Why Make a Golden Calf? Understanding the Symbolism | Aleph Beta

Why Would Anyone Want To Make A Golden Calf?

Why Would Anyone Want To Make A Golden Calf?


Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

We learn in Parshat Ki Tisa about the infamous sin the Israelite’s committed by making the Golden Calf. But there’s something very unclear about this story — why would the Israelites' want to build a Golden Calf? It's not like people today want to build and pray to idols, so why would the Israelites?

Join Rabbi Fohrman and Imu as they explore the text of the Golden Calf and debate the real reason the people wanted to make a new “godly” figure from a calf of gold. You’ll never think of the sin of the Golden Calf the same way again.

For more information on the Israelites' sin, check out Rabbi Fohrman’s course on the Golden Calf.


Imu Shalev: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Parsha Lab. I am Imu Shalev.

Rabbi Fohrman: I am David Fohrman.

Imu Shalev: And this week's Parsha is Ki Tisa. Okay. So, Rabbi Fohrman, I really want to talk to you about the cheit ha'eigel, the sin of the golden calf. The reason I want to do that is because I'm a big fan of treating Torah like a guidebook, trying to find the moral and relevant lessons to my everyday life.

Understanding the Sin of the Golden Calf

Imu Shalev: The sin of the golden calf is such a huge and epic story, the problem is I just don't relate to it. I kind of treat it like, you know, when you watch horror films. You want to scream at the screen, and you're like, "Don't go in there! Don't go in there! He's in there! He's going to murder you!" But then they do. And as much as you try and scream in vain, they go in and –

Rabbi Fohrman: It's that chilling music and then it's like, "No!", and you avert your eyes.

Imu Shalev: Exactly. And imagine, year after year, you have to watch the same horror film.

Rabbi Fohrman: It's awful.

Imu Shalev: And then, not only that, we're told that we're supposed to learn some lesson from that. Like, ostensibly, the lesson I would learn in kindergarten is –

Rabbi Fohrman: Don't go in the Bates Motel (amusedly).

Imu Shalev: Don't go in there. Exactly. And, you know what, it's not like I have a lot of friends who are, they didn't read parsha this week and they're going to worship some calves. It's not very relatable – a sin to avoid. So I have a hard time. And I kind of wanted to study with you this sin, the sin of the golden calf, together. What do you think?

Rabbi Fohrman: I'm game.

Imu Shalev: Are you into it?

Rabbi Fohrman: I'm into it. Go ahead.

Imu Shalev: Great. So let's start with Chapter 32, Verse 1, "Vayar ha'am ki vosheish Moshe laredet min ha'har," the nation saw that Moses had delayed in coming down from the mountain for some reason, "vayikaheil ha'am al Aharon," and they gathered upon Aaron. So Moses is missing, they gathered to Aaron and, finish the verse for me. Don't read it, but what would you expect it would say next?

Rabbi Fohrman: So you would be thinking, they would want to coronate Aaron. It's time for the vice president to step up and take the mantle of leadership and invoke the 25th Amendment. Moses is gone.

Imu Shalev: Exactly. Aaron, put your hand on these two tablets and swear to faithfully execute the duties of president. But that's not what happens, right? The rest of the verse is, "vayomru eilav kum aseih lanu elohim asher yeilchu lefaneinu," Aaron, please go up and make for us a god, that is going to go before us. Why? "Ki zeh Moshe ha'ish," because Moses the man, "asher he'elanu mei'Eretz Mitzrayim," who has taken us out of Egypt, who brought us up out of Egypt, "lo yadanu meh hayah lo," we don't know what happened to him. So, Rabbi Fohrman, what questions pop out at you after reading this verse?

Rabbi Fohrman: So, for me, it's the contrast between two words that, sort of, stick out. "Kum aseih lanu elohim," make us a god, "ki zeh Moshe ha'ish," because this Moses, the man. It's this contrast between the divine being that they hope the calf will be for them, versus the mortality of this man Moses. And they seem to be suggesting that if Moses has failed, if he has died in this story, the reason for that failure is his mortality.

We need something that can't die. We need some sort of divine being, and we're going to make one since we can't find it, a divine being to make a divine connection with a god who would otherwise destroy anyone that comes into contact with him.

What Did the Golden Calf Symbolize?

Imu Shalev: Okay. So to me, as well, it seems like, first of all – and just to debunk a common misnomer right off the bat – it doesn't seem like the people build the golden calf because they're denying God.

