If the Jews had just witnessed God's awesome power in the 10 Plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the revelation at Mount Sinai, how could these same people turn around and worship a Golden Calf?!
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
The answer is that the Jews never built the Calf with the intention it should be worshipped.
Here's what happened: Moses went up the mountain for 40 days, and when Day 39 rolled around, the Jews began to wonder – "Where's Moses?" This caused great anxiety, for although the people knew it was God Himself Who'd orchestrated all the miracles, it was nevertheless Moses who'd raised his staff for the Red Sea to split. They relied on Moses as captain of the team around whom everything revolved.
So on Day 39 when Moses didn't show up, the malcontents in the camp began circulating rumors that he wasn't coming back at all. In fact, they managed to instill so much fear and anxiety, that the Talmud says the people actually saw a vision of Moses dead! (So strong is the power of suggestion.)
Then the Jews reasoned: If Moses isn't coming back, we must craft ourselves a replacement. And so the Golden Calf was born. Not as an idol; not as a rebellion against God. But as a figurehead. A mere shrine to replace the missing Moses. And the next thing you know, it's full-blown idol worship.
Maimonides explains that idolatry is not a single step, but rather a process. A person starts off focused and clear on the priorities of life. But then we get sidetracked. In the old days, they'd carve a piece of stone and call it the "sun god." They waned to pay tribute to God as creator of the sun. But before long, they were worshipping the sun itself. They believed that something other than God was the ultimate source of strength and salvation.
Today, it's not uncommon to believe that money, fame, stock options, a fast computer, or good looks is the source of fulfillment and happiness. And that's idolatry!
And we see this every day. I spoke to a young man recently, and asked him – based on his recent experiences in Israel and with the Discovery seminar – if he thought the Torah was true. "Absolutely yes," he said. So I asked him why he's still driving on Shabbos, eating cheeseburgers, and dating a non-Jewish woman. His reply: "I'm waiting until I get a breakthrough in my career. Then I'll get around to those other things."
That's insanity. We start off clear, then get sucked into a contorted way of thinking. Ask any high school senior, "Why are you going to college?" He's likely to reply, "Because I need to get a job." "OK, why do you need a job?" "So that I can pay my bills, and have peace of mind in order to pursue what's really important in life – family, friends, and personal growth." Check in with him 10 years later – he's working 70 hours a week, with little or no time for family, friends, and personal growth!
The lesson of the Golden Calf is to think about what it is we're doing. What starts innocently may turn out tragic. Have we lost sight of our true priorities? Idolatry is alive and well today!