“Inconceivable” is the word that a villainous character in the delightful movie “The Princess Bride” uses again and again to describe acts that should not have happened – but did. What we read in today’s parsha, about the building and worshipping of the golden calf falls into the category of “inconceivable,” as well as ungrateful, self-defeating and stupid. And God’s two reactions to the event also raise questions of rationality. Let’s examine both the action and the reaction.
The Israelites, newly minted freemen after centuries of servitude, may be excused for feeling somewhat insecure without a leader. Moshe has been up the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights, and shows no sign of returning. Moshe is their leader. He is the one who took them out of Egypt (their words). It is through him that the people know what their invisible, unembodied God wants them to do. Moshe is the one who will lead them through and out of this never-ending desert. Moshe is their Google maps and their Waze and their Wikipedia and their whole Internet! And he is gone!
What are they supposed to do? They don’t need a new god. They saw how the gods of Egypt fared against the God of Moshe and the Israelites. They had a God in the desert, albeit invisible, so they had no need for another.
What they needed was a leader. A person they could see, a person they could talk to, a person who could explain what was happening and resolve their problems.
They turn to Aharon and say make us an elohim, which can be translated as a god, a judge or, as Nachmanides (and others) suggests, a leader. All they want is someone they can see and lean on. Someone who will tell them what when where how and why.
It is at this point that their decision, or Aharon’s decision, to make a golden calf becomes inconceivable. If, as Nachmanides suggests, they want a leader who will show them the way, how can a golden calf help them? It has a mouth but can’t talk. It has eyes but can’t see. It can’t point the way. What were they thinking?
Yarin Raban offers an interesting explanation. He says that the sin here was not the golden calf as such but rather secularization of the holy. The Israelites wanted to convert a divine idea that was beyond their ken comprehension into terms and dimensions they could understand. And this was the sin. It is parallel to three other injunctions in the parsha – not to use the holy oil or the holy incense for daily use, and not to turn the Shabbat into a weekday.
There is another explanation, however, hiding in the narrative of the story. When Moshe returns, sees the degradation, hears the hoopla of frenzied people dancing and worshipping their ersatz god, he recruits those who are faithful to the real God (the Levites all respond) and gives them the order to go through the camp and kill all those who were involved in worshipping the calf.
How many were there? Three thousand. Let’s assume that not all the revelers were dispatched, so let’s say six thousand. That comes to 0.003 percent of the populace, assuming 2 million people (600,000 men plus wives and children). Perhaps they were part of the rabble that accompanied the Israelites from Egypt.
As in the other cases of infractions of God’s commands, the percentages of the rebels are miniscule. Yet they cannot be ignored. Ignore them and they will multiply like cases of the corona virus. You have to reduce the chances of infection as much and as fast as possible.
Now let’s look at God’s reaction. He wants to obliterate them all and start again with Moshe as the big daddy. But Moshe pulls the same rabbit out of the same hat as he does later. “What will the other nations say” when they see what you have done to your people? And it works. God changes his mind, as it were.
So, do we have a wishy-washy God here, one who can be swayed so easily from anger to reconciliation? Of course all the anthropomorphisms about God’s anger are meant to make the ideas accessible to a people who cannot envisage the inconceivable God. But how can puny manipulative human tactics change the divine will?
Let’s view the larger picture. This is the situation: if God implements his threat and kills off the Israelites he loses, and if he allows himself to be “persuaded” to change his “plan” he wins.
Here we have a people that God has claimed as his own. If he destroys them, it means his ideas could not get across to anyone. Fulfilling his threat means he wins (by doing what he wants) but he loses (his people and his “foothold” in humankind). If he changes his mind, and allows them to live, he loses in terms of his perceived will, but he wins in that he still has his people and his word is transmitted to others.
There must be a lesson here that can be applied to human politics, even in this country, but let’s leave this to others.