They seem like they're building the golden calf as a replacement for Moses. And somehow they're going to do that by building an elohim. Which, back then, you know, as polytheists, or perhaps as seeing a head-god with sub-gods, they're replacing Moses with a sub-god. And the question is why they do that?

Also, I think, Rabbi Fohrman, you're reading "ki zeh Moshe ha'ish" as an acknowledgment of Moses' mortality. Maybe, perhaps saying, Moses wasn't strong enough of a leader. We need a god instead of a mortal. I'm not sure I read the verse that way. I could be convinced.

I wonder if maybe the fact that they chose to replace Moses with a god means that they thought that Moses was a god. If they lost one god, they need to replace him with another god. The reason I choose to read it that way is because it says, "ki zeh Moshe ha'ish asher he'elanu mei'Eretz Mitzrayim." They seem to imply that Moses is the one who took the people up out of Egypt when we know that's something that God did. And so I wondered, to some extent, if they are denying that God is the One who took them out of Egypt and saying that it's Moses who did so, and they need another god to replace the deity in Moses.

Rabbi Fohrman: So, under that reading, how would you read the qualification of Moses in the people's claims? "Ki zeh Moshe ha'ish." Why are they arguing that Moses was a man in this context?

Imu Shalev: It's a great question. I ultimately will have to come to something along the lines of what it is that you are saying. But I might argue that, you know, maybe Moses was a demigod. He was a man who had godliness to him, and I guess they are replacing him with a god.

Rabbi Fohrman: You know, just to throw some gasoline on that fire, to use probably a bad metaphor for the calf that came out of the fire –

Imu Shalev: Throwing things in the fire.

Rabbi Fohrman: Throwing things in the fire. If you actually go back to the first time that Aaron comes on the scene – because remember, this really is a Moses and Aaron story, right? Moses is gone. The people gather upon Aaron and they want a new leader.

Think back to the very first time you have that interaction between Moses and Aaron. When Moses was the leader and Aaron comes in as vice president.

Imu Shalev: Oh, wow!

Rabbi Fohrman: You know what I'm talking about. Where does Elokim, where does elohim show up there? Imu, take us to the money over here.

Imu Shalev: I believe what happens is, when Moses is talking to God at the burning bush and Moses expresses the fact that he is hesitant to go to speak to Pharaoh, God tells Moses that he is going to be an elohim. He tells Moses that he is going to be kind of like a demigod. And that Aaron will be his navi, that Aaron will be his prophet.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. Aaron is going to be his speaker. And you are going to be like an elohim. So fascinatingly, it wasn't the people who made up that notion that Moses could have almost a godlike status. God himself uses that language.

Again, you have to keep in mind that the word "elohim" doesn't always mean what we think it means. We think of elohim as a synonym for God, based upon really the first verse of the Bible. "Bereishit bara Elokim et hashamayim v'et ha'aretz," in the beginning, God made the Heavens and the Earth.

It may be more accurate to use the word "elohim" as a sort of generic word for a godly-style being. Again, this goes back to something which I talked about a little bit in "The Exodus You Almost Passed Over", a book I wrote about the Exodus, where I argued that elohim –

Imu Shalev: Rabbi Fohrman, you wrote a book?

Rabbi Fohrman: You can buy it on Amazon or at Aleph Beta.

The book argues that, if you look at the names of God, the word "elohim" actually has a meaning. It can mean either judges or it can mean power. When the people would worship these demigods or they would worship these other gods, they were really worshiping these other powers. And it's true.

There are these powers in the world. The sun and the moon and the stars are powerful forces. They're much more powerful than human beings. The moon controls the tides. The sun controls all life on Earth.

When the Bible, for example, says, "lo yiyeh lecha elohim acheirim al panay," you shall not worship other gods, that's not like this crazy oxymoron that I thought you said there's only one god, so how could there be other gods to worship? It really means you shall not worship other powers; you shall not have allegiant to other powers. There are other powers in the world.

So this question of what Moses is when God Himself says that he's going to be like an elohim to Aaron, it's this sort of ambiguous thing. It doesn't really mean you'll be divine, but it means that you have some sort of ultimate power in the relationship.

