The Golden Calf
At the beginning of Exodus 32 we read as follows: “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain (Mount Sinai), the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’” It is the beginning of the story of the golden calf, a spiritual catastrophe that took place at Mount Sinai, less than six weeks after the people had witnessed the great epiphany that was to be definitive for the whole of their religious life.
The fragility of the community of the wilderness is one of the most striking and tragic features of the Torah. We recall reading a few weeks ago that the ecstasy of Shirat Ha’yam, the song that followed the crossing of the Red Sea, was followed by tension and complaint against Moses and Aaron, which was understandable in the circumstances, but very different from the mood that had immediately preceded it.
Jeremiah famously remarks on the extraordinary instability of the community at the beginning of the book that bears his name: the word of the Lord comes to him, recalling the heroic idealism that inspired the people to go out into the wilderness: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.” This is followed by a saddened reflection: “What wrong did your ancestors find in Me, that they went far from Me, and went after worthless things …?”
One can suggest that the spiritual fragility of the community of the wilderness was not at all surprising. Deuteronomy 5 records that the people felt that they could only relate to God if Moses acted as their mediator: “The Lord our God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice out of the fire. For this great fire will consume us ….. Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the Lord our God will say. Then tell us everything that the Lord our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.”
The people’s relationship with God depended on Moses serving as intermediary, and Moses had gone up Mount Sinai and he had not returned. In the first instance they were not seeking to reject God, but they felt that God could not be approached directly, without any form of mediation. Having obtained the mediator, and found a source of spiritual security, their situation then deteriorated very rapidly into idolatrous worship.
The people’s material situation was also uncertain and anxious. They had indeed gone out into the wilderness, which meant that they lived in a world that was unstructured, with every day producing new anxieties about the basic necessities of life, for themselves and their families. One can argue that they should have had a stronger faith, but developing such faith in quite desperate situations is very challenging indeed and certainly cannot be taken for granted. (One contemporary Rabbinic authority, Rabbi Yaacov Kaninetsky, has suggested that Moses indeed understood all of this. Moses reacted with such anger only when he saw the dancing and celebration that accompanied the people’s wrongdoing.)
In our own time, we have seen the powerful impact of economic and social anxiety on political life in many different contexts, especially in the United States, but also in voting patterns in the UK, particularly during the Brexit debates. Group behaviour changes dramatically, with fierce emotional needs breaking free of reasoned argument and creating new and sometimes dangerous forms of political expression. Disciplines such as political psychology show us that groups are as fragile as individuals and can have their own forms of disorder and disease which can overwhelm the norms and restraints that are the essence of civilised society.
Rabbi Sacks z”l says that while Moses prayed primarily for Divine forgiveness, he also asked for God to be closer to the people, particularly in Exodus 33, which is a very difficult chapter. The people knew God only from afar and were very fearful of approaching or of establishing any degree of intimacy with the Divine glory: it was this sense of distance that created their need for a mediator and was at the root of their tragic dereliction.
Moses says in 33:15 that if God will not be present with the people, then they should remain where they are and go no further. In verse 18, when Moses asks for a vision of God’s glory, it was not only an individual spiritual longing – Moses ultimately wished to share the Divine revelation with the people.
In the next chapter – 34:6 – God revealed the thirteen qualities of the Divine compassion and, for the Talmudic rabbis, modelled how the people of Israel should pray for forgiveness in their time of need. The Mishkan, the Tabernacle of the Divine presence, was a further response to what Moses had prayerfully requested.
Even today, Moses’ encounter with God at Mount Sinai is at the heart of Jewish religious life. The forty days of Moses praying for forgiveness are the forty days that culminate in the Ten Days of Penitence at the beginning of the religious year, and when Moses returns to the people with the second tablets of the Ten Commandments, it is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement that is the holiest day of the Jewish sacred calendar. The thirteen attributes of Divine mercy are particularly prominent in the concluding service of Yom Kippur. Night is falling and we pray that God will open the gates of compassion, even at this late hour, as the Day of Atonement ebbs away and they are due shortly to close. The darkness of our greatest spiritual tragedy finally gives way to the light of our hope, and the light remains with us for all eternity.