The Sin of the Golden Calf – “Rebuke Your Neighbor”
It is written, “The people saw that Moses had delayed in descending the mountain, and the people gathered themselves together” (Exodus 32:1) and “The L-RD said to Moses, ‘Behold, I come to you in the thickness of the cloud so that the people will hear as I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever’ ” (ibid. 19:9).
Rabbi ibn Ezra writes: “Just as Hindus and the Egyptians that descended from Ham did not believe that one can speak with G-d and remain alive, a certain number of the Children of Israel, enslaved in Egypt, believed the same. This is why it is written that ‘they had faith in the L-RD and in Moses His servant’ (Exodus 14:31). The verse does not say that they all had faith, but only a certain number of the Israelites. On the other hand, concerning the giving of the Torah, it is written, ‘and they will also believe in you forever’ (Exodus 19:9) and ‘this day we saw that the L-RD will speak to a person and he can live’ (Deuteronomy 5:21).”
However the Ramban explains that G-d said to Moses, “The Children of Israel will also reach the level of prophets and will hear My word directly.” They would thus understand that Moses is a prophet and that he is the faithful servant of G-d.
Concerning Rabbi ibn Ezra’s view, we may add that if the Children of Israel did not believe in the prophesy of Moses (who delayed in coming down from on high), why would they have waited 40 days to commit the sin of the golden calf? In actuality, they believed in Moses but had erred in calculating the number of days after which he was to come back to them, and in addition the Satan had shown them Moses’ coffin (Shabbat 89a). They believed that having reached the level of an angel, he was no longer to come back to them. Therefore they built a golden calf that was to serve as an intermediary between the Eternal and themselves. Yet when Moses descended from the mountain, they were seized with fright. Where then was their bravery and their insolence, they who did not hesitate to kill Hur the son of Miriam (Tanhuma Ki Tisa 24)? They had also threatened to kill Aaron if he did not build the golden calf for them (ibid; see Exodus 32:21). So Moses descended from the mountain, broke the golden calf into pieces, reduced it to powder, made the sinners drink it with water, and broke the Tablets of the Law. And the Children of Israel kept quiet! It was because they completely believed in Moses after the giving of the Torah. After all, did they not see him speaking with G-d?
If we hold by the Ramban’s opinion, how can it be imagined that they had committed the sin of the golden calf after having reached the level of prophets on Mount Sinai? Let us not forget that the Eternal had categorically ordered them not to make “a carved image nor any likeness” (ibid. 20:4). Even according to Rabbi ibn Ezra, how could they have the merit of holding the title of “the generation of knowledge” and to believe in Moses and his prophesy? How could they have made the 49 gates of impurity crumble, and how could they have passed through the 50th gate of holiness? How could they have eaten the Manna? How could they have seen Moses speaking face to face with G-d in the middle of the thick cloud, and how could they have believed in G-d and in Moses His servant? How could they have dared to kill Hur, the son of Miriam? And were they not afraid of Aaron, who himself was also a great prophet and leader, and who had performed great miracle, most notably the plagues of blood and frogs?
It was because, as we have seen, all the sins had been committed by the erev rav, the mixed multitude (Tanhuma Ki Tisa 26), who Moses wanted to shelter under the shadow of the Shechinah. It was they who could not understand that the one born of a woman could speak to G-d and remain alive (according to Rabbi ibn Ezra). They, who had not reached the level of faith and prophesy, believed that G-d had killed Moses when he dared to speak to Him face to face. Did the Satan not show them that Moses was dead? It was because of this that they killed Hur, threatened Aaron, and made the golden calf. This is why the Eternal told Moses, “Go, get down, for your people have become corrupt” (Exodus 32:7 – according to Rashi, this consists of the erev rav). It is possible that a certain number of Israelites followed them, but they repented after having received the Torah.