Somehow, the people maybe are tripping over that and taking that idea that Moses is an elohim to Aaron and kind of running with it a little bit close to the margins and getting themselves on the wrong side of something that ends up being an act of idolatry, sort of confusing a power with someone that may have, in a way, godlike status. I don't know if that's where you're going in that sense that Moses –

Imu Shalev: Yeah, that is where I'm going. I think there are two elements that I want us to pay attention to. One is it seems like the people have an inappropriate relationship with Moses or an inappropriate conception of Moses and possibly even an inappropriate conception of God as well, but I'm going to leave that latter one off for a second.

Why Did the Israelites Make a Golden Calf?

I want to continue to develop the Moses piece. If you read with me 32, Verse 4, where Aaron is actually molding the calf, "Vayikach miyadam," he takes the jewelry from them, "vayatzar oto ba'cheret vaya'aseihu eigel maseichah," he creates a molten calf. By the way, just a little tangent, maseichah means molten, but it also means –

Rabbi Fohrman: It also means a mask.

Imu Shalev: Right. And maybe here there's a little bit of a hint as to this calf which is ostensibly being used as a connection device to God is really a mask. It's really something to shield them from God to some extent.

Rabbi Fohrman: In that sense, it's sort of a passive-aggressive kind of way of connecting where I'm ostensibly seeking to connect to this divine being, but what I'm really doing is trying to shield myself from the deleterious effects of, or my fear of, connecting to the divine.

So the calf is both a connecting device – a calf wants to nurse, a calf wants to connect with some sort of father or mother in Heaven – but there's also that maseichah, that masking or keeping me hidden or safely away, a blast shield from the divine at the same time. So the people are kind of conflicted about where they're coming from.

Imu Shalev: Let me just finish this verse. "Vayomru," they say once they make this molten mask-like calf, "eleh elohecha Yisrael asher he'elucha mei'Eretz Mitzrayim," this is your god, Israel, that took you out of Egypt. On the one hand, "that took you out of Egypt," that phrase we had just a few verses above by Moses, which you could argue is technically true.

Moses did lead them out of Egypt, although I would argue that they were unfairly, in a demigod sort of way, attributing it to Moses. Here, this is patently false. This calf did not take them out of Egypt. It didn't aid, abet, wasn't involved, wasn't there and yet they are –

Rabbi Fohrman: It's fake news.

Imu Shalev: It's fake news. They literally created some sort of demigod and argued that it took them out of Egypt, and I think they had an agenda. They had a reason why they needed someone else to take them out of Egypt other than to lay that completely at God's feet.

I think that you already alluded to it. You said that they're afraid. They're afraid somehow of that raw connection to God Himself. And when I read this verse, it reminded me of some verses in Beshalach. Beshalach happened a few weeks back and I think by the time we get to Ki Tisa, we forget those earlier stories.

I think that reading Ki Tisa, this story of the golden calf without the context of Beshalach, it makes you really a lot more puzzled as to what was going on with the golden calf than you might need to be. I think there's actually a very clear story to tell.

I think that story has all to do with, as we said, the relationship with Moses, whether that relationship was appropriate or inappropriate, as well as the relationship with God and who God was to them and whether God is someone to be feared. I'm going to argue that people were terribly afraid of God and that may not have been the right thing to do and, therefore, they rushed into Moses' arms.

Rabbi Fohrman: So I'm going push you for evidence here. What it is that you see in Beshalach that you think makes for a compelling antecedent to the story of the golden calf? Give me numbers; give me data.

Imu Shalev: Will do. Okay. So, Rabbi Fohrman, what I want to point you to is really from Beshalach. All throughout Beshalach, you have a bunch of times where the people are in crisis and they call out. They reveal a lot about how they perceive things based on who they call out to and what it is they say.

So I want you to come with me to Chapter 14, Verse 11. As the Egyptians are about to reach the Israelites at the sea, and they have the sea in front of them and nowhere to go. They don't know the end of the story just like we do. We often think of the Israelites at the sea perfectly faithful, ready for God to save them, but that's not exactly what happens. Instead, what do we get?

"Vayomru el Moshe," they turn on Moses and they say, "hamib'li ein kevarim b'Mitzrayim," what, are there not enough graves in Egypt, "lekachtanu lamut ba'midbar," that you took us to the desert – so the ultimate passive-aggressive line – "mah zot asita lanu lehotzi'anu miMitzrayim," what did you do to us to take us out of Egypt?

