It's All Hashem's Fault
Please forgive my irreverence. I am bothered by the sequence of events that culminated in the Egel HaZahav, and I think Hashem is to blame.
Quick recap: Moshe is at the top of the mountain. The people down below are getting restless. These rabble-rousers are lead by the Erev Rav, a collection of slaves that escaped Egypt with the Jews during Yetzias Mitzraim.
They come to Aharon and demand that He assist them in creating some leader-god-idol to replace Moshe. But Aharon is smart. He knows it's just a matter of time before Moshe comes down the mountain and puts an end to this insanity. So he delays, declaring: “Give me your gold!”
Somehow, the nation (or, at least the men) get on board. They hand over their jewelry. Aharon needs to delay further. He tosses it into a fire, and then, miraculously, a golden calf emerges.
Aharon, builds a mizbeach and announces: “Tomorrow will be a festival for Hashem.” He's hoping that by then, Moshe would return. (The Abarbanel adds: The Mizbeach was a Tefillah, a message to Hashem to send Moshe down the mountain.)
Indeed, Moshe does return, but just a little too late. Apparently, his Shiur with Hashem didn't conclude in time for him to stop the nation from worshipping the Egel.
But here's the problem: Hashem tells Moshe “לך רד” – go down because your nation has sinned. While all of this was taking place, why didn't Hashem tell Moshe to go down a few hours earlier? All of this could've been avoided with a little 'heads-up'?!
Moreover, the story of the “emergence” of the Egel from the fire is peculiar. Rashi (לב:ד) quoting the Medrash Tanchuma tells us that:
מִיכָה הָיָה שָׁם... וְהָיָה בְיָדוֹ שֵׁם וְטַס שֶׁכָּתַב בּוֹ מֹשֶׁה “עֲלֵה שׁוֹר” “עֲלֵה שׁוֹר” לְהַעֲלוֹת אֲרוֹנוֹ שֶׁל יוֹסֵף מִתּוֹךְ נִילוּס – וְהִשְׁלִיכוֹ לְתוֹךְ הַכּוּר וְיָצָא הָעֵגֶל
Micha (the idolator mentioned in שופטים פרק י״ז), was there, and he had in his possession a “supernatural name” (שם) and a plate upon which Moses had written: “עֲלֵה שׁוֹר” “Come up, ox, come up, ox!” in order to raise the coffin of Yosef (who was compared to an ox) out of the Nile, and he cast the plate into the melting pot of gold and the calf (a young ox) came out.
Now, I understand that sometimes Hashem allows the natural world to operate according to the rules which He set in motion as He created the universe. We do not have the right to questions why Hashem doesn't “get involved” in a supernatural way. But this Medrash is suggesting the opposite. The Egel HaZahav was not a natural occurrence; it was a miracle! Hashem made it happen.
Which leads me to conclude that Hashem did so intentionally. Not only did He allow the Cheit HaEgel to happen, He enabled it!
And now we need to understand why? Why did Hashem help Micha and Erev Rav in making the Egel? Why didn't He send Moshe down to stop it? What's really on here?
I Get It – And So Do You
In the forty days that Moshe was on Har Sinai, the nation waited below. It had been barely two months since leaving Egypt, seeing the miracles of the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. But now they were camped in a desert, relying on more miracles in order to survive.
But what might've happened if, Chas V'Shalom, that miracle-bread from heaven stopped falling? What might've happened if the miraculous well of rock dried up? Most disastrously, what options would be if Moshe, their great leader and savior, were to disappear? In whose merit would they continue to survive?! Rashi (לב:א) tells us that this was exactly what they feared:
כְּמִין דְּמוּת מֹשֶׁה הֶרְאָה לָהֶם הַשָּׂטָן, שֶׁנּוֹשְׂאִים אוֹתוֹ בַּאֲוִיר רְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם The Satan showed them something that looked like Moses being carried on in a coffin in the air high above in the skies.
Right now, they reasoned, the Manna was still falling, the rock was still flowing. But all of that could cease in an instant if Moshe has died. How long can a person live in the wilderness without a plan for sustenance?
