We’ve talked about this many times before. Why have a cow? The answer I’ve always given is that it comes from Yechezkel’s vision of the מרכבה, the Divine throne borne by the כרובים:
We understand that
בני ישראל had a vision of ה׳'s “throne” similar to Yechezkel’s, something no human brain can understand but that gets “translated” into visual images.
And they knew they would eventually have a model of the מרכבה and כרובים that would go before them in the wilderness.
(The fact that they would eventually make כרובים is implied in שמות כ:יט; ואכמ״ל)
So the Malbim says that this was their error. Since Moshe wasn’t available, they were going to have to make their own כרובים.
Now that doesn’t sound so bad. It’s the plot of my favorite Jewish book:
Don’t wait for help; solve the problem! So they want to make כרובים, which in Yechezkel’s vision have four faces: human, lion, ox and eagle. But in the משכן, those four represented four different כרובים.
Where do those four creatures as symbols of the מרכבה come from?
This is the bottom line: the מרכבה represents כנסת ישראל; we carry the שכינה in the world. And specifically, the שור face represents יוסף (or his senior tribe, אפרים). The people were trying to survive in the middle of the wilderness, so they invoke the one who supported them and the entire country during the seven years of famine.
And that symbolism remains appropriate today.
(and שמאל is south in Biblical directions).
But they built an עגל, specifically, not just a שור (which is the generic term for a bull of any age). It is a baby שור.
Why the baby? It’s striking that the כרובים in the משכן were also infants:
As human beings, we are not angels. We are not perfect, but we have the potential to grow.
But natality is a mixed blessing.
Natality can mean revolution, destroying everything that came before and eventually destroying itself.
Rabbi Meir Goldwicht asks in Mitokh Ha-Ohel on the Parasha, ”How can the keruvim have “double faces“, on the one hand appearing as children, and on the other hand being like angels of destruction?” At one level, that’s a joke: anyone who’s had children knows they are little angels of destruction.
I have often said that if we were objectively looking at the עגל הזהב and at the כפורת with the sculpted כרובים, we would not be able to tell the difference. But that’s not really true. There is a difference between the כרובים on the ארון and the עגל: the כרובים were on the ארון, which housed in the לוחות.
And that was the fundamental mistake that בני ישראל made.