"Ha'lo zeh ha'davar asher dibarnu eilecha b'Mitzrayim leimor chadal mimenu v'na'avdah et Mitzrayim," this is exactly what we told you, we said leave us alone, we're happy to work in Egypt, "ki tov lanu avod et Mitzrayim mimuteinu bamidbar," because it's better for us to work in Egypt than to die in the desert.

So to read these verses, you get here for a second that they're not exactly relating to God. They somehow think that this plot of taking them out of Egypt is a Moses plot.

Rabbi Fohrman: So I want to, yeah, I hear you and I think you're right about this language, but I do want to challenge you just a little bit and push you. In the verse right before this, you're going to have to contend with a trend that seems to go in the opposite direction. Read the verse just before this.

Imu Shalev: I knew you were going to do that. So what happens is, Pharaoh faces them and they get very scared. You have this very nice language, this very religious thing they do, "vayitzaku Bnei Yisrael el Hashem," the People of Israel call out to God, but –

Rabbi Fohrman: So just understand the issue here. In other words, it's not like they're ignoring to God. They are calling out to God even as they're complaining to Moses about Moses taking them out of Egypt.

My point just is that it sounds like something kind of complex and almost muddled is going on here. It sounds like the people, you know, are obviously in a relationship with God. They don't believe that there was nothing divine about what happened and, nevertheless, they're laying the blame at what happened squarely at Moses' feet, which seems odd.

Imu Shalev: Yes. By the way, I think that that tension is going to get to our takeaway. On the one hand, the people can't deny God. They just saw ten plagues, fascinating miracles, so they have to relate to the fact that there is a divine being. But what do you do when you know there is a divine being and you can't contend with him because he's a god?

Wouldn't it be great if you could have your cake and eat it, too? If you had a god who was powerful and helped you and protected you when you didn't like where things were and there was a complaint department, right, that the god was sort of a man who you could fight with a little bit? I think that actually, those two verses are perfect examples of the, of Israel, who are nishtihin and nishtiher as it's said in Yiddish; they're neither here nor there.

Rabbi Fohrman: If I understand you correctly, what you're saying is that people do understand that there is some sort of partnership between God and Moses in taking them out. They get it that there's a divine being that supplies all the power and fireworks over here.

Nevertheless, they understand correctly that Moses is a partnership with God. But what is not completely on the level, in terms of what the people are doing, is that when it becomes convenient, they realize they can't really challenge God, the Almighty, who's the Maker of these miracles. But Moses is a person; his part of the partnership is the weak link.

So what they do is sort of – with guile – pull this shtick, as it were, of suggesting to Moses that he has a greater responsibility than you might otherwise attribute to him by saying what the heck did you do? How did you take us out of Egypt? You should have just left of there where they are conveniently overemphasizing the Moses elements in this partnership. Is that kind of where you're going?

The Israelites' Relationship with God and Moses

Imu Shalev: Exactly. In order for them to complain – and they want to complain, as Jews love to complain – they need to ascribe more power to Moses than he deserves and yet, at the same time, they can't completely deny God's role either. I think we're going to continue to see that more and more.

So come with me to Chapter 15, Verse 24, which is the next major complaint right after the splitting of the sea, after God proves Himself. By the way, just to make sure that we all know that they're not in denial of God. At the end of –

Rabbi Fohrman: And then they sing this great song.

Imu Shalev: Right. They sing this great song and we have this thing. It says, "vaya'aminu ba'Hashem u'v'Moshe avdo." They believe in God and they believe in Moses, His servant.

Rabbi Fohrman: This, by the way, is the partnership right there. So they're acknowledging that partnership.

Imu Shalev: Right.

Rabbi Fohrman: There's a God and there's a Moses his servant.

Imu Shalev: Right. So come with me to 15:24. This right after they run into, they have no water or the water they have is very, very bitter. And so unlike last time, where they screamed out God and then complained to Moses, here they just go directly to Moses. "Vayilonu ha'am al Moshe leimor," the nation complains to Moses saying, "mah nishteh," what are we going to drink?

Rabbi Fohrman: By the way, fascinating. If I could just interject, sorry about that, for one second, there's a direct parallel in contrast with the last time around. The last time around what the people did, as you pointed out, is that they screamed to God and then complained to Moses. Here, the exact same words of screamed to God are being evoked once more, except it's not the people who do it. It's Moses who does it. So the contrast is, look at that, right?

Imu Shalev: Oh, interesting.

