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Torah Attitude: Parashas Ki Sisa: Trying to understand the golden calf


It is hard for us today to understand the incident of the golden calf. We may not serve intermediaries. It appears to us that idol worshippers were primitive, ignorant people. The urge to serve idols was much stronger than we could ever imagine. Those who felt distant from G'd began worshipping His intermediaries instead. When the Jewish people thought Moses had died, they panicked and made the golden calf. We must never forget that ultimately everything is in the hands of G'd.

Golden calf

In this week's Torah portion, the Jewish people participated in the formation and worship of a golden calf after giving up waiting for Moses to return from the top of Mount Sinai. This was only a short time after the Jewish people were on a very high level of prophecy and received the Torah from G'd. How could the Jewish people have fallen so quickly? Why would they have any desire to worship a golden calf? It is hard for us to understand the incident of the golden calf. However, with some background information, we may be able to better appreciate some of the motivation of worshipping the golden calf, and at the same time learn some practical lessons from this incident.

One G'd

G'd created the world from four fundamental elements: earth, air, fire and water. Everything else in the physical world was in turn formed by G'd from these elements. Similarly, all spiritual beings were created by G'd. We must realize that everything created by G'd is limited in its power in accordance with the restrictions imposed by G'd. There is only one all-powerful and almighty G'd. There is no one to worship other than G'd. Says the Rambam (Laws of idol worship 2:1), we may not even serve anything else as an intermediary between G'd and us. All our service must be directly to G'd. That is why we are prohibited from serving idols.

Primitive idol worshippers

Nowadays we find it difficult to understand how people could possibly worship idols. It appears to us that these idol worshippers were primitive, ignorant people. Surely, no intelligent person could believe that there is any benefit to be had by worshipping an idol fashioned out of wood, or stone, or any other material. It seems that these idol worshippers lacked a basic comprehension of the laws of physical reality. We would assume the reason why there is no desire to worship a golden calf or any other idol today is due to our advanced understanding and high intelligence. However, the truth is that we are the ignorant people since we lack the understanding of the great powers that G'd has given to the various elements. That is the reason we have no urge to serve them.

Evil inclination and free will

For every transgression prohibited in the Torah, there are people who have an evil inclination to do it. Some people are inclined to do acts of immorality, while others are inclined to be dishonest. This is necessary for us to exercise free will. If there was no evil inclination, there would be no choice between good and evil. However, everyone has the power and ability to fight and overcome their evil inclination.

Evil inclination removed

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 64a) explains that at the beginning of the Second Temple, the men of the Great Assembly prayed to G'd to remove the evil inclination to serve idols. They were concerned that their fellow Jews and subsequent generations would not anymore have the spiritual strength to resist the very strong urge to worship idols. This urge was much stronger than we could ever imagine. Their prayer was granted and since that time there has been no urge to serve idols. When they saw that their request was granted, they made a second request to have the evil inclination for adultery removed. This request was also granted. However, the result was that cohabitation between males and females of all humans and animals ceased. When the evil inclination was removed, there was no driving force to cohabit. So they prayed again for the inclination for adultery to be restored. Yet it was not entirely restored. To this day, there is no natural evil inclination for relations with blood relatives. We can now appreciate that the reason we do not have the urge to worship idols is not due to our advanced understanding; rather, it is because this evil inclination was removed thousands of years ago. However, we paid a price for having this particular inclination removed; at the same time we lost our ability to understand the essence of the powers associated with the heavenly bodies and other objects of idol worship.

King Menashe

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 102b) relates how Rav Ashei told his students that they were going to study the following day about the three kings of the Jewish people who do not have a share in the world to come due to their great sins. He referred to these kings in a slightly disrespectful way by calling them "our colleagues". The following night, King Menashe came to him in a dream and asked him a halachic question that he could not answer. He reproved him by saying, "You call us your colleagues. You cannot even answer this simple question". Rav Ashei asked him, "If you are such a great scholar, how could you go and serve idols?" To this Menashe said, "If you had been in our times, you would have lifted up your garments and run after me to serve the idols." As it says in Pirkei Avos (2:5) "Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place." Even the great Rav Ashei had to be reminded of the change that had occurred from the times of King Menashe. Sometimes we hear of someone who did something wrong, and we think to ourselves that we would have done the right thing, or we would have reacted differently. We look down on that individual or that group of people for their inability to make the right decision. We forget that every person has their weakness and their personal evil inclination that tests and challenges that person accordingly. Chances are that had we been in that person's situation, we would not have done any better.

The beginning of idol worship

We may ask, how did the worship of idols first begin? No doubt Adam believed in G'd and served Him only. And he transmitted that belief to his children. So who invented the whole concept of idol worship? We find a passage in the Torah referring to the beginning of idol worship: "And as for Seth, to him also a son was born, and he named him Enosh. Then to call in the Name of G'd became profaned" (Beresheis 4:26). Rashi explains this to mean that idolatry was introduced at this time, by ascribing divine qualities to human beings and inanimate objects.


The Rambam (ibid 1:1-2) explains that at this time idol worship began when people started to believe that G'd was too high above them to worship Him directly. So they started to worship the intermediaries instead. This is similar to honouring the Governor General as an indirect honour to the Queen. Since G'd empowered the heavenly bodies, the idol worshippers believed that it was appropriate to honour those bodies, instead of honouring G'd directly. They built temples, brought offerings, and prostrated themselves, to praise and worship their idols. At first, this was all done in order to try to please G'd. When the people first fell into idol worship, they did not forget about G'd. But they felt distant from G'd so they worshipped His intermediaries instead. Only much later did some unscrupulous merchants see a profitable opportunity of inventing various images to worship. This eventually developed into the full-scale worship of idols, at which time the idol worshippers forgot about G'd.

Moses delayed

With this in mind, we can attempt a better understanding of why the Jews made the golden calf. Moses had been like an intermediary between the Jewish people and G'd. The Torah relates, "Moses had delayed descending from the mountain" (Shemos 32:1). The Jewish people were waiting for him to return from on top of Mount Sinai. When he failed to return at the expected time, they panicked. Rashi explains that they believed that Moses had died and now they would be without an intermediary to relate G'd's instructions to them and to pray on their behalf to G'd. They felt totally lost.

Four images

The prophet Ezekiel (1:10) once had a vision of G'd's Throne where he saw four images: an ox, a man, a lion, and an eagle. With a deep understanding of the meaning of these images in G'd's throne, the Jewish people at Mount Sinai chose the image of the ox and formed the golden calf. They felt that through this they could reach G'd on their own level. But as the Rambam explains, we may not serve anyone, even as an intermediary, to bring us closer to G'd. We must serve only G'd directly.

Everything in the hands of G'd

This gives us some understanding of how so soon after the revelation at Mount Sinai the Jews transgressed the second of the Ten Commandments prohibiting idol worship. They had not forgotten that there is a supreme G'd Who created the world and took them out of Egypt. However, they thought they had lost the link that connected them to G'd and this is what they tried to replace by forming the golden calf. Thus, their mistake was similar to the mistake made at the time of Enosh and is considered idolatry.

Although nowadays, we do not have the evil inclination of serving idols, nevertheless we often make a similar mistake by placing our trust in human beings. We forget that when we need help it is not the doctor who heals; it is not the boss who provides our sustenance; the only one who can really help us is G'd Himself. For sure, we must turn to a doctor when we need medical help. And we must turn to our boss or others to fulfill our physical needs. But we must never forget that ultimately everything is in the hands of G'd. Only when G'd grants our request can this person or others provide us with the assistance we need.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel