Parshas Ki Sisa-Likkutei Sichos: An analysis on the sin of the Golden Calf and how it was not true idolatry

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Parshas Ki Sisa

An analysis on the sin of the Golden Calf and how it was not true idolatry

(Likkutei Sichos Vol.11 Sicha 1)

In Parshas Ki Sisa, the infamous sin of the golden calf is relayed. This story of the golden calf aggravates many critical and wondrous questions at the event. Aside for the general extreme severity of the sin of idolatry, the fact that the sin was performed by the Jewish people in such close proximity to the receiving of the Torah is astounding. How can a bride not remain faithful to her husband for even the first 40 days after marriage? How is it possible for the Jewish people to fall so low to perform idolatry a mere matter of weeks after being redeemed from Egypt in a miraculous fashion, and after just receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, and seeing G-d face-to-face, and exchanging vows to be faithful to each other. How could they possibly come to such a ludicrous conclusion that the golden calf is what took them out of Egypt, when they knew exactly who took them out, as they themselves experienced? If the above is not enough to leave one perplexed at the story, how much more so is his astonishment when he discovers that Aaron, the brother of Moshe, played a crucial role in the construction of this golden calf, and is actually considered responsible for the sin of idolatry that followed it. In fact, as we will see from the commentary of Rashi, he not only gave the idea to make the calf, but actually crafted it with his own hands. How could such a righteous man like Aaron, who was second in command to Moshe, stoop so low to perform such a sin? Also, if he was responsible for the golden calf why was he not killed like everyone else? At the very least, he should of forfeited any rights of leadership. Hence, it is most wondrous that despite the above episode, he was granted the priesthood for him and all of his descendants for all generations to come. If even a regular priest becomes invalidated if he serves idolatry, certainly Aaron should have been disqualified for being a priest for making the most severe idol in Jewish history, and not only was he not disqualified but he actually went on to become the high priest! There is obviously something missing in the story of the golden calf that we are unaware of and that is not apparent from the simple reading of Scripture. Indeed, the Rebbe in this talk takes us through a fascinating discovery of what the sin of the golden calf was all about, and that in truth it had nothing to do with idolatry. The Rebbe likewise explains the role of Aaron in the making of the calf as being innocent of any wrongdoing, and on the contrary, his doing so was to help save the Jewish people from the severe sin of idolatry. The lesson that is derived from this talk is one of much importance regarding that the end does not justify the means, and how every newly chosen path in service of G-d must be on par with tradition in Jewish law. Let us now begin our journey of discovery of the true sin of the golden calf.


Explorations of the Sicha:

1. How could the Jewish people create an idol and worship idolatry a mere 40 days after receiving the Torah?

2. How could Aaron, the brother of Moshe, stoop so low to make an idol, and then not only escape punishment, but be rewarded with the high priesthood?

3. Was the sin of the golden calf really a sin of idolatry?

4. What Divine lesson can we learn from the sin of the Golden calf?


1. Aaron’s involvement in the sin of the golden calf:

In the description of the sin of the golden calf, the verse states how the nation approached Aaron with the complaint that Moshe has yet to arrive. In turn, Aaron tells them that they should gather all their gold ornaments and jewelry from their wives and children and bring them to him. The nation did as they were instructed by Aaron and brought to him many gold ornaments. The verse[1] then states that Aaron took the gold “Vayatzar Oso Becheret,” and it was then made into a golden calf.

The two interpretations of Rashi on the words Vayatzar Oso Becheret:

On the words, “Vayatzar Oso Becheret” Rashi brings two interpretations. In his first interpretation he explains that it means that Aaron placed all the gold into a bag. According to this interpretation it ends up that Aaron did not actually make the golden calf, and somehow the bag was taken or stolen from him and then used to make the golden calf. However, in the second interpretation he explains the words to mean that Aaron took the gold and molded it and formed it into the golden calf.

The reason that Rashi brings two interpretations: Seemingly, the reason why Rashi felt forced to bring the second interpretation is because the very next words after the above words in the verse state that the golden calf was made from this gold. Now, since the beginning of the verse is discussing Aaron, it is difficult to say that this part of the verse suddenly changes to speak of the general Jewish people and not of Aaron, and therefore Rashi concludes in the second interpretation that it is Aaron who made the golden calf and formed it. On the other hand, from the fact that later on the verse[2] states that Aaron told Moshe that they simply threw the gold into the fire and then suddenly a golden calf appeared, it implies that Aaron did not form the calf and it rather happened on its own. Hence Rashi first brings his first interpretation which explains the above verse of “Vayatzar Oso Becheret” to refer to placing the gold in a bag and not to forming the golden calf. Whatever the case, the rationale of Rashi to offer his second interpretation is perplexing, as we will now explain.