Rabbi Fohrman: It's exactly the same thing. So what happens is the people now complain to Moses, they do not scream to God, they just complain to Moses, leaving it up to Moses to scream to God, which is what the very next thing that happens. "Vayitzak el Hashem," he screams to God.

So, again, it's almost as if Moses is sort of being forced to take the bait. It's like no, our only address, our complaint department is you, Moses. We're not even doing any screaming to God, at which point it now becomes a division of labor for Moses to take on this new job of being the one to scream to God because he's got these complaints from the people. Moses is sort of being forced into being the weak link in this partnership.

Imu Shalev: Exactly. I think there's even more to learn from this particular episode, which is what happens right after this, after Moses, he throws in a stick or a tree into the water and it sweetens. What happens is Moses tells the people almost to comfort them – if you were to comfort the people, what would you say?

So Moses says listen, don't worry. If only you listen to God's voice and you follow His commands, then He'll take care of you. Except that's not what he says. He says if you listen to all of God's commands and if you follow in His ways, then all of the sickness, "kol hamachalah asher samti b'Mitzrayim lo asim alecha ki ani Hashem rofecha." All of the sicknesses, which I, God, placed on Egypt I'm not going to put on you because I'm your doctor, I'm your healer, which is very weird and kind of creepy thing to reassure the people.

The people don't have water and they just want to hear that God is going to take care of them. So what does He say? Hey, I'm not going to put all of the plagues that I put on the Egyptians upon you. Unless the people were actually afraid that God did not care about them. They saw God as a jealous, vengeful god, who just destroyed Egypt and brought Egypt to its knees.

In that book you wrote, Rabbi Fohrman, one of the main agenda. one of the main arguments you make about God's agenda, is for God to establish His own power but not necessarily to establish His love over the people of Israel. The miracles that God performs are all miracles of destruction.

So maybe, what God is doing here is saying I know you're afraid of me, I know that you think that I don't care about you and I want you to know that if you're in it with me, if you're in this relationship with me, I'm not going to do any of those things I did to Egypt. "Ani Hashem rofecha," I'm your healer.

Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. Let me summarize what I hear you saying and tell me if I got this right. What you're arguing is that at this point, finally, after two failed communications between the people, God and Moses revolving around complaints; failure number 1, before the splitting of the sea; failure number 2, after the splitting of the sea. God is noticing a trend; which is, things are getting worse.

The first time around, the people at least scream to God and then complain to Moses. Now, they're not even talking to God at all. They're just complaining to Moses, leaving it up to Moses to scream to God. At that point, God says okay, folks, we've got talk about this. You're ignoring me. What's going on? Why are you ignoring me? God is implicitly getting to the reason why.

What you're suggesting is a possible rationale for why the people have been ignoring God, and the rationale is fear. What you want to argue is that the nature of that fear is that the people cannot deny the signs and miracles and wonders in the Exodus, but they question the motivation of the divine for doing them, which is to say what's in it for God?

One possibility is God loves us, He took us out, but there is another darker possibility, which is God has an agenda here. The agenda is to show the world that He is Master, to be able to use the Egyptians as pawns. The people are worried that they are merely pawns in this battle between Egypt and God, and they are ancillary beneficiaries. But that's not really on God's mind, leading them to some kind of fear which is like, look, do you just use us and when it's no longer convenient, do you even really care?

At this point, God sort of comes out of the clouds over here in Parshat Beshalach and says hey, I just want to tell you something. If you're fearful that you guys will become the next Egypt and my anger will anger will turn against you when you're not convenient, that's not the case. I'm actually looking to a long-term relationship with you and I am not going to visit upon you all the terrible things that would happen in Egypt. I'm not that kind of god.

Imu Shalev: Yep, that's what I'm arguing. If you think it's speculative or you think that, you know, it's a little, not enough evidence quite yet, then let me take you to one last destination, and that's in the very next chapter when the people run out of food. In 16:2, you have this verse. "Vayilonu kol adat Bnei Yisrael al Moshe v'al Aharon bamidbar." Once more, they're facing a struggle and they complain against Moses and Aaron this time; not against God.

