Part I - Chet Ha'egel:
An Idol or a Symbol?
Does it make sense that Bnei Yisrael truly believed that it was a 'golden calf' (and not God) who took them out of Egypt? Obviously not, but when they see the calf, this seems to be precisely what they say: "...this is your god O' Israel, who took you out of the Land of Egypt" (see Shmot 32:4,8)!
This is only one example of the many enigmatic psukim that we encounter when we study the story of Chet Ha'Egel [the sin of the golden calf].
In this week's shiur, we present an interpretation that attempts to explain many of these difficulties by taking into consideration many of the events that had transpired earlier in Sefer Shmot. [As would be expected, the shiur is a bit longer than usual, and hence will be split into two parts.]
We are all familiar with the Midrash, quoted by Rashi (32:1), that Bnei Yisrael miscalculated Moshe's return by one day. According to that interpretation, Bnei Yisrael were aware that Moshe would be gone for exactly forty days, and thus, their lack of patience on the last day led to this entire calamity.
However, if we take a closer look at the psukim that describe Moshe's ascent to Har Sinai (back in Parshat Mishpatim, 24:12-18), a very different story unfolds - one that makes Bnei Yisrael's behavior much more understandable.
"And God told Moshe, come up to Me on the mountain... then Moshe ascended God's Mountain. To the elders he said: 'Wait here for us, until we return to you. Behold, Aharon and Chur are with you; should there any problems, go to them..." (see 24:12-14)Note how Moshe informs the people that he is leaving 'until he returns', without specifying a date! Even though several psukim later Chumash tells us that Moshe remained on the mountain for forty days (24:18), according to "pshat," the people have no idea how long Moshe would be gone for. [And most likely, neither did Moshe or Aharon. It is important to note that Rashi's interpretation carries a very deep message regarding the nature of patience and sin, but it is not necessarily the simple "pshat" of these psukim, "v'akmal."]
A Logical Conclusion
Recall that this was not the first time that Moshe had ascended Har Sinai to speak to God (see 19:3,20; 24:1-2). However, in each ascent thus far, he had not been gone for more than a day or two. Therefore, Bnei Yisrael have good reason to assume that this time he would not be gone any longer. After all, how long could it possibly take to receive the "Luchot, Torah, and Mitzvah" (see 24:12)? A few days? A few weeks?
Days pass; weeks pass; yet Moshe does not return! Considering that the last time they saw him, he had entered a cloud-covered mountain consumed in fire (see 24:17-18), the people conclude that Moshe Rabbeinu is gone forever. After all, how much longer can they wait?
They must do something, but what can they do?
Return to Egypt?
"Chas v'shalom" (of course not)! That would be against not only God's wishes, but also His command.
Continue their journey to Eretz Canaan?
Why not! After all, was this not the purpose of Yetziat Mitzraim - to inherit the Promised Land (see 3:8,17, 6:8)? Is this not precisely what God had promised them in 23:20?
"When the people saw that Moshe was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered on Aharon and said to him: Come make us an elohim that will lead us [towards the Promised Land] because Moshe, who took us out of the land of Egypt [and promised to take us to Eretz Canaan], we do not know what has happened to him." (32:1)Even though we all pay attention to the word elohim in this pasuk, which implies that they are asking for a god, note that their primary request is "asher yeil'chu l'faneinu" - that will walk in front of us, i.e. that will lead us [to the Promised Land].
To prove this, we need only conduct a quick comparison between this pasuk and God's earlier promise (in Parshat Mishpatim) that he would send a mal'ach to lead them and help them conquer the Land:
"Behold, I am sending a mal'ach l'fanecha [before you] - to guard you and bring you to the place that I have made ready..."Two psukim later, God continues this promise:
(see 23:20; make special note of the Hebrew word "l'fanecha!")
"Ki yei'leich mal'achi l'fanecha - for My angel will go before you, and bring you the Land..."Clearly, when Bnei Yisrael first heard this promise, they assumed that this mal'ach was none other than Moshe himself (see 23:21-22), but now that Moshe is presumed dead, they demand that Aharon make for them a replacement for this mal'ach, or possibly a symbol of this mal'ach, in order that they can continue their journey to the Promised Land:
(23:23; note again "l'fanecha" and the word "yei'leich!")
"Come make as an elohim - asher yeil'chu l'faneinu!"In fact, from a simple reading of the text, it appears as though Aharon actually agrees to this request:
(32:1; again, note "yeil'chu" and "l'faneinu!")
"And Aharon said to them: Take off your gold... and bring them to me... He took it from them and cast in a mold and made it into a molten calf..." (32:2-4)Therefore, the people's statement (upon seeing this golden calf): "This is your god O' Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt" (32:4), does not necessarily imply that this golden calf actually took them out of Egypt (after all, they had already stated in 32:1 that Moshe had taken them out of Egypt!); rather, they are stating their own perception - that this egel (that Aharon had just made) represents the mal'ach who had taken them out of Egypt and will hopefully now lead them on their journey to Eretz Canaan.
In other words, in Bnei Yisrael's eyes, the egel is not a replacement for God, but rather a representation of His Presence!
