(1) When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him.”
(2) Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”
(3) And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.
(4) This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”
(5) When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron announced: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!”
(6) Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance.
(1) When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain: Moses ascended the mountain on the seventh of Sivan, the day after the Sinai revelation and the giving of the Torah. The incident of the golden calf took place on the fortieth day after that, the seventeenth of Tammuz. Later in Jewish history, that day became an occasion of mourning and fasting.
When He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact … When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain: These adjacent verses appear in the Torah in immediate succession, with no paragraph break between them. This clearly indicates a close thematic connection between the two verses. Namely: Moses has received the tablets, and his forty-day stay on the mountain has now ended. But only now, after forty days without Moses, do the people grow weary of waiting any longer, and demand of Aaron to create for them a deity. Why is this?
The Midrash explains it this way: Before Moses left the people to ascend the mountain, he informed them that he would be away for forty days, by which he meant forty full days. But the people erroneously understood “forty days” in the more usual sense, i.e., that that first partial day already counted as the first day of the forty. Thus, on the eve of Moses’ return the people were sure that the appointed time had already passed, that he had abandoned them, and that they were now bereft of a leader. And so they demanded of Aaron to create the golden calf.
However, these events are connected, not only technically (an error in the calculation), but also internally. Until Moses received the tablets, the people instinctively sensed that Moses still had business on the mountain. But once Moses had received the tablets, and yet he still remained at large for no apparent reason, the people rose up and exclaimed: “That man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him.” They came to Aaron, demanding, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us.”
The chasm between the ideal and the reality here assumes a visible, topographic dimension. Moses is up above, and the people down below. Moses needs time to descend. Descent from the mountain – the process of transferring higher ideals into the lower world – takes time, for it is an incongruity built into the inner workings of the universe. And that creates a crisis. So long as the task has not yet been completed above, the people are prepared to wait below. But when that time has already expired, and still with no visible result, their anticipation becomes unbearable. This is the answer to the question of why the people became impatient only at the very end of the forty days.
(1) The people gathered against Aaron: Aaron was only Moses’ assistant. So even now, in Moses’ absence, Aaron is perceived not as an independent leader, but only as a link of transmission.
And said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him”: In seeking a replacement for Moses, the people ask not for a leader, but for a “god.” This is not just a figure of speech – the people actually relate to Moses as their god.
Indeed, God Himself refers to Moses twice at the beginning of the Exodus story in such terms: “Thus he [Aaron] shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the role of God to him” (4:16). “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet” (7:1).
The generation that left Egypt, and still fosters a slave mentality, needs just such an attitude toward their commander-in-chief, just this view of Moses as an absolute leader – a “god.” But there is another side to this coin: As soon as their leader disappears beyond the horizon, the people, who are accustomed to being led, become lost and disoriented, and demand a new leader, even agreeing to receive him in the form of an idol.
(2–5) Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me” … He built an altar before it; and announced: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!”: The Midrash explains Aaron’s actions as his attempt to stall for time. Aaron thought: The women and children greatly value their jewelry. If I ask them for their golden earrings, they will hesitate to part with them. It will take some time for me to persuade them, and meanwhile Moses will return.
And for the same reason, Aaron “built an altar before it,” i.e., he decided to build the altar himself, because that would take longer than building it as a communal effort. “And Aaron announced: ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!’ ” Tomorrow, not today – all this in the hope that in the meantime Moses would arrive.
However, the Torah also says clearly that Aaron actively created the calf. Thus, his actions cannot be explained simply as a delaying tactic.
The reason Aaron cannot stand up to the people is that his connection with them runs too deep. Unlike Moses, who always kept himself somewhat aloof from the people, Aaron continued to live in their midst, and was at one with them. In theological terms, Aaron’s approach can be summed up as something like this: “In order to elevate a sinner, you must yourself descend into sin with him, and maintain close contact with him. You can then use that relationship to redeem him from his plight.” Without that attachment to the people and his direct involvement with them, Aaron could not have fulfilled his function of mediating between Moses and the people. But precisely because of this same connection, when Aaron breaks away from Moses he yields to the pertinacity of the multitude and creates the calf.
