The Sin of the Golden Calf
The incident of the Golden Calf is one of the most perplexing in all of Chumash. The difficulties are obvious: What exactly were the people looking for and why did some of them lapse into idolatry after having experienced
Abarbanel offers an ingenious and logical explanation based on a careful analysis of the text.
It is important to realize that the people who left Egypt, especially the mixed multitude of Egyptians, were still steeped in the idolatry and superstitions of Egyptian society. They had not yet connected to the idea of an intangible G-d, but were much more connected to Moshe as their leader. Seeing that 40 days had passed since Moshe had ascended Mt. Sinai, and fearing the worst, they looked for a new symbol of leadership. It would have been logical to turn to Aharon but they were afraid that as a mortal human being the same fate would befall him. Instead they asked Aharon to fashion a talisman, or amulet—a physical object which was considered to have magical powers to bring about the miraculous interventions in nature that they had been experiencing. They assumed that Moshe himself had used such an item and they wanted to replace it as soon as possible.
They wanted the amulet to be in the shape of a calf since the constellation of Taurus the Bull precedes the constellation of Aries the Ram, which was the symbol of Egyptian idolatry. Since Taurus precedes Aries astronomically they considered it superior spiritually as well. They assumed that this was the symbol that Moshe relied upon, or that it the calf was the symbol that Aharon would choose as most appropriate.
At this point Aharon employed every delaying tactic possible, knowing that Moshe’s return was imminent. He asked for the women’s gold jewelry, knowing that they would not easily relinquish it. He told them to give according to their means, hoping that the inevitable arguments over who should give what would cause a further delay. However, the men, in their eagerness, removed their jewelry immediately. Aharon then threw the gold into a fire and after it melted he took a long time to craft it into a small calf. His intention was to cause a further delay and to make a perfect amulet. This way, when it would be shown to be powerless, they could not claim that it was hastily and imperfectly manufactured.
However, there were those who bowed down to it immediately in an idolatrous fashion, assuming it as a replication of the item that Moshe had used. Because this initial group was from the mixed multitude of Egyptians, they referred to the amulet as ‘your god’, meaning the intermediary which Moshe had relied upon to bring ‘you’, the children of Israel, out of Egypt. This explains why Aharon did not sacrifice his life rather than create an idol, since it was not intended to be an actual idol. The people, however, turned it into an object of worship. Aharon then built an altar for sacrifices and a celebration to take place the next day. He was careful to point out that this would be a celebration to honor G-d — not the amulet. In order to cause further delay, he rejected their offer of assistance and built the altar by himself, claiming that it would be disrespectful for anyone other than he, the Kohen Gadol, participated in the construction. However, 3,000 of the Jewish people took matters into their own hands, offered their own sacrifices and proceeded to engage in wild idolatrous revelry.
When Moshe finally descended and destroyed the amulet he asked Aharon to explain what the people had done to him. Moshe recognized that Aharon was not responsible for manufacturing a forbidden idol. What was originally intended to be a symbol of leadership was turned by the people into an object of idolatrous worship. As a result, Aharon was not punished. However, in Sefer Devarim, chapter 20, Moshe recalls this incident and says that G-d became very angry with Aharon and would have destroyed him if not for Moshe’s entreaties on his behalf. When all is said and done the tragedy did come about, at least indirectly, through his actions. As a result, the incident of the golden calf in combination with the incident of the striking of the rock later on result in Aharon’s being denied entry into the Land of Israel.