According to Rashi, Aaron actually formed and personally crafted the golden calf:

According to the second interpretation of Rashi, it ends up that not only did Aaron come up with the idea of making the golden calf, but he actually formed it with his very own hands. Now, it is clear from Scripture how righteous and holy Aaron, the brother of Moshe, was. How then can one offer an approach that Aaron physically formed the golden calf and turned it into idolatry? This would totally contradict his righteousness and holiness, and certainly would raise the question as to why he was not duly punished as a result.

To understand this matter we must first introduce the general question of how the Jewish people could fall so low to perform the sin of idolatry so short of a time after the giving of the Torah.

2. How could the Jewish people sin with idolatry so close to the giving of the Torah and Exodus?

A short time prior to the sin of the golden calf the Jewish people stood before the Sinai mountain, in front of G-d, and personally heard the 10 Commandments, which included the command of “I am Hashem your G-d,” and “thou shall not serve other G-ds.” They actually saw the sounds coming from all four corners of the earth. How then is it possible to suggest that after witnessing all this that they would then contemplate serving idolatry, and preposterously claim that a newly manufactured golden calf took them out of Egypt!  

Now, although the Satan came along and confused the world by showing them a vision of death of Moshe, it still does not explain how they can stoop so low to commit idolatry as a result. What’s most puzzling, is the fact that Rashi doesn’t even bother addressing this most simple hair-raising question. However, in truth on the contrary, from the fact Rashi doesn’t address it we must assume that the answer is so obvious and simple that it doesn’t even need to be bothered to be addressed.

We will now then offer an explanation based on the simple reading of Scripture, and understanding of Mefarshim, which shows that in truth the sin of the golden calf was not one of idolatry at all, and has been one of the biggest misunderstandings of all generations. Sinful, indeed it did was; idolatry, however? Far from it. [The sin of the golden calf has been taught and transmitted erroneously throughout the generations which is what has caused the above questions to rise.] What then was the sin of the golden calf? Let us begin our analysis of Scripture.

3. The golden calf was not idolatry-The Jewish people wanted a new leader, not a new G-d:

An analysis of the verses of Scripture shows that the Jewish people wanted a new leader and not a new G-d: The verse states that when the nation saw that Moshe was delaying his descent from heaven, they approached Aaron and asked him to make for them an Elokim which will lead them “as the Moshe that led them from Egypt has gone missing.” There is no mention here of a request to worship idolatry, but simply a request for a new leader. The Jewish people had no intent G-d forbid to worship an idol and to ask for one to be made in place of G-d, whom they believed in with every fiber of their being. Rather, they requested a leader in place of Moshe. The Elokim that they requested in the verse is not a G-d of the literal sense, but rather in the sense of a leader similar to Moshe, who will possess G-dly inspiration, similar to that of Moshe. Furthermore, one could argue that the term Elokim used in the verse does not refer to G-d at all, as the term Elokim in Scripture is also used to refer to a leader and aristocrat. Indeed, this is the explicit way that the other commentators explain the episode of the golden calf, as we will bring below.

Now, the fact that there were individuals who were killed for worshipping the golden calf, this is because there indeed were a few individuals of the mixed multitude [i.e. Erev Rav] who ended up worshiping the Golden calf as actual idolatry, and they indeed were punished with death. However, the rest of the Jewish people were all united in their belief that the golden calf is nothing more than a receptacle for the Divine presence to reside on in order to lead them, similar to the residing the Divine presence on the holy Ark, as we will explain next. Now, the same way this is true regarding the vast majority of the Jewish people, certainly it is true regarding Aaron himself that he never had any intent of idolatry in crafting the golden calf, and hence indeed we do not find that he was accused or punished for serving idolatry, and likewise therefore did not have any obligation to give up his life for this.