So long as Aaron worked with Moses side by side, there were no issues. Moses drew a hard line, and, although Aaron softened it whenever possible, the inner firmness always remained. But when Aaron is forced to act independently, without his brother, the whole system immediately begins to crumble.
(3) And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron: The Midrash notes that the Torah does not say that the people took off the gold rings that were in the ears of their wives and children, as Aaron had just asked them to do. They gave Aaron their own earrings, rather than waiting for their wives and children to give him theirs, because they were so eager, and so much in a hurry, to create the calf.
Thus, the direct meaning of this verse emphasizes that the Jewish passion for a new deity and new leadership was so compelling, that the people simply could not wait. Indeed, they were prepared to sacrifice even their own comfort, the pleasure of their adornments, in order to fulfill that need. Not always, by far, does a people strive for freedom, and for their right to exercise their own independent judgment and free will. Quite often the very opposite is the case – the people long to be led.
(4) This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf: Here the Torah highlights Aaron’s personal, active involvement in creating the calf. Without Aaron, there would have been no calf. Thus, Aaron’s role in the incident can hardly be considered passive.
A molten calf: It was Aaron who gave it that form. The people had not indicated what appearance they expected the deity to have.
And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”: Previously they had believed that it was Moses who had brought them out (“That man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him,” v. 1). But now he is gone. Moses was to them a demigod, and the calf would now replace him.
Thus, the creation of the golden calf was not idolatry in its purest and most extreme form, but only Shituf, “attachment,” – worship of the Almighty by “attaching” a supplementary image to Him.
(5) When Aaron saw this: The Torah does not tell us exactly what Aaron saw. The Midrash offers two options:
- Aaron saw that the calf was alive, as the Psalms state (106:20): “They exchanged their glory for the image of a bull that feeds on grass.” Aaron saw that the calf possessed true vital energy, and he understood that it was impossible to go against that.
- The Midrash notes that Moses, when he left the people to ascend the mountain, had appointed both Aaron and Hur to lead the people in his absence (24:14). And yet, Hur receives no further active mention in the Torah. The Midrash therefore believes that Hur was killed when he stood up to the people, and tried to interfere with their creation of the calf. The murder of Hur is what Aaron saw, and quite understandably decided it would be best for him not to oppose the creation of calf. Instead, he chose the path of stalling for time, and postponing the celebration until the morrow.
Both of these Midrashic versions are saying that Aaron felt he had no choice but to agree to creating the calf. In the first version, Aaron is compelled by an internal emotional attraction to the calf, his admiration for its invincible appeal. According to the second version, Aaron is motivated by the force of very cogent external coercion. Either way, the Midrash is saying that there was nothing Aaron could do in the situation, and that this mitigates his guilt.
The Midrash notwithstanding, the simple and direct meaning of “When Aaron saw this” is that the Torah wishes to emphasize the power of vision over hearing in this situation. “Aaron saw,” and was therefore unable to hear, or, did not want to hear, the second of the Ten Commandments that God Himself had proclaimed only weeks earlier right there at Sinai: “You shall have no other gods besides Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth” (20:4). The people likewise are not satisfied to “hear a voice,” they need to see their leader – they need the visible image of the calf.
And Aaron announced: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!”: A feast to the Lord, not to the calf. Here once again we see that the people are not renouncing their belief in the Almighty; they consider the calf only a means of reinforcing their connection with Him.
The worship of the calf, in the absolute sense, is not true idolatry, but only Shituf. However, the Torah presents the incident of the golden calf as an outright violation of the prohibition of idolatry, in order to emphasize that for the Jewish people any such form of worshipping God is absolutely inadmissible and unpardonable.
(6) Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being: It is not clear to whom they brought these offerings and sacrifices, whether to the calf, or to the Almighty in gratitude for their having gotten a new leader. Apparently, the people themselves were divided along these two lines, but only a relatively small group actually worshipped the calf.
They sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance: This underscores the psychology of a people that wants and needs to be led. Only when such people feel that they have a leader can they feel safe and rejoice.
 The relationship between seeing and hearing in the context of higher powers will be explored more fully in Bible Dynamics on Deuteronomy.