Painting of the Golden Calf
The Golden Calf, Old Testament series, gouache on board by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French 1836-1902). (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Why the Israelites really built the Golden Calf

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Ki Tisa
Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

The story of the Golden Calf is possibly one of the most famous and one of the most controversial of the episodes in the Book of Exodus. The Torah relates a tragedy whose repercussions reverberate throughout Jewish history. 

On the surface, it is very hard to comprehend the idea that a nation that experienced a collective revelation at Sinai and heard G-d Himself command them not to make any graven images would blatantly create an idol. There are manifold approaches to understanding this episode. Nachmonides, the foremost Torah commentator of the 13th century in Spain, has a particular perspective that is worth learning. 

Nachmonides explains that the people were not actually asking for a deity or deities to go before them. What they wanted was a replacement for Moses. (Exodus 32:1)

He backs up this claim from the text itself which reads, “For this man, Moses, we do not know what has happened to him.” They acknowledged that Moses was not a god of any kind, but rather a messenger of G-d who became the instrument through which G-d performed miracles and a guide who would lead them through the wilderness to the Land of Canaan. When Moses does eventually come down the mountain, they immediately desist from celebrating the Golden Calf and follow Moses’ instructions. It seems clear that they really were desperate for Moses all along and only asked for a substitute because they feared that he was not going to return. 

What they wanted was a replacement for Moses.

Further, Nachmonides stresses that it is not possible to accuse the people of thinking that they now have a new deity to worship because when Moses does appear, he burns the Golden Calf and grounds it into a fine powder. People would not stand aside while they believe that their god is being destroyed. Assuming that the premise is correct and the intention was not to create a deity to replace G-d, it still begs the question of what Aaron was thinking when he made them give their gold and then fashioned it into a calf.

It seems that Aaron had his own plan. The people were asking for a leader who would guide them in the wilderness. According to the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:10), the Chariot of G-d has four faces and one of them is the face of an ox. Nachmonides suggests that Aaron was just using an image that would further direct their prayers to G-d Himself. In fact, in the text, Aaron exclaims, “A festival for Hashem tomorrow.” (Exodus 32:5) He does not declare a festival for the calf itself. He wanted to use the calf as a medium for the people to connect to G-d. The four-letter name of Hashem (also known as the Tetragrammaton) is never used to denote any other force or power. It represents the Creator and Master of the Universe alone. Aaron wanted the people to celebrate G-d and nothing more. 

The tragedy is that the people missed the subtlety of Aaron’s plan. They started worshipping the calf directly. Actually, it seems that G-d does not tell Moses to go down and break up the party until the people start with their offerings on the next day. He does not seem bothered by the actual building of the calf that takes place on the previous day. According to Nachmonides’ explanation, that makes perfect sense. And what of the rebuke in verse 21 that Aaron receives from Moses? Aaron should have realized that the people were headed in the wrong direction and admonished them. His failure to redirect their energy and prevent them from worshipping the Golden Calf is the reason that Moses is angry with him as well.

The classic commentators make other attempts at justifying the actions of Aaron and the Israelites. It is not because they all believe that the Israelites are beyond reproach or incapable of committing serious offenses. It is merely because it is too easy to assume the worst and not give the benefit of the doubt. We live at a time when it seems that many have lost the moral imperative to look for the good in people. This is true in general and especially true when it comes to leaders who have earned the trust and respect of those that they lead. 

Aaron had demonstrated his commitment to G-d and it behooves us to find an explanation for his actions that aligns with his moral character.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto. Rabbi Felsen is also on the board of J. The Jewish News of Northern California.