[See a similar explanation by Rav Yehuda HaLevi in Sefer HaKuzari I.77! See also Ramban on 32:1.]
Based on this interpretation, Aharon's ensuing actions make perfect sense. To assure that the egel is properly understood as a representation of God, Aharon calls for a celebration:
"And Aharon saw, and he built a mizbayach in front of it, and Aharon called out and said: A celebration for God [note: b'shem Havaya] tomorrow." (32:5)Furthermore, note how Aharon's planned 'celebration' parallels an almost identical ceremony that had taken place some forty days earlier, also at Har Sinai. To show how, let's compare them:
In Parshat Mishpatim, when Moshe sets up 12 monuments:
"...and they woke up early in the morning, and they built a mizbayach at the foot of the mountain and twelve monuments for the twelve tribes of Israel... and they offered olot and sacrificed shlamim" (24:4-5)In Parshat Ki-Tisa, when Aharon forges the egel:
"...and they woke up early in the morning [after Aharon had built a mizbayach in front of it - 32:5], and they offered olot and sacrificed shlamim..." (32:6)Note the obvious parallels: waking up in the morning, building a mizbayach in front of a 'symbol,' and offering olot and shlamim. [Note also the eating and drinking; compare 24:11 with 32:6.]
Furthermore, considering that the ceremony recorded in 24:1-11 includes Moshe's reading of God's promise to send a mal'ach to lead them (see 23:20-23 and shiur on Parshat Mishpatim), we find an additional parallel, for both ceremonies relate to Bnei Yisrael's acceptance of a mal'ach that will lead them to the land ["asher yeil'chu l'faneinu"]!
Finally, note how this parallel supports our understanding of the egel as a symbol, for at both ceremonies a mizbayach is erected in front of a symbol:
In Parshat Ki-Tisa, the symbol is the egel, representing the mal'ach (which God had promised) that will lead them.
Why 'Davka' an Egel?
Even though our interpretation thus far has shown how the egel can be understood as a symbol of God's Presence, we have yet to explain why specifically an egel is chosen as that representation. Chizkuni offers a ingenious explanation, based on yet an another parallel to Ma'amad Har Sinai.
Recall that at the conclusion of the ceremony at Har Sinai (24:1-11), Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the seventy elders are permitted to 'see' God:
"And they saw Elokei Yisrael, and 'tachat raglav' - under His feet - was like a shining sapphire..." (24:10)Obviously, God does not have feet! However, this description reflects a certain spiritual level. Moshe, for example, achieved the highest level of revelation - "panim b'fanim" - face to face. In contrast, the seventy elders perceived "tachat raglav" - God's 'feet,' reflecting a lower spiritual level.
[This may relate to the people's request for a more distanced relationship, wherein Moshe served as their intermediary (see 20:14-17 and Devarim 5:20-26).]
Although it is very difficult for us to comprehend the description of God in such physical terms, Chizkuni (on 32:4) notes that we find a very similar description of the Sh'china in Sefer Yechezkel:
"And their feet were straight, and the bottom of their feet were similar to the feet of an egel..." (Yechezkel 1:7)[See also the textual parallel of "even sapir" - compare Yechezkel 1:26 with Shmot 24:10.]
[Alternately, one could suggest that an egel was chosen to represent the parim that were offered on Har Sinai as part of the ceremony during which God informed them about the mal'ach (see 24:5; note that an "egel" is a baby "par").]
Before we continue, let's summarize our main point thus far. Aharon's intentions in making this egel appear to reflect a desire to create a representation of the mal'ach that will now lead Bnei Yisrael to Eretz Canaan. To emphasize this, he makes a ceremony parallel to the ceremony at Brit Har Sinai, when God first promised Bnei Yisrael that He would send them a mal'ach.
So if Aharon's intentions are so sincere - what's so terrible?! Why does God become so angered? Why does He threaten to destroy the entire nation?
To answer this question, we must once again return to our parallel in Parshat Mishpatim.
A Contrasting Parallel
Despite the many parallels noted above, we find one additional phrase that is unique to the story of Chet Ha'Egel. Note the final phrase of each narrative:
"...and they beheld God and they ate and drank." (24:11)At Chet Ha'Egel (in Parshat Ki-tisa):
"they sat to eat and drink and they rose 'l'tzachek.'" (32:6)
Even though the simple translation of "l'tzachek" is laughing or frivolous behavior, Rashi raises the possibility that it may refer to licentiousness (or even murder; see Rashi 32:7 and Breishit 39:17). In any case, Chazal understand this phrase to imply more than just 'dancing.' To Aharon's dismay, what began as a quiet ceremony turned into a 'wild party.' The celebration simply seems to have gotten 'out of hand.' [Soon we will explain why.]
This interpretation is supported by the Torah's account of Moshe's descent from Har Sinai (when he breaks the luchot):
"Va'yar et ha'egel u'm'cholot - and he saw the egel and the dancing circles and became enraged" (32:19)[See the commentary of Seforno on this pasuk.]
