As already noted, the concept of “gold” is not associated with material wealth in the Torah (silver serves that purpose instead). Rather, gold is used as a metaphor for noble spiritual qualities. Accordingly, the worship of the golden calf was not a deification of material wealth, but of a particular ethical system, whose essence we shall consider below.
There were periods in history when the Jews worshipped deities of other nations: Baal, Astarte, Moloch, and many others. But only the golden calf was an idol of the Jews’ own invention. The echoes of this “national form of idolatry” resounded throughout all of Jewish history.
When Jeroboam, king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, sought to achieve religious independence from Judea, he “made two golden calves. He said to the people, ‘You have been going up to Jerusalem long enough. This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’ He set up one in Bethel and placed the other in Dan” (1 Kings 12:28-29).
This cult was preserved until the fall of the Northern Kingdom. Even when the prophet Elijah managed to destroy the worshippers of Baal, a foreign deity imported from Phoenicia (1 Kings, 18:39), it did not shake the cult of the calf. Such stability shows that Jeroboam’s calves did not introduce anything alien or new into Jewish religious life, because worship of the calf was a natural form of idolatry for the Jewish people.
The Midrash connects the golden calf with Joseph, as follows. Joseph was buried in a sarcophagus at the bottom of the Nile. In order to raise Joseph from the depths and take him out of Egypt (Exodus 13:19), Moses wrote on a metal plate the words aleh shor, “Rise, o Bull” (the bull being a symbol of Joseph, see Deut. 33:17) and cast it into the Nile. Joseph’s sarcophagus then rose to the surface, and Moses carried it with him when they left Egypt.
A certain young man, adds the Midrash, retrieved the plate with the inscription, and hid it in his possession. Later, at Sinai, when the people demanded of Aaron, “Come, make us a god,” Aaron collected their gold and threw it into the fire, whereupon the same young man then threw his metal plate too with its inscription into the fire. The words “Rise, o Bull” were brought to life again, but this time in a completely different form: Out of the fire rose the golden calf.
This midrash is telling us that the worship of the golden calf was the worship of the attribute of Joseph; that is, the deification of the qualities of the Jewish people that are associated with Joseph’s attributes. It is no coincidence that in later Jewish history, worship of the calf was widespread. It endured in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, whose population mainstay was Joseph’s descendants – the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.
Bull, calf, ox – these represent not just any ordinary force, but a uniquely constructive force of ancient civilization, “the tractor of antiquity,” used for plowing, carrying heavy burdens, and driving the mill for grinding grain. The bull served as a primary material force for improving the world.
These same properties were characteristic of Joseph. He was determined to change and improve the world around him. In his youth, he tried (unsuccessfully) to correct his brothers. Enslaved to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s courtier, Joseph became the steward of his household and all his possessions, for “his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord lent success to everything he undertook” (Gen. 39:3).
Later, after advancing a plan to save all of Egypt from hunger and becoming second-in-command to Pharaoh (Gen. 41), Joseph revamped the entire land of Egypt. He developed the country’s infrastructure, agriculture, and government, and saved Egypt from death by starvation. Even before any of these monumental achievements, the Torah calls Joseph “a successful man” (Gen. 39:2).
The golden calf is an expression of Jewish admiration for those qualities of Joseph, for the uniquely Jewish aptitude for transforming the surrounding world. This, in fact, is the “national Jewish form of idolatry.”
Of course, such abilities are highly essential even from a religious point of view. Active participation in advancing civilization and correcting the world is the very first religious commandment of the entire Torah (“God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it’ ” (Gen. 1:28). If the Jews will not demonstrate their ability to contribute to the development of science and general culture, then even in matters of spirituality no one will listen to what they have to say.
Nevertheless, the capacity to transform the world is only a tool for advancing the Divine teachings; it must not be made a goal for its own sake. Excessive admiration for this aspect reduces all Jewish self-identification to enumerating Jewish Nobel prize laureates, and reflecting on the number of Jews who have made practical contributions to the benefit of mankind.
This worship of “Joseph’s qualities” is, in essence, the worship of the golden calf.
 For more on this aspect of Joseph’s personality, see Bible Dynamics on Genesis, Ch. 42.