The Torah portion of Ki Tisah concludes a lengthy series of instructions concerning the many components of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), predecessor to the Bet HaMikdash (Temple). Afterwards, the Torah reports a rather embarrassing episode in the annals of the Jewish people. Moses left the people and had gone up to receive the Holy Tablets from G-d. “And the people saw that Moses had delayed in descending … and the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Rise up, make for us a god that will go before us, for this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt we do not know what became of him’” (Sh’mot 32:1). The people then proceed to coerce Aaron, despite his attempts to quell the situation, into producing a golden calf to which they offer sacrifices and before which they celebrate. “And G-d spoke to Moses: ‘Go descend, for your people that you brought up from the land of Egypt has become corrupt’” (Sh’mot 32:7). Moses then returns, restores order and prays to G-d on behalf of the people of Israel.
This special people who personally witnessed the ten plagues leveled against Egypt on their behalf, who personally took part in the miraculous exodus from Egypt and who personally listened to the word of G-d at Mount Sinai, suddenly due to a miscalculation of Moses’ return (see Rashi on Sh’mot 32:1) seem to degenerate into what appears like idol worship! Did the people who experienced the Al-Mighty in His grandeur only moments ago devolve into forsaking Him? The consensus of commentators agrees that to assume that the sin of the golden calf was simply one of mass idol worship is totally incomprehensible, both from the standpoint of Aaron who helped form it, and the people who demanded and worshiped it. True, as Rashi notes (Sh’mot 32:7), the initial instigators were the erev rav, a group of former gentiles whom Moses chose to accept their conversion without consulting with G-d. Nevertheless, this group too was privy to all that transpired up to that point, which would make a simple turn to idolatry incomprehensible even for them.
In his famous work Kuzari (1:97), R. Judah Halevi explains that what started with an error in fact, concerning the time of Moses’ return, led to an uneasiness at Moses’ delay and mushroomed into an awful misunderstanding of the relationship between the people of Israel and G-d. Fearing Moses’ death, the people, accustomed like all of humanity at the time to idols, looked to a tangible entity to take Moses’ place as an intermediary or point of reference when they would relate G-d’s wonders, similar to the cloud that accompanied them in the desert. And so arose the golden calf. The sin was that of the manufacture of a forbidden image and attributing divine power to this creation. As misguided as this act was, it was not one of denial of G-d or a break in allegiance to G-d. Aaron, in turn, was not aiding the people to forsake G-d but rather acquiesced to the people’s demands in order to appear to yield to their wishes until he could wean them from their error.
This explanation does not excuse the behavior surrounding the golden calf. In fact, the people were severely reprimanded and castigated for this incident. On the other hand, it does reduce the gravity of the actions and makes more plausible its initiation. No one was rebelling against or forsaking G-d. Such an act would be logically inconceivable at such a point in time when the truth of G-d was so starkly apparent to all those who experienced the miraculous exodus from Egypt and all the extraordinary events related to it and subsequent to it. What did occur was an intense feeling amongst the erev rav, a not fully ripe group among the people of Israel, in the wake of the common human mindset at the time, that, just as they were accompanied by an apparently supernatural cloud on their journey and just as they were accompanied by a seemingly supernatural being the likes of Moses, they needed some extraordinary entity, in Moses’ absence, to concentrate upon as an avenue towards focusing on G-d. Thinking that this was a necessity, likened erroneously to the importance of Moses, they neglected in their haste and emotional panic to recognize that this was actually a serious prohibition of forming images. A sense of mob panic subsequently infested and spread throughout the entire people, as is wont to happen in such situations, and many among the people succumbed to this seriously flawed reasoning.
Throughout the history of the human race, entire nations have often succumbed to a misguided fervor beginning with a given group or individual, escalating to the passion of the crowd and eventually enveloping all those present. In the meantime, also, misguided errors mushroom into enormous monstrous actions. Such has occurred up to modern times, the Holocaust perpetrated by the previously extremely cultured German nation being one of the most well-known examples.
We are to learn from these incidents, in general, and that of the golden calf, in particular, that we should be careful not to be dragged into following the crowd. We need to exhibit the strength to follow only that which is true and that which is right, without allowing our emotions or those of the ones around us to warp our sense of right and wrong. Only in this manner can we hope to become what we should be. Only in this manner can we justify the “form of G-d” in which we were created and be worthy of receiving the rewards that G-d has promised us. Let us do that which is right, not do that which is convenient. Let us follow the truth, and not follow the crowd.