A Two Staged Sin
Note that God does not become angry (and tell Moshe to go down) on the day when Aharon makes the egel. Rather, this happens only on the next day - and only after the Torah informs us that "va'yakumu l'tzachek" [see 32:6,7!], and Moshe is angered not only upon seeing the egel, but also upon seeing the wild dancing.
Now if Bnei Yisrael's primary sin was making the egel, why doesn't God tell Moshe to go down on that same day? The fact that God only tells him to go down on the next day, and only after "va'yakumu l'tzachek" supports our assumption that this must have been their primary sin.
To further support this assumption that the 'party had gotten out of hand' - note Yehoshua's initial reaction to the 'loud noise' that he heard:
"And Yehoshua heard the sound of the people b'rayo - screaming loudly, and said to Moshe: there are sounds of war in the camp. But Moshe answered - these are not the sounds of triumphants, nor are they the groans of the defeated; they are simply sounds [of wildness] that I hear." (32:18)[Note Targum Unklus of "kol anot" in 32:18 - kol d'm'chaychin; compare this with the Targum of "l'tzachek" in 32:6 - l'chaycha. He clearly connects the loud noises to the loud laughing of "vaykumu l'tzachek!" Note also that "b'rayo" comes from the shoresh "l'ha'riya" - to make a sound like a t'ru'ah, but the spelling is r.a.h., reflecting its negative context like the word "ra'ah" - bad or evil! Compare also with 32:22!]
What led to this calamity? What was the noise all about?
Even though we have only 'circumstantial evidence,' one could suggest that once again Bnei Yisrael had impulsively reverted back to their old ways, regressing back to their Egyptian culture. As we explained in our shiur on Parshat B'shalach (review also Yechezkel 20:5-9), before Bnei Yisrael left Egypt, they were immersed in Egyptian culture. God had hoped that the events of the Exodus would cause Bnei Yisrael to change their 'old habits,' but the events at Chet Ha'Egel showed that deep down, nothing had really changed. Even at a party that had begun with good intentions, their behavior quickly became wild and out of control.
God became more than angry; He became utterly disappointed. Despite the numerous miracles that He had performed for Bnei Yisrael, their behavior at Chet Ha'Egel proved to Him once again that their innate character had never changed. All of God's efforts since Yetziat Mitzrayim seem to have been in vain.
In summary, we have shown that there were two stages in Bnei Yisrael's sin at Chet Ha'Egel. The first - making a physical representation of God - even though though improper, was understandable. The second - the frivolous behavior after the eating and drinking at the conclusion of the ceremony - was inexcusable.
These two stages are reflected in God's 'double statement' to Moshe in the aftermath of this sin (see 32:7-10).
"And God spoke to Moshe: Hurry down, for your people have acted basely ['ki shi'chet amcha']... they have turned astray from the way that I commanded them [see 20:19!] - they made an 'egel masecha' [a representation of Me]..."2) 32:9-10: God's second statement:
"And God spoke to Moshe: I see this nation, behold it is an "am k'sheh oref" [a stiff-necked people]. Now, allow Me, and I will kindle My anger against them and I will destroy them and I will make you a great nation [instead]."
God's first statement describes the act that began with good intentions but was nonetheless forbidden [see Shmot 20:19 - "lo ta'asun iti elohei kesef..."]. Although this sin requires rebuke and forgiveness (see 32:30), it was not severe enough to warrant the destruction of the entire nation.
God's second statement is in reaction to "va-yakumu l'tzachek," i.e. their frivolous behavior. Because of this regression to Egyptian culture, God concludes that they are indeed a 'stiff-necked people' - unable to change their ways. Therefore, God decides to destroy Bnei Yisrael, choosing Moshe to become His special nation instead.
Similarly, these two stages are found in the conversation between Moshe and Aharon in the aftermath of this event:
"And Moshe said to Aharon: What did this people do to you that caused you to bring upon them such a terrible sin? ...One could suggest that Aharon's conclusion is based on his previous experiences with Bnei Yisrael. It is clear, however, that Moshe understands that Aharon had no intention that this situation would get out of hand. After all, Aharon himself is not punished. [In fact, he later becomes Kohen Gadol.]
"Aharon answered: You know this people - 'ki b'ra hu' - their ways are evil." (32:21-22)
Once Aharon had explained to Moshe what transpired in the first stage (32:22-24), Moshe already understood what happened in the second stage:
"And Moshe 'saw' the people - 'ki pa'ruah hu' - that they became wild (out of control), for Aharon had caused them to become wild [to the point of] their demise, b'kamayhem - when they got up"Finally, the two levels of Bnei Yisrael's actual punishment also reflect these two stages. First, the three thousand 'instigators' who incited the licentious behavior (stage 2) are killed. For that rebellious group, there is no room for forgiveness (32:26-29). However, on the second day, Moshe approaches God to beg forgiveness for the rest of the nation (32:30-32). Even though they sinned, because their actions began with good intentions (stage 1), they deserve the pardon that they ultimately receive.
[to dance - as in "va'yakumu l'tzachek!" See 32:25, and note the ta'amim.]
To fully understand the nature of this pardon, we must compare the story of the first luchot to the story of the second luchot, which is the topic of Part II of this week's shiur.