"Vayomru aleihem Bnei Yisrael," and the Children of Israel say to them, "mi yitein muteinu b'yad Hashem b'Eretz Mitzrayim," would that we had died at the hands of, not of Pharaoh but the hands of God in Egypt, almost as if God was going to have killed them if they had stayed in Egypt. Better that we had died by the hands of God in Egypt, "b'shivteinu al sir ha'basar," when at least we were sitting upon of meat, when we at least had food in our bellies, "b'ochleinu lechem lasova," when we would have bread to our satiation, to our satiety, "ki hotzeitem otanu el hamidbar ha'zeh lehamit et kol hakahal ha'zeh ba'ra'av," you guys – you, Moshe and Aaron unilaterally, seemingly – took us out into this desert to kill us with starvation.

So here, again, it seems obnoxious that they're suggesting that Moses and Aaron were the ones that took them out of Egypt. But again, they're suspecting that God would've killed in the land of Egypt? Again, what I'm arguing here is that it seems like they looked at what happened in Egypt not as God saving them but as God annihilating Egypt, and they would've died as collateral damage. Maybe Moses was wily and was able to spirit them away, but certainly, that whole episode in Egypt had more to do with Egypt and God settling the score with Egypt than it had anything to do with that.

What happens is that Moses then says to them: "Vayomer Moshe v'Aharon el Bnei Yisrael erev vidatem ki Hashem hotzi et'chem mei'Eretz Mitzrayim." We're going to perform this, what's it called? God is going to perform this miracle for you and He's going to bring food down from the heavens and you'll see that God is the one who took you out of Egypt, not us.

"U'voker u're'item et kevod Hashem b'sham'o et telunoteichem al Hashem v'nachnu mah ki talinu aleinu." In the morning, when the bread falls, you'll see the glory of God in His having heard your complaints upon Him. And us, who are we that you complain to us?

So God is going to, He's basically overhearing your complaints about Him to us and He's going to respond to you and you guys, you really shouldn't be talking to us. We're not the complaint department. God is the one who you should be complaining to.

Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. I hear you. It makes a lot of sense to me. My only concern is around "mi yitein muteinu b'yad Hashem b'Eretz Mitzrayim." It feels to me a little bit ambiguous as to what that means. If I'm not mistaken, you're offering the interpretation that we might have died as collateral damage because God would've been indifferent fates. I guess that's possible.

Another possibility is they're just talking about natural death, the way anybody dies at the hands of God. After living a ripe old age, we would've at least been able to live out our lives and die like normal human beings, at least having bread in our stomachs rather than die out here like abnormal human beings of starvation.

The Relationships Behind Building the Golden Calf

Imu Shalev: So I hear you. I'm putting together both the kol hamachalah and the b'yad Hashem to argue that what's happening here is the people have a demigod relationship with Moses and they have a fear of God.

Rabbi Fohrman: I think the thrust of your theory stands even if the people are worried about natural death at the hands of God. It seems to me the progression is that this a third complaint.

In Complaint Number 1, they acknowledge God and scream to Him and just talk to Moses. In Complaint Number 2, they don't even acknowledge God; they complain to Moses and they leave it to Moses to scream to God. In Complaint Number 3, they're going even a little bit further by arguing that Moses, in his actions, may have been acting – here's another possibility – at cross-purposes with God, that God might have preferred them to stay in Egypt while there are all these signs and wonders as He was getting rid of all the Egyptians and Moses, on his own, kind of decides to take them out.

You know, what are doing Moses? You're killing us. If we had just stayed back with God's plan, you know, God's plan might've had hanging back and just watching the fireworks show from Egypt while we remained slaves, is another possible reading.

Imu Shalev: So what I wanted to do was I think the reading of Beshalach really informs the reading of Ki Tisa here in this episode of the calf. The things that have transpired in between Beshalach and Ki Tisa and the sin of the golden calf, is the giving of the Torah where God reveals Himself to the people. He says in the very first line of His speech, "Anochi Hashem Elokecha asher hotzeiticha mei'Eretz Mitzrayim." No, it's me, I am your God; I'm the one who took you out of Egypt.

Rabbi Fohrman: So in other words, what you seem to be saying is that the reason why God needs to introduce Himself this way in the Ten Commandments is because it's like, here it is, God is speaking from the top of the mountain directly to the People of Israel, no Moses intermediary, no chance for miscommunication and God says let me clear up this confusion once and for all. I am responsible. I am the one who took you out of Egypt which, Imu, makes it all the more ironic what's happening at the bottom of the mountain as the people are dancing around a calf and essentially calling that very thing into question.