In the words of the Mefarshim:[3]

The Ramban states as follows in his commentary on the above verses in scripture: The verse states that the Jewish people requested a G-d that go in front of them. In this verse is hidden the key for understanding the entire episode of the golden calf and the true intent of the people who made it. As is known, the Jewish people never entertained the notion that Moshe is G-d and it is he who did all the miracles for them, and that they should therefore now need a new G-d to make for them the miracles. Furthermore, they explicitly said that they are requesting a G-d that will lead them and not a G-d that will give them life in this world or the next world. They were simply asking for a new Moshe that could lead them like the Moshe who led the from Egypt. Based on all this we can understand the response of Aaron to Moshe and why he was really free of any sin and wrongdoing, as when he acquiesced to the request of making them a new Elokim, and even suggested the gathering of the gold for this purpose, and actually formed the calf with his own hands, it was never with intent for idolatry purposes but simply to be used as a guide in place of their leader Moshe. This was in fact the argument that Aaron iterated to Moshe, that the nation never asked him to make an idol to be worshiped, but simply requested a new leader in his place. So can also be seen from the fact that the Jewish people were so quick to allow the golden calf to be burnt and destroyed as soon as Moshe reappeared. If they truly believed the golden calf to be a deity who they worshiped and believed in, then certainly they would’ve protested the destruction of their deity.

The Even Ezra: The Even Ezra states as follows in his commentary on the above verses in scripture: According to simple Peshat, if one accepts that the golden calf was on idolatry then why did Aaron fear being killed by the masses. Were there not many holy Jews who never reached the level of holiness of Aaron who nevertheless gave up their lives for the sake of G-d’s unity? Aaron was a very holy person and was a prophet of G-d through whom many of the commands were transmitted to the Jewish people, together with his brother Moshe. How then could he stumble in such a sin of idolatry, and why would G-d choose him as a leader if G-d knew that he would stumble in such a grave sin. Hence, one must conclude that heaven forbid to even consider that Aaron intended on making an idol or that the Jewish people intended on worshiping idolatry. Rather, since they believed that Moshe died, they requested a new leader to lead them, and everything they did was for the sake of G-d in heaven. It was only a minute few of the mixed multitude who ended up worshiping the calf as a deity.

The position of Rashi: Although in the beginning of his commentary on the episode of the golden calf Rashi gives us no hint to the above explanation, and on the contrary, from his initial commentary it can be interpreted that he viewed the golden calf as actual idolatry[4], nonetheless from his concluding commentary one must say that that he is of the position that the Jewish people did not transgress idolatry. After the episode of the golden calf, G-d instructed Moshe to excavate a new set of stones for the tablets, as the first set of tablets were broken by Moshe when he descended the mountain and saw the golden calf. G-d said to him, “Moshe, excavate for yourself two tablets of stone similar to the original tablets and I will write on then the same words that were on the original tablets that you broke.” On the words “excavate for yourself,” Rashi comments that G-d instructed Moshe to be responsible for supplying new stones for the tablets being that he is the one that broke the original stones, and he is thus responsible for replacing them. Rashi then goes on to explain that the entire sin of the golden calf was one big misunderstanding, and that it was really not the Jewish people who sinned but a mere few “maidservants” of the Jewish people, which refers to members of the mixed multitude. Rashi gives a parable to a king who went overseas, and a rumor spread that his bride was unfaithful to him during his trip. As a result, the best man of the king got up and tore the marriage contract between the king and the bride. When the king came back from his trip it was discovered that in truth his bride was faithful to him, and it was the brides maidservants who had sinned and not the bride herself.

When the king discovered this, he instructed his best man to provide a new marriage contract, as he had torn the original ones unjustifiably. Concludes Rashi that the king in this parable refers to G-d, the suspected bride refers to the Jewish people, the best man who tore the marriage contract refers to Moshe, and the unfaithful maidservants refer to the mixed multitude. Hence, according to Rashi’s concluding commentary on the story it ends up that the Jewish people did not sin at all with idolatry, and is in par with that which we explained above that they simply desired to make a new leader.

We will now analyze a precedent for the Jewish people thinking that a golden calf can become a leader for the Jewish people.

4. A precedent for the golden calf from the holy Ark and its Cherubim:

The above novel and revolutionary explanation of the sin of the golden calf and that in truth the intent was simply to make a new leader, requires the following clarification: How exactly would this have been accomplished? We are familiar with the idea of making a deity out of an object, however, to make a leader out of an object seems new and unprecedented. Did the Jewish people really expect a golden calf to lead them and be on the same level as Moshe? How would a golden calf have such power if not for the fact that they were mistaking it for a deity? So, the explanation is as follows.

