Portion Ki Tissa, which tells the story of the golden calf, sits between the “heavenly depiction of the Temple” and its “earthly realization.” When a celestial idea descends to earth, it necessarily experiences a crisis.
The golden calf was not created to replace God, it was meant as a replacement for Moses. The people asked for someone to stand in for their missing leader, not for the Almighty. In a sense, the people of that generation deified Moses – and not without justification!
At the very beginning of the story of the Exodus, as the Almighty is sending Moses to Egypt, He tells Moses: “Thus he [Aaron] shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the role of God to him.” And then, later: “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet” (4:16, 7:1). In relation to Aaron, to the people, and to Pharaoh, Moses is God, and Aaron – a translator, a prophet, a transmission link for Moses’ words.
Of course, the concept of “God” as applied to Moses did not mean that Moses was actually God, but only that he was the Almighty’s representative on earth.
This super-exalted status of Moses, which he needed to have in order to lead the Exodus, turned out in a critical situation to be a trap for his followers.
Tradition believes that the instigators for the creation of a new deity were the eirev rav, “the mixed multitude,” i.e., those Egyptians who joined the Jewish people and left Egypt with them at the Exodus. The creation of the golden calf happened not because the eirev rav were avid idolaters, but because of their close connection with Moses. The Jews of the Exodus were attracted by the idea of returning to Canaan, the land of their forefathers, but the Egyptians who joined them had no connection with Canaan, although they did have faith in the person of Moses. Moses’ disappearance perplexed this group, and they urgently demanded a new leader.
Thus, the golden calf was not a manifestation of pure idolatry. Rather, it was Shituf – attaching graphic images to the Almighty in the search for a new and visible representation of the Almighty on earth.
It is highly indicative that it was Aaron who created the golden calf. The book of Deuteronomy makes clear that it was the creation of that calf that prevented Aaron from entering the Promised Land.
(Strictly speaking, Moses and Aaron were so punished because Moses, toward the end of the forty years in the wilderness, struck the rock with his staff [Num. 20:1-13], rather than speaking to it, as God had instructed him to do. But it was Moses, not Aaron, who struck the rock; why, then, was Aaron punished with him? The answer is that Aaron was in fact being punished for having made the golden calf, but that punishment had been postponed until the last year of the journey through the wilderness).
The key to understanding the entire story is that the creation of the calf happened when Aaron was separated from Moses, during the latter’s forty-day stay on Mount Sinai. While Aaron is in Moses’ company he functions normally, transmitting his words to the people. But when Aaron breaks away from Moses and acts on his own, he glorifies the idea of intermediation and creates a Shituf religion, the basis of which is attaching a supplemental image to the Almighty. That image then itself becomes a mediator between the Almighty and the people.