall have no other G‑ds but me,"3 within forty days of its issuance. The multitudes were led to idolatry by rabble-rousers, but why did Aaron join in the sin? More pointedly, one might ask: if our ancestors sought a replacement for Moses, why did they replace G‑d?

A Corporeal Intermediary

Our ancestors were, in fact, not guilty of replacing G‑d but of making a corporeal image of G‑d, which is also prohibited but is not on par with outright idol worship. This behavior, though inexcusable, was, due to the circumstances, eminently understandable.4

Our ancestors lived in a world where all cultures related only to corporeal forms of deity. They believed that man must pay homage to G‑d and win His grace, but could not relate directly to an intangible deity. Man must therefore deify objects of his own making that represent his highest idea of the world-directing G‑dhead. These objects would then be invested by G‑d with divinity and become the bearers of man's fate.

Our ancestors, schooled in the Abrahamic belief in an omnipresent, incorporeal G‑d, were nevertheless influenced by surrounding cultures. Contrary to the heathens, they did believe that man could relate to an incorporeal G‑d, but they clung to the notion that a concrete, tangible link is required.

G‑d's corporeal instruments seemingly justified this contention. In the Israelites' experience, the Divine presence often dwelled in tangible, or at least visible, symbols and, indeed, artifacts. At the Reed Sea it was Moses' staff, at Sinai it was a cloud of glory, in the tabernacle it would be a sacred ark and its extending cherubs. The people saw these accouterments as deified links between an incorporeal G‑d and a physical people. Their mistake was that while those objects had indeed been chosen by G‑d to become a vehicle for his manifestation, they could serve as such only by as the result of the Divine choice and action. Man, however, has neither the authority nor the ability to choose his own vehicle and appoint it a link to G‑d, let alone endow it with divine properties.

After their Sinai experience, the people looked to Moses as the primary intermediary. When G‑d uttered the commandments, the people found the experience overwhelming. They asked Moses to stand as their intermediary and transmit G‑d's message to them.5 They saw Moses as endowed with deified properties and perceived in him a link to the true G‑d, creator of heaven and earth.

Again, their mistake was that they saw their "intermediary," rather than G‑d, as the initiative for revelation. For them, it was not G‑d who had brought them out of Egypt by means of Moses, but Moses who had influenced G‑d to redeem them. They had not yet absorbed the Jewish concept that man has direct access to G‑d, but it is G‑d, not man, who established the actions and instruments via which He can be reached.6

A Physical Object

When they thought Moses died, it appeared crucial that a replacement be found. Without one there would be no further access to G‑d and no method of securing his grace. But this time they sought a physical object rather then a living human.

Physical objects, they reasoned, can be safely preserved; they don't walk away and disappear as Moses did.7

Aaron's Role

Aaron understood the people's mistake, but recognized that if he refused or rebuked them, they would proceed on their own, unhampered.8 He decided to engage them and draw out the process so as to gain a little time, certain that Moses would soon return.

He first demanded that they remove their gold earrings,9 hoping that they would hesitate to relinquish their jewelry; but the people promptly complied. After melting down the gold, Aaron began to single-handedly design and mold a calf.10 Aaron then took up an engraving tool and adorned the calf with beautiful images.11

Upon completion of the calf, he set about building an altar for it. Insisting that only the high priest may build G‑d's altar, he refused all help and painstakingly built it through the night, fully expecting that Moses would return in the morning. But Aaron underestimated the people's zeal. They woke early in the morning and, with Aaron still asleep, 12 deified the calf and worshipped it.

Only a handful of Jews were guilty of outright idolatry that morning by actually declaring the calf to be "the G‑d of Israel." 13 Most were only guilty of deifying a physical object in their quest for a link to G‑d. As soon as Moses returned, their need for the calf was obviated and they did not rebel when Moses destroyed it. 14

The Tabernacle

Following the Golden Calf fiasco, the Tabernacle (Mishkan) was errected at the center of the Israelite camp to house the Divine Presence. In G‑d's words to Moses, "They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell amidst them."15

The Tabernacle succeeded where the calf failed because, in the Tabernacle, physical objects become sacred only when they were so designated by G‑d. Unlike the calf, the Tabernacle was chosen at G‑d's behest and therefore became sacred. Indeed, the Tabernacle was considered an atonement for and rectification of the sin of the Golden Calf.