Incredulous Reactions

We give the builders of the Golden Calf a bad rap, and deservedly so. They saw G‑d directly and heard the Ten Commandments, yet betrayed Him 40 days later. How could they? If we had seen the revelations at Sinai, there is no way we would have sunk so low!

Or would we?

Imagine seeing two grown men who both lost their father on the same day. The first lost his composure and became violent in his grief, wreaking havoc and injury. The other remained calm despite his loss. It would appear at first blush that the latter has a right to judge the former, but he doesn’t.

The damage he caused is unjustified, but the latter condemns him unfairly because he doesn’t understand him. The former loved his dad and was overwhelmed by grief; the latter had a more distant relationship with his father. He assumes that losing a father is as easy for everyone as it was for him, and has no idea how devastating it can be. You can understand the outburst only if you can relate to this kind of grief—and if you possess the same type of temperament. If you understand, you can judge.

The same is true of judgment we pass on the builders of the Golden Calf. We know they were wrong, but never having experienced the desperation they did, we aren’t in a position to judge. In fact, we would do well to emulate their desperation.

A Real Relationship

These people had a concrete relationship with G‑d. To them, G‑d was not an idea, He was real. A force, a power, a lord that protected them, smote their enemies and saved them from peril. They saw G‑d with their eyes, not just their minds and imaginations.

When they were hungry, G‑d showered manna from heaven. When they were thirsty, G‑d made water gush from a rock. When they were in danger, G‑d split a sea. When they were inspired, G‑d appeared on a mountaintop and taught them as a teacher addresses his pupils. When they had needs, G‑d provided. When they prayed, they knew whom they were talking to. A simple maidservant at the Reed Sea could perceive a level of G‑dliness that the prophet Isaiah could not grasp.

And who made G‑d real for them? Moses. He was the medium between G‑d and man. He stood fearlessly at the sea and waved his staff. He stood at the gates of Egypt and rallied the nation to exodus. He brought Pharaoh to his knees with ten plagues. Moses climbed a mountain and delivered G‑d’s message. Moses, half human, half Divine, as the sages testified,1 was their bridge to G‑d.

And suddenly, Moses went missing. True, it had been merely six hours, but when something precious goes missing, you panic before long. When they contemplated G‑d, they grew physically excited. Their heart rate increased, their pulse accelerated. They exulted in joy, shrank in awe, melted in love. Their relationship with G‑d was ecstatic, passionate and genuine. To have that taken away was absolutely frightening.

It is easy to condemn them for the Golden Calf, but we can’t condemn them for the desperation that drove them to build it. We have never felt so desperate for G‑d because we never had that kind of relationship with G‑d. You have to have it to lose it. If you never had it, you can’t mourn its loss.

Desperate for G‑d

To what could they look forward? To a lifetime of believing in G‑d, but never seeing Him. To making do with seeing G‑d in the constancy of nature, the infrequent miracles and the unusual coincidences. They would need to contend with skeptics who doubted the existence of G‑d. They would need to be satisfied with the occasional burst of inspiration or clarity, but for the most part, G‑d would be opaque. An idea to believe in, rather than a Being to connect with. What kind of life would that be?

We know exactly what kind of life that is. It is the one we live. Do we feel confined by it? Do we feel desperate to break free? No. We have never known any different. If we don’t feel the panic and desperation that they felt, how dare we judge them for it? We can disapprove of what they did—it was absolutely forbidden—but we can’t judge them for how they felt.

On the contrary, we should try to emulate what they felt, recapture some of what they had. We should not be content with the spirituality we have been fed. We should yearn for more, for a grander, broader and deeper understanding of G‑d. Why should we be content with what frightened our ancestors?

They built a golden calf in the hopes of manifesting the spirit of G‑d in something concrete, as it had been concretized and realized for them by Moses. They never intended to reject G‑d by making the calf.2 They hoped G‑d would endow the calf with His Divine spirit and let it serve as a bridge for them to an empirical relationship with G‑d. They wanted the calf to provide what Moses always had.

This is forbidden in Jewish law because it deifies a graven image. It was forbidden, and they were punished. We make no excuses for their behavior, and we don’t attempt to whitewash it. But when we look back, we should do more than judge what they did. We should consider what led them to such desperate measures, and try to recapture some of that spirit.

Not Enough

If there is anything to learn from the people who built the Golden Calf, it is this. Lacking a real relationship with G‑d is frightening. We need to learn about G‑d and know Him as much as possible. We need to think about G‑d and learn to see Him in everything. We need to pray to G‑d and feel him listening. We need to trust in G‑d as we would trust a parent who provides for us.

We should feel what our ancestors felt when they were driven to build a golden calf. But we should never build it. Instead, we should learn how to make G‑d real in the way that He tells us to.