When the people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Come on! Make us gods that will go before us. . . . All the people stripped themselves of the golden earrings that were on their ears. . . . He took [them] from their hand[s], fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it into a molten calf, upon which they said: “These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:1–4)

Painting with a limited palette of black, red and ochre creates a feeling of drama. When first looking at the painting, one sees a bright light coming out of the darkness, and then we notice the (faceless) face of a golden calf. The play between light and darkness is heightened by the contrasting colors.

When Moses went up the mountain to receive the tablets and did not materialize on the fortieth day as promised, the people rebelled. At their insistence, Aaron collected their gold jewelry and made a golden calf. Biblical commentators disagree as to how this came about. One dominant opinion holds that Aaron threw the gold pieces into the fire, and from the molten gold a calf emerged.1

Regardless of their reasoning, the Golden Calf was an abomination before G‑d. As the tablets shattered, the light of redemption dimmed and was concealed. In time, G‑d forgave the Israelites. The Tabernacle was part of the repair for the Golden Calf. New tablets were carved, and together with the broken tablets were later placed in the ark in the Holy of Holies. The gold of the Tabernacle is seen as atonement for the making of the Golden Calf.2 The similarity of the calf and the Tabernacle is that both come from fire and are constituted from gold. Gold is a color of lust and glitter, but in the Sanctuary, the golden fire of sacrifice was about turning the lust back to G‑d.

Another ritual performed in the Sanctuary involved the ashes of a red heifer, a cow that had to be uniformly red. The fact that a cow was used in this ritual is no accident, and was also considered part of the rectification for the sin of the Golden Calf.3