We are familiar with the concept of the Divine presence residing on physical items, and within a physical dimension. The Divine presence would reveal itself within the holy of holies, and speak directly from between the two poles of the holy Ark.[5] More specifically it would reside between the wings of the cherubim, which were childlike figures on top of the holy Ark, made of pure gold! Furthermore, the construction of the Temple and the holy of holies which would contain the holy Ark for the sake of the residing the Divine presence, is an explicit command of the Torah, and is required according to G-d’s will. Thus, not only do we have a precedent for the concept of the Divine presence residing on a specific item, but we have a precedent that it would reside on an item made of pure gold which resembled a human like figure, similar to that of the golden calf. Furthermore, it is understood that not only is this gold figure not considered putrid in the eyes of G-d, as it is He who commanded us to make the Temple and the holy Ark with its childlike shaped Cherubim, but furthermore that it is actually considered very holy and was thus instructed to be placed in the holy of holies! Hence, it’s not that far-fetched that the Jewish people contemplated making themselves a new leader in place of Moshe in the form of a golden calf in order to have the Divine presence reside on it and give them direction. If the making of the Temple and holy Ark for this purpose was not considered sinful, but rather an obligation, then this too can be viewed as consistent with G-d’s will and desire, and hence the Jewish people constructed the golden calf not for the sake of swerving away from G-d but for the sake of worshiping Him. In the words of Chassidus and Jewish philosophy, the golden calf was built for the purpose of serving as an intermediary [i.e. Memutzeh] between them and G-d, similar to the position and purpose of the Temple, and not G-d forbid in place of G-d.

Now, although in truth the Jewish people were not yet commanded to build a Temple or make the holy Ark and its cherubim and hence knew nothing of the above precedent, nonetheless, from the fact that the Torah allows and commands such a matter we can learn that it is not a very far-fetched idea, and certainly is not an idea that can be viewed as sinful.

5. A Halachic analysis on how Aaron’s actions were not only free of sin but even saved the Jewish people from idolatry:[6]

Aside for the revolutionary clarification brought above which shows that Aaron and the Jewish people never intended to serve idolatry, there is another Halachic explanation to Aaron’s actions which not only saves him from sin, but shows that through his actions he saved all the Jewish people from sinning, even if we were to accept that the intent of the golden calf is idolatry.

An item owned by another cannot be turned into idolatry:

The law is that an item can only become the status of idolatry if it is owned by the person who makes it into an idol and worships it. If a person takes an item that does not belong to him and worships it, it does not receive the status of idolatry, and therefore remains permitted in benefit.[7] Now, the exception to this rule is in a case that the owner expressed his willingness for his friend to turn it into idolatry, in which case his friend does have ability to turn it into idolatry by forming it and worshiping it.[8] However, in truth a careful analysis in this ruling in the Talmud and Rambam[9] reveals that it is not enough for the owner to simply express his willingness for it to be turned to idolatry, but he must do an action which expresses this as well. Based on this we can now explain why Aaron never transgressed any sin in making the golden calf

Aaron never acquired the gold that he used to make the golden calf:

The verse states that Aaron asked for the gold to be brought to him [Vehevio Eilaiy], and does not state that he asked for it to be given to him [i.e. Sheyitnuhu Lo]. The difference between the two terms is in regard to acquisition, as the latter term implies that he wants to acquire ownership over the item, while the former term implies that he simply wants to be given it as a borrowed item and not acquire any ownership over it. Now, irrelevant as to what the Jewish people understood, since Aaron himself did not intend to acquire the gold, in truth he did not acquire it, and hence it ends up that the golden calf was made by Aaron using the gold that still belonged to the Jewish people. Now, the Jewish people never did an action of expression to show that the desired Aaron to make the golden calf for the sake of idolatry, even if one can argue that that was their intent when they asked him to make them an Elokim. Accordingly, it ends up that the calf Aaron made never received a status of idolatry, and he hence never transgressed the prohibition of idolatry by making it. Furthermore, specifically by Aaron making the golden calf using gold that is not his and that he never received express intent from its owners to be turned into idolatry, it ends up that the Jewish people never transgressed making an idol through the golden calf being made, even if in truth that was their intent. Thus, by Aaron personally manufacturing the golden calf, he saved the Jewish people from sin.[10]

Aaron never intended to make it into an idol:

Another explanation for why Aaron was not Halachically liable for making an idol, and also saved the Jewish people from transgression, is because an item can only become the status of an idol if the person who made it had this intent.[11] Now, even if one were to argue that the intent of the Jewish people in making this golden calf was for purposes of idolatry, certainly this was not Aaron’s intent, and hence by him personally making the golden calf he caused that it should not receive a status of idolatry. In short, Aaron never accepted upon himself the job of turning the golden calf into an idol, but simply the job of making it for other purposes that he intended, and hence the idolatry intent of the Jewish people never carried on to the golden calf.

