So what’s wrong with building a golden calf?
Yes, I know that idol worship is one of the “big three” transgressions that we are required to avoid, even under pain of death. And yes, I agree that it would be an inexcusable offense for the generation that stood at Mt. Sinai! Nevertheless I ask this question, because in spite of the way things appear, I don’t believe this was a case of idol worship at all – at least not in the classic sense. Don’t forget, the people requested the calf only when their leader Moshe failed to return as promised, after spending forty days on Mt. Sinai without food or water.
“And the people saw that Moshe had delayed in coming down from the mountain, and the people gathered around Aaron and said: ‘Rise up and make for us gods (aka: “powers”) who will go before us, because this man Moshe who took us up out of Egypt – we do not know what became of him.’” (Shemot 32:1)
The fact that the people wanted something that would “go before” them, as opposed to something that they could worship, indicates that the calf was meant to replace Moshe, rather than God. What they really wanted was a tangible symbol that they could follow; a physical focal point that would help them relate to the otherwise ungraspable Infinite Being we call God. This desire hardly seems inappropriate, considering they were about to receive two stone tablets that would be placed in an ark topped by two angelic figures known as Cherubim. Keep in mind, these Cherubim were to serve as the focal point for God’s presence in the sanctuary, and they were to be made out of pure gold!
So if the people were destined to build a symbolic focal point out of gold anyway, what was wrong with a golden calf?
According to a section of our oral tradition known as the Midrash, their mistake can actually be traced to the splitting of the sea, when every member of the nation had a prophetic vision of the mystical divine chariot, known as the Merkava. Tradition teaches that the Merkava was borne aloft by four angels, each with a different face: that of a lion, an eagle, an ox and a cherub (with a human face). According to the Midrash, their error was that they were inspired by this vision to choose the ox as their symbol when they should have chosen the cherub.
Although this may seem like a harmless mistake, tradition teaches that these two faces actually represent two modes of God’s interaction with the world. The face of an ox represents a predictable, cause and effect mode of relationship that we experience via the laws of nature. The face of a free-willed human being, on the other hand, represents a more sovereign and therefore less predictable mode of relationship that is not bound by those laws. According to Jewish thought, God tends to limit his interaction to knowable patterns that we call “nature,” but these patterns in fact hide His more authentic "personality," which is free, unlimited, and ultimately unpredictable. This deeper level of divine providence is what is revealed during miracles, when the laws of nature are temporarily suspended.
The people’s choice of the ox therefore indicated a desire for a more conventional “natural” relationship with God that would ultimately afford them a greater measure of predictability and security. To use a corporate analogy, it would be like passing up on a senior role in a large company because you’re afraid that proximity to the C.E.O would make you more vulnerable to his day to day mood swings. Better to remain on a lower level and allow the corporation to insulate you from all but the most serious issues. The main difference between our case and the analogy is that while the corporation is a real entity, nature is actually an illusion that hides the deeper truth of God’s direct involvement and control. The choice of an ox was therefore really an attempt to create distance, and ultimately, to opt out of the relationship altogether.
As a marriage coach, I am amazed at how often couples fight over issues, when the real issue is that they barely know each other. Ironically, these couples usually think they understand each other perfectly, which of course keeps them from ever getting curious enough to actually listen and learn. If they did, they’d realize that much of their “understanding” is really just a two dimensional, fictitious caricature that they have essentially manufactured. Like the builders of the golden calf, instead of relating to their spouse, they choose to interact with a creation of their own making, because it’s ultimately safer and more predictable. After all, if they saw each other as they truly are they would have to recognize and respond to each other’s legitimate needs. In fact, they might even have to be vulnerable enough to take a closer look at themselves.
The saddest part of this however, is that if they would just stop and listen, they would discover a great deal of innocence and common ground. In fact they would see that most of their pre-conceived notions and fears are unfounded. Then they’d realize that it’s not their spouse, but their own fear of vulnerability that has led them to create distance in their marriage, and ultimately destroy the very thing they were trying to build in the first place: a loving and intimate relationship.