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (פ׳ כי תשא) writes empathetically about our ancestors. They were anxious, frustrated and out of options. If Moshe was not coming back, they were a few short days, if not hours away from certain death.
It all makes sense. When the people amassed and began rioting in front of Aharon's tent, they were not looking for another god, but a solution to their food and water scarcity.
The Arizal (ליקוטי תורה פ׳ כי תשא) explains that this is the meaning behind the Medrash of עלה שור:
They cast “Rise up ox” in the fire, because they were looking for a different kind of leadership – the leadership of Yosef HaTzadik – the great ox. Whereas Moshe provided them with miracles, Yosef gave his brothers food, clothing and shelter.
Consider for a moment, that the Egel HaZahav was the paradigmatic emblem of financial stability. It was constructed of pure gold; the symbol of wealth and social power. It takes the form of a calf: a young plow animal; the engine of agriculture and economic prosperity.
“These are your gods, Israel!”, is the cry of a slave nation, desperate to know that they will survive the desert if their miraculous leader were to disappear as suddenly as he arrived.
The root cause of the Egel HaZahav was not idolatry, it was insecurity: “What will we do without Moshe?”
Or, to put it simply: There is no ways that Hashem will do these miracles for me. I don't deserve it. If there's some great tzadik around to draw down some heavenly sustenance, that's wonderful. But what about me?
These are the מקטרגים – voices of accusation – that challenge the value and purpose of the Jewish people. They have echoed since our years of slavery in Egypt, and we still hear them today, from inside of our nation and from the outside world.
They ring in our ears, our hearts and our minds: Who says we're the chosen people? What right to do have to Eretz Yisrael? Does Hashem even care about the mitzvos that we do, or chose to neglect?
On a deeper, personal and communal level, we question if we are worthy of Hashem's love and concern. Perhaps we have failed Him too many times to be redeemable? Perhaps our faults and flaws have made us undesirable?
There isn't a Jew in history who hasn't contended with these voices.
The Egel HaZahav did not represent a lack of faith in God, but a lack of faith in ourselves. Hashem is all-powerful, He can do anything. But there's no way He'll do it for me. I am unworthy.
Why Did Hashem Let Them Do It?
Now, imagine that Hashem sent Moshe down the mountain a moment before the Egel was made. The people would've clapped and cheered and celebrated. Aharon would've breathed a great sigh of relief. But deep down, they all would know that if not for Moshe they would all be doomed. Their feelings of worthlessness in Hashem's eyes would be confirmed.
The Kedushas Levi (ליקוטים חדשים פ׳ כי תשא) thus explains:
When a child is feeling deeply insecure about themselves and questioning their parents' love, it's not enough to say “you're so wonderful, of course I love you.” The child wants to know “What happens if I'm not wonderful? Do you still love me then? What if I disappoint you? Will you still hug me then?”
The only way to convince someone that you love them, no matter what, is to allow them to fail. And then to say “I still love you. I forgive you. There is nothing you could do to make me leave you.”
Of course, that doesn't absolve the need to fix the mistakes that were made. There is deep Teshuva that we need to do after testing the extent of Hashem love, and indeed, the Chumash does not shy away from telling us that the aftermath of the Egel was painful.
But knowing this premise, we can now understand why Moshe commands the Levi'im to go from camp to camp; rooting out and executing all those who built the Egel. The Torah's position is clear: The only people who needed to be eradicated were the instigators. The people who made other Jews question their own self-worth.
For the rest of us, for all time, the Egel HaZahav serves as a reminder that there is nothing a Jew can do to make Hashem not love us. Indeed, it was through this saga that the Thirteen Middos of Mercy were revealed.
Chazal (סנהדרין ק״ב א) tell us that every bit of pain and punishment that comes into the world has a little bit of the Chet HaEgel in it. Which means to say, that we still have work to do. We still need to convince ourselves that we're worth it; that Hashem loves us, that there is nothing we can ever do to change that.
Hashem should help us to finally rid ourselves of the Egel; to learn once and for all that Hashem has no regrets choosing us. He believes in us, and time we do the same.