I want to talk about the עגל הזהב, and perhaps look at it in a different perspective than what we’re used to.
What’s the deal with the calf? Why have a cow? What’s more, it wasn’t a one-off thing. The Targum Onkelos has an interesting translation later on:
Generally we would read קמיהם as “their enemies”, but Onkelos translates it as “generations”:
And we see golden calves come up again in תנ״ך:
These statues remained in the Northern Kingdom for a long time. What is interesting is that the נביא doesn’t treat them as idol worship but something less heinous:
These עגלי זהב that ירבעם built were meant to be a way of serving ה׳. Wrong, definitely a חטא, but not עבודה זרה. And that is generally how the original חטא העגל is understood:
The Ramban proves that the calf was not meant to be some sort of deity by the fact that בני ישראל were so ready to abandon it when Moshe returned:
Which is all well and good, but why a calf? What was that supposed to mean? There’s a hint in the chapter of תהילים that describes בני ישראל's sins in the wilderness:
The calf was תבנית שור, the image of an ox (I saw an interesting דבר תורה once that making it a calf made it accessible, not the scary fire and lightning experience that they had at מעמד הר סיני). The ox is an interesting symbol. The Kuzari, and most academic scholars, point out that the ox was a common image of Baal and בני ישראל were just reverting to the physical symbols they were used to, using them in their worship of their unseeable G-d. But I am going to take a different tack, outlined by the Malbim:
Remember from פרשת תרומה that we mentioned that the כפורת with the כרובים was a symbol of the מרכבה.יחזקאל actually had two visions of the מרכבה:
The Malbim explains the symbolism of the two visions of the מרכבה, and summarizes:
So the experience of מעמד הר סיני had to be interpreted through the imagination and senses of the observer, the way we understand all the symbols of prophecy. Depending on the sophistication of the one experiencing it, they saw either a כרוב or a שור. And they knew that they would be building a representation of the מרכבה to be part of the center of service to ה׳, even before the Mishkan was commanded:
So this way of looking at the עגל הזהב sees it not as a substitute for Moshe, but as a substitute for the ארון, which is what eventually would lead them through the wilderness:
Which is what they asked of the עגל: קום עשה לנו אלהים אשר ילכו לפנינו. The people were looking for something to carry the experience of closeness to the שכינה (a role that would be played by משכן). And Aharon built? allowed them to build? something that recreated what they had felt at that awesome moment. The Malbim makes an amazing statement about Aharon and the building of the עגל:
I think the Malbim is minimizing the degree of חטא of קדימו העשיה קודם שהביא לוחות הברית. It is, I think, the primary sin of the עגל הזהב, and the very expression of the prohibition of לא תעשון אתי. And in that case, it does not matter what physical form of angels they chose to make. If is not Torah, it is forbidden.
This is a way of being מלמד זכות on בני ישראל, and makes the עגל הזהב much more understandable. It also makes the lesson that much stronger, since no matter what their intentions, it did end up being worshipped as a fals god: אלה אלהיך ישראל. Creating our own “halacha”, however fraught with meaning it may feel, can have devastating consequences.