April 12, 2024
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Despite the severity of the sin of the Golden Calf, it’s important to notice that God only becomes angry on the day after it is formed. This point, together with the fact that Moshe doesn’t accuse Aharon of sinning, he only asks his brother—what caused you to do something that caused the people to sin? (see 32:21)—suggests that the primary sin must have been how the calf was worshiped. When comparing the celebration on that “next day” (32:5–6) to the parallel celebration at Mt. Sinai some forty days earlier when Am Yisrael declared “na’aseh v’nishma” (24:4–11), it becomes quite clear that the key difference is the final phrase “vayakumu l’tzachek” (32:6,7) —suggesting that the celebration concluded with “frivolous” behavior and wild dancing.

The gravity of their sin is indicated by God’s initial instructions to Moshe: “Go down for your people have gone astray” (32:7). This is the same verb that the Torah used in Sefer Bereishit to describe the behavior of society before the Flood (6:11–12) which included terrible corruption and crime.

To further support this idea, note Yehoshua’s initial reaction to the ‘loud noise’ that he heard:

“Yehoshua heard the sound of the people b’rayo–screaming loudly, and said to Moshe: there are sounds of war in the camp. But Moshe answered – these are not the sounds of triumphs… they are simply sounds [of wildness] that I hear.” (32:18)

Because of this behavior, God concludes that Bnei Yisrael have not changed their ways, as they have reverted to their Egyptian ways and customs. The events at chet haEgel (sin of the Golden Calf) which had started with good intentions, quickly turned into wild and out-of-control behavior, revealing deep down that nothing had changed.

Based on the terms of the Ten Commandments, God should punish the people harshly and immediately, but Moshe ‘saves the nation’ by breaking the luchot—thus breaking the original contract. Afterward, Moshe will argue for a “new contract” which will include God’s attributes of mercy – thus enabling Am Yisrael to remain God’s people, even though they may continue to sin.

Bnei Yisrael’s sin at chet haEgel had two stages. The first—making a physical representation of God —though improper was understandable. The second—the frivolous behavior after the ceremony—was inexcusable.

These two stages are reflected in God’s ‘double statement’ to Moshe in the aftermath of this sin (32:7–10).

1) God’s first statement:

“And God spoke to Moshe: Hurry down, for your people have acted basely… they have turned astray from the way that I commanded them – they made an ‘egel masecha’ [a representation of Me]…”

2) God’s second statement:

“And God spoke to Moshe: I see this nation, behold it is an “am k’sheh oref” [a stiff-necked people]. Now, allow Me, and I will kindle My anger against them and I will destroy them and I will make you a great nation [instead].”

God’s first statement describes the act that began with good intentions but was nonetheless forbidden [Shemot 20:19 – “lo ta’asun iti elohei kesef…”].Though requiring rebuke and forgiveness (see 32:30), this sin didn’t warrant the destruction of the entire nation.

God’s second statement reacts to “vayakumu l’tzachek,” i.e. their frivolous behavior, indicating a regression to Egyptian culture. Concluding that they are a ‘stiff-necked people’ resistant to change, God decides to destroy Bnei Yisrael, selecting Moshe as His chosen nation instead.

The punishment for Bnei Yisrael mirrors the two stages of their transgression. Initially, the three thousand instigators responsible for the licentious behavior (stage 2) are killed without forgiveness (32:26–29). However, the next day, Moshe pleads with God to forgive the rest of the nation (32:30–32) as their actions, starting with good intentions (stage 1), warrant pardon despite their sin.


Rabbi Menachem Leibtag is an internationally acclaimed Tanach scholar and online Jewish education pioneer. He is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau (www.mizrachi.org/speakers).

The RZA-Mizrachi is a broad Religious Zionist organization without a particular political affiliation.

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