Why then were the Children of Israel punished? Why were they deprived of the two crowns that had been placed on their head (Shabbat 88a), as it is written, “And now remove your jewelry from yourself” (Exodus 33:5)? If the tribe of Levi had, in accordance with Moses’ order, killed the erev rav, why were the Children of Israel punished? G-d wanted to wipe them out, as He told Moses: “Let My anger flare up against them and I shall annihilate them” (ibid. 32:10) and “on the day that I make My account, I shall bring their sin to account against them” (v.34). Concerning this, our Sages teach that the sin of the golden calf permeates all other sins and all suffering over the course of the generations (Sanhedrin 102a). Let us recall, finally, that during the giving of the Torah, the evil inclination was removed from the heart of the Children of Israel, who from that point on rid themselves of the Angel of Death (Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:15). Yet because of the mixed multitude, the entire situation was then reversed. “If,” as the Talmud explains, “Tuvia sinned, why should Zigud be punished?” (see Pesachim 113b). Why did the Children of Israel pay for the sins committed by the mixed multitude?
We could criticize the Children of Israel, who represented the majority, for not having fought against the mixed multitude. If the Children of Israel had attacked them, they would have certainly won. Their silence makes them accomplices (Bava Metzia 37b), for G-d commands us, “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17), doing so until the other is ashamed or hurts us. Our Sages oblige us to reprimand the person whose behavior is inappropriate (Erchin 16b). Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you brought a grievous sin upon it?” (Exodus 32:21). In other words, “Why did you hesitate to rebuke them, even if it cost you your life? If you had rebuked the Children of Israel, they would have done nothing to you, and they would not have killed Hur.”
The Midrash teaches that someone who can reprimand his fellow, yet refrains from doing so, pays for the sin committed by him (Shabbat 54b). He as well as his descendants will be punished. As we saw above, up until this day we are being punished for the sin of the golden calf, a sin committed by our distant ancestors.
The mixed multitude said to Aaron, “Rise up, make for us gods that will go before us” (Exodus 32:1). Did idols have the ability to lead them? Had the Israelites forgotten all the miracles that G-d had performed for them? Did they not rid themselves, as we have seen, of idolatry?
The reason for this is that a person who repents through fear, not through love, sees his fear melting away in the end and goes back onto the bad path. Teshuvah done through love is thus more important than when done through the fear of G-d (Yoma 86b). This is what happened to the mixed multitude: They desired to reintroduce the idolatry of Egypt and act as they pleased without being punished.
The mixed multitude therefore said to the Children of Israel, “These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4). In other words, “These gods will not punish you if you sin; they don’t watch that you study Torah and perform mitzvot. Don’t you see that we have enriched ourselves? It is just like we did in Egypt, without being punished [Shemot Rabba 16:2]. Therefore come and join us, and together we will worship these idols.”
The Children of Israel should have attacked them head-on. Instead they refrained from defending the Eternal’s cause and were punished. They nevertheless finished by vanquishing the mixed multitude and serving the Eternal, not through fear but by love, as the Prophet recalls: “Thus says the L-RD, ‘I recall for you the kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials, your following Me into the Wilderness, into an unsown land’ ” (Jeremiah 2:2).
Let us not, therefore, behave like those people that wanted to be like the mixed multitude, seeking pleasures and benefits and going to the Tzaddikim without taking to the Divine path. In other words, they asked for Divine blessing without serving their Creator; they asked that G-d send His abundance in the world yet refused to recognize Him. Moreover, we see that sometimes “the way of the wicked prosper[s]” (Jeremiah 12:1). They mistakenly believe that the Eternal is on their side, and they themselves admit to not believing or relying on Him. “Their heart was not constant with Him, and they were not steadfast in His covenant” (Psalms 78:37). They fail to realize that all this is the work of the Satan, who aims only at deceiving them.
Let us therefore conduct ourselves like the Children of Israel, not like the mixed multitude. Let us believe in Him “with the mouth and the heart.” Let us rebuke our neighbor when we see him sinning. The sin of the golden calf will then be rectified, and we will reach the level of prophets, as did the Children of Israel after they left Egypt and received the Torah.