The story of the sin of the golden calf is one of the most difficult passages in the Torah. On one hand, it was clearly a grave sin. On the other hand, we need to remember that this was the same holy nation that had just experienced the Exodus from Egypt and the Sinai Revelation. It is simply unreasonable to think that it was a simple sin of idolatry. The following brief summary of this tragic episode will incorporate various commentaries to help us understand what actually happened.
Moses had ascended Mt. Sinai on the seventh of Sivan. (The Sages tell us that Moses had announced that he would remain on the mountain for forty days. The Jewish people incorrectly assumed that the day Moses ascended counted as the first of the forty days, when, in fact, the count did not begin until the next day.) When forty days had passed from Moses' ascent, and he had still not descended from the mountain, the people began to fear that Moses had passed away.
Believing that they had lost their leader, the people approached Aaron with the demand that he manufacture gods to replace Moses. (Rashi states that this request was made by the Eirev Rav, a group of Egyptians that had joined the Jewish people when they left Egypt.) This was not idolatry in the usual sense, for the golden calf was not intended as a substitute for God, but for Moses. Nevertheless, it was a violation against the prohibition against making forms and the fact that they felt that such a replacement was necessary also indicated that they did yet not properly understand the nature of God's relationship with mankind.
In an attempt to delay the people until Moses' arrival, Aaron told them to gather the golden jewelry from their wives and children, thinking that this would slow the collection. However, the gold was collected very rapidly and was brought before Aaron. Aaron then melted the gold and a golden calf was formed. (For further discussion of Aaron's role in the incident of the gold calf, see "The Sin of Aaron".) They then declared, “This is your god, Israel, who took you up from the land of Egypt.” (Rashi states that the Eirev Rav said this, which is why they said “your god” instead of “our god”.)
At first glance, this declaration seems to be utterly senseless. The Jewish people (and the Eirev Rav) were fully aware of Who had taken them out of Egypt, and they certainly knew that this golden calf, which had not even been made at the time, had not done so. Thus, it is clear that the golden calf was not intended as a substitute for God but as an intermediary or representative of God, much in the way that they had understood Moses to be.
When this occurred, Aaron again attempted to delay the Jewish people from sinning by declaring that a festival for God would be made the next day. Aaron hoped that Moses would arrive before the people actually sinned. However, the next morning people got up very early to begin making sacrifices and rejoicing.
On the mountain, God told Moses to descend for the people had sinned and He would destroy them. Moses prayed to God on behalf of the Jewish people, and God accepted his prayer and He relented from His anger.
Moses then descended the mountain carrying the two Tablets of Testimony. When he came close to the camp and saw the calf and the rejoicing, he cast down the Tablets and shattered them. (This occurred on the 17th of Tammuz.)
Moses took the calf and ground it into powder. He mixed the powder with water and made the people drink it. He declared, "Whoever is for God, to me!" The entire tribe of Levi joined him and they went forth with the sword and killed 3,000 men. Moses then returned to pray to God to forgive the Jewish people. God then struck the people with a plague.
(Rashi states that there were three levels of guilt among the people. There were those who had sinned with witnesses and hasraah, those who had sinned with witnesses but no hasraah, and those who sinned without witnesses. The first group was killed by the sword, the second by the plague, and the third died from the water like a sotah (Numbers 5:11-31). It should be noted that only 3,000 Jews had committed the crime in the full sense. This is only about one half of a percent of the adult male population. The overwhelming majority of the Jewish people avoided involvement with the calf worshipers.)
The Torah then discusses at length the process of reconciliation between God and the Jewish people as mediated by Moses. Eventually God instructed Moses to carve two new Tablets to replace the ones that had been shattered. He was to ascend the mountain again and God would inscribe these new Tablets. At this time, God revealed to Moses the י"ג מדות של רחמים – “The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy” – that the Jewish people could rely upon to earn forgiveness for their sins when they repented.
After this the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people is repeated and emphasized. When Moses descended the mountain with the second Tablets his face had become radiant from holiness.
|R' Samson Raphael Hirsch|
So, at the very time that the Divine Law of Morality was to have found a home and Sanctuary on earth in the midst of the Jewish people, they experienced the fact, for themselves and for all future time, that the slightest aberration from the idea of acknowledging God as the One and Only One, brings in its train the heathen cult in every form, inevitably denying His Law of Morality.
Another profoundly important lesson that we learn from the incident of the golden calf is the power of repentance. The Talmud (Avodah Zara 4b) makes a surprising statement:And the one who was designed to be the first High Priest of the Jewish people experienced for himself, and for all future time, that Jewish priests may not try to be "clever", that God's Truth's are not his own, with which, and for which he may make concessions, of which he may give up a part to save the rest. The Divine Evidence is inscribed on granite. One can acknowledge it, one can deny it, but no priest can alter the tiniest bit of it.
א"ר יהושע בן לוי: לא עשו ישראל את העגל אלא ליתן פתחון פה לבעלי תשובה, שנאמר: מי יתן והיה לבבם זה להם ליראה אותי כל הימים וגו'.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “The [sin of] the Jewish people with the [Golden] Calf happened only to provide an opening for baalei teshuva (penitents), for it says, ‘If only their heart would always be like this, to fear me…’” (Deuteronomy 5:26)
גבורים ושליטים ביצרם היו ולא היו ראוי להתגבר יצרם עליהן אלא גזירת מלך היתה לשלוט בם כדי ליתן פתחון פה לבעלי תשובה שאם יאמר החוטא לא אשוב שלא יקבלני אומרים לו צא ולמד ממעשה העגל שכפרו ונתקבלו בתשובה.
They [i.e. the Jews at the time of the incident of the golden calf] were mighty and had complete control over their yetzer (natural inclinations) and their yetzer should not have been able to overpower them. However, it was the decree of the King that it overpower them in order to provide an opening for baalei teshuva. For if a sinner says, “I will not repent for He will not accept me,” they say to him, “Go and learn from the incident of the Calf, for [the Jews] committed heresy and they were accepted back through repentance!”
As understood by Rashi, the Talmud appears to be saying that the Jewish people in the desert were on such a high spiritual level that they never would have committed such a sin. Instead, God caused the sin to happen in order to provide encouragement to sinners from later generations. Many commentaries struggle with this idea. If the Jewish people were forced to sin, then they didn't actually sin at all and their repentance was actually unnecessary! How then, would this provide encouragement for a normal sinner?
The Akeidas Yitzchak (R' Yitzchak Arama, d.1494), therefore, disagrees with Rashi’s explanation. He writes that the Talmud’s message here is that, even though the Jews of the midbar were on the highest possible spiritual level that a nation can possibly reach, they still sinned! We see from this that human perfection does not mean that you never do anything wrong, for human beings will inevitably stumble and sin on occasions. Rather, true human perfection is that, when you do inevitably sin, you truly repent.
 In order to be liable for a criminal penalty in a Jewish court, Jewish law requires that the criminal be formally warned in front of witnesses of the criminal nature of his actions and the relevant legal penalty immediately prior to the commission of the crime. This warning is called hasraah.