6. The reason Aaron was not at least found guilty of causing other choose to stumble in idolatry:

There is one question that remains no matter how one explains the sin of the golden calf and the intents of Aaron in forming it, and that is with regards to him at the end of the day having caused members of the Jewish people to stumble and serve idolatry. Even according to the revolutionary explanation behind the intent of the sin, which completely dilutes it of its severity of idolatry, at the end of the day everyone agrees that some members of the Jewish people [i.e. the mixed multitude] stumbled due to it, and worshiped it as idolatry, and were hence put to death for idol worship. If so, it ends up that irrelevant of Aaron’s good intentions, he was the cause for other Jews serving idolatry, and seemingly transgressed the prohibition of “Lifnei Iver/thou shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.” Seemingly, however, one can simply answer that Aaron did not transgress the above being that the Jewish people had yet to be commanded against Lifnei Iver, as this command was only given later on when Moshe descended from the mountain.

7. The Divine lesson:

According to the new revolutionary explanation behind the sin of the golden calf we see that something can start off with very holy and ambitious intents, and quickly end up becoming a source of sin and idolatry. How is it possible that idolatry can stem from something that starts from Holiness? The answer is that even matters of holiness can unfortunately become a source for sin as severe as idolatry if they are not viewed and practiced in the proper manner. Every matter in holiness needs to have a practical halachic justification and defense, and if it doesn’t, then even if it surrounds and involves holiness, it can eventually lead to actual sin, and of sin of a severity similar to idolatry. [A Jew must have absolute acceptance of the yoke of heaven and yoke of Jewish law and not try and attempt to come up with his own holy ways of serving G-d that conflict with G-d’s practical directives. As it states that the road to purgatory is paved with gold, and the end does not justify the means.] It is for this reason that we find that the women and children did not participate in the gold donation for the golden calf, as they had absolute faith in G-d, and absolute acceptance of the yoke of heaven, and hence would not even consider a new path in Divine service that they did not receive from Moshe and Sinai. However, the men had a lack of faith and a lack of acceptance of the yoke of heaven, and hence justified new methods of serving G-d which eventually led to the sin of actual idolatry.


The Lesson:

· Don’t be so judgmental of our ancestors in biblical history: Many of the stories and events are far beyond our simple understanding, and what appears to be the worst of sins committed by our forefathers, was in truth an action of good intentions in serving G-d, even though it misjudged G-d’s true will and did not follow through with his final instructions.

· The end does not justify the means: The Jewish people had good and pure motives in their desire to make the golden calf, however, since it was against G-d’s will, it eventually led to full-blown idolatry. From here we can learn that one should never seek new directions in service of G-d that run contrary to Jewish law and/or accepted Jewish tradition. As no matter how holy one’s intents are, the end positive spiritual result does not justify the means of getting there if it is against G-d’s will, as transmitted in Jewish tradition.


[1] Ki Sisa 32:4

[2] Ki Sisa 32:24

[3] See also Avoda Zara 4b that “The Jewish people only performed the golden calf to open the gates for Baalei Teshuvah”

[4] See Rashi on 32:1 “They desired many Elokus”; See, however Likkutei Sichos ibid footnote 31

[5] See Teruma 25:8

[6] See Sanhedrin 7a and Rashi and Tosafus there for a Talmudic explanation behind Aaron’s intents, and how he was trying to save the Jewish people from the eternal sin of killing a prophet, which even with repentance is difficult to rectify.

[7] See Avoda Zara 53b

[8] Avoda Zara 53b

[9] Hilchos Avoda Zara 8:3

[10] See Sanhedrin 7a and Tosafus there that Aaron was “Harbeh Heishiv Meiavon,” returned many from sin

[11] See Rambam Shechita 2:21

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