We can judge them for what they did… but not for how they felt.
We give the builders of the Golden Calf a bad rap and deservedly so. They saw G-d directly and heard the Ten Commandments, yet betrayed him forty days later. How could they? We are incredulous, but Incredulous reactions are often disingenuous and unfair. To be sure, we aren’t wrong for censuring these people, but we are wrong for failing to put ourselves in their shoes before judging them.
Imagine two grown men that lost their father on the same day. The first lost all control and became violent in his grief, wreaking damage and injury. The other, remained calm despite his loss. It would appear at first blush that the latter has a right to judge the former, but he doesn’t.
The damage he caused is unjustified, but the latter condemns him unfairly because he doesn’t understand him. The former loved his dad and was overwhelmed by grief, the latter hated his dad and was glad to be rid of him. He assumes that losing a father is as easy for everyone as it was for him and has no idea how devastating it can be. You can only understand the outburst if you can relate to this kind of grief and if you possess a reactionary character. If you understand, you can judge.
The same holds true for the judgment we pass on those who built the golden calf. We know they were wrong, but never having experienced the desperation that they did, we aren’t in a position to judge. In fact, we would do well to recreate at least some of their desperation. Then we will have a right to judge.
These people had a concrete relationship with G-d. To them, G-d was not an idea, He was a real being. A force, a power, a lord that protected them, smote their enemies and saved them from peril. They saw G-d with their eyes, not just their minds and imaginations. To them, G-d was real.
When they were hungry, G-d showered manna from heaven. When they were thirsty, G-d made water gush from a rock. When they were in danger, G-d split an ocean. When they were inspired, G-d appeared on a mountain top and taught them as a teacher addresses his pupils. When they had needs, G-d provided. When they prayed, they knew who they were talking to. A maidservant saw at the Reed Sea when Isaiah could not perceive in prophecy.
And who made G-d real for them? Moses. He was the medium between G-d and man. He stood fearlessly at the sea and waved his staff. He stood at the gates of Egypt and rallied the nation to exodus. He brought Pharaoh to his knees with ten plagues. Moses climbed a mountain and delivered G-d’s message. Moses was the man that made G-d come alive for them. Moses, half human and half G-dly, as the Talmud testifies, was their bridge to a real-ized G-d.
And suddenly Moses went missing. The conduit that brought heaven to earth and G-d to human, was no longer. True, it had been merely six hours, but when something precious goes missing, you panic before long. When they contemplated G-d, they grew physically excited. Their heart beat accelerated, their pulse rose, they exulted in joy. They shrank in awe, they melted in love. Their relationship with G-d was ecstatic, passionate and genuine. To have that taken away was absolutely frightening.
It is easy to condemn them for the golden calf, but we can’t condemn the desperation they felt at that time. We have never felt so desperate for G-d because we never had that kind of relationship with G-d. You have to have it, to lose it. If you never had it, you can’t mourn its loss.
To what could they look forward? To a lifetime of believing in G-d, but never seeing him. To making do with seeing G-d in the constancy of nature, the infrequent miracles and the unusual coincidences. They would need to contend with skeptics who doubt the existence of G-d and would need to counter with logic rather than empirical proof. They would need to be satisfied with the occasional burst of inspiration or clarity, but for the most part, G-d would be opaque. An idea to believe in, rather than a being to connect with. What kind of life is this?
We know exactly what kind of life that is. It is the one we live. Do we feel confined by it? Do we feel desperate to break free? No. We have never known different. If we don’t feel the panic and desperation that they felt, how dare we judge them for how they felt? We can judge them for what they did, it was absolutely forbidden, but we can’t judge them for how they felt.
On the contrary, we should try to emulate what they felt, recapture some of what they had. We should not be content with the spirituality we have been fed. We should yearn for more, for a grander, broader and deeper understanding of G-d. Why should we be content with what frightened our ancestors?
They built a golden calf in the hopes of manifesting the spirit of G-d in something concrete as it had been concretized and real-ized for them by Moses. They never intended to reject G-d by making the calf. They hoped G-d would endow the calf with His Divine spirit and let it serve as a bridge for them to an empirical relationship with G-d. They wanted the calf to provide what Moses always had.
This is forbidden in Jewish law for we may never ascribe Divine properties to a graven image. It was forbidden and they were punished. We make no excuses for their behavior and we don’t attempt to whitewash it. But when we look back, we should do more than judge what they did. We should consider what led them to such desperate measures and try to recapture some of that spirit.
If there is anything to learn from the people that built the Golden Calf, it is this. Lacking a real relationship with G-d is frightening. We need to learn about G-d and know Him as much as possible. We need to think about G-d and learn to see Him in everything. We need to pray to G-d and feel him listening. We need to trust in G-d as we would trust a parent that provides for us
We should feel what our ancestors felt when they were driven to build a Golden Calf. But we should never build it. Instead, we should learn how to make G-d real.