"Ki zeh Moshe ha'ish asher he'elanu mei'Eretz Mitzrayim." Even as God is attempting to make it as clear as day in the Ten Commandments that I am the one who took you out of Egypt, the people are still sort of using this backchannel that Moses is this man who took us out of Egypt, we need a god to perform that function and they're backsliding.

Imu Shalev: So having said all of this, what do you think their motivation was for building a calf? What do you think, you know – and I know you don't like to speak in this language, but I'll put it in my language and you can recontextualize it if you want – like, what would you say is the takeaway? Where do you see yourself or where do we see ourselves in where the Children of Israel went wrong?

What the Golden Calf Symbolized to the Israelites

Rabbi Fohrman: If you think about it this way, if their underlying motivation, as you are reading this, is to argue that the people are looking to overemphasize the Moses part of the partnership because it's convenient for them, because it allows them a mortal human being to whom they can complain to; is that purpose served by a calf to replace Moses?

The way the people may have been viewing Moses is, on the one hand, a demigod but, on the other hand, a human, sort of this cross between the two. As a human, he is a human being representing the people in relationship with God. As a demigod, he was sort of a godlike figure representing God to the people. He has both of those qualities.

So now, the people are trying to replace that Moses with this kind of demigod, with this thing that they create, but the advantage they have is that they've created it. They've created this thing and, therefore, it's a representative of them too. And so there's something sneaky going on here in this idolatry, which is when you make your own idol, when you make your own god, who's in charge of who?

So you can pretend that the god is in charge of you and that this thing, this divine god is higher up on the totem pole of power than you, but the reality is it's just a product of your own hands and you are the one pulling the strings and you are the puppeteer. In that sense, you have the ultimate being that you can control.

So the people, on the one hand, are – if the nature of their sin, so to speak, throughout Parshat Beshalach is as you suggest – that they are seeking to lean on a Moses that they think they can control by complaining to him, they have that in spades with the calf that is nothing but the products of their own hands. They are completely in charge of that end of the relationship, even though, ironically, the calf has no power whatsoever.

Avoiding the Sin of the Golden Calf Today

Imu Shalev: Yeah, I think this is something we should pay attention to as we continue to read these other Torah portions. It makes me wonder whether there's an issue we have in Judaism with intermediaries. The Torah ends with a really great statement about Moses, how there never again arose a prophet as amazing as Moses who saw God face to face or spoke to God face to face. I wonder if that's both a praise of Moses but also, there's a reason why we don't get another Moses. Maybe, to some extent, we are called into a more direct relationship with God and something we're afraid of, something we tend to avoid.

Rabbi Fohrman: It's an interesting possibility. I think about to my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, who once told us, his students, something kind of strange about the role of a rebbe. You know, if you're in yeshiva, you think you've got your rebbe. What's the role of your rebbe?

In sort of an immature view of the rebbe role, at least as a ninth-grader or 10th-grader, you're looking up to this demigod and you're looking up to Mr. Intermediary between you and God and he's just going to fix all the problems. I can complain to him and he's a human being and somehow he's going to make it all better.

Rabbi Weinberg's perspective was that the rebbe doesn't really have that intermediary role. The rebbe's role is actually to help you stand up as an independent human being in your relationship with God. His role, according to Rabbi Weinberg, is to test your objectivity. If you can talk things out with a mentor, with a rebbe and that rebbe can stand in front of you and say what you're saying makes sense or I hear a certain bias in your words or I don't think you're being honest with yourself, there is an honest, wise human being who can vet your issues and give you the confidence, really, of your own convictions or call you out if you're lying to yourself.

The rebbe, in his view, was actually someone that helps us become more independent in our relationship with God than helps us shirk our responsibilities in that relationship. At least, that was his take on it and it's certainly something which has resonated with me over time.

Imu Shalev: That's a really incredible take, like, a leader that fosters more independence and more responsibility for their flock. Well, Rabbi Fohrman, this is a good a time as any to be grateful for your mentorship and to say it's fun learning these Torah portions with you. I hope we were able to impart something of value to others.

Thanks, everyone. For more on the golden calf, Rabbi Fohrman has recorded an epic, epic series. What we did today were small potatoes compared to the incredible treatment Rabbi Fohrman gave it. So make sure to go to alephbeta.org and check out the incredible audio series that we have there. You can listen on the Aleph Beta app while you're driving in your car, while you're peeling your potatoes. It is incredible, breathtaking. You don't want to miss it.

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