l'ilui nishmat R' Avraham ben Yona Ya'akov
“They said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt’” (32; 4)
According to the simple reading of the story, they should have said ‘this is our god who brought us out’. It should have used the first person plural, rather than the third person, and the description of the calf should have been in the singular (this is your god). For comparison (l’havdil bein kodesh l’chol) when they saw G-d at the crossing of the sea they said ‘This is my G-d’.
But we can explain based on the Midrash that it was the Erev Rav (mixed multitude) who built the calf. These were people from other nations who left Egypt with Israel, as it says in Parshat Bo (12; 38) “Also Erev Rav went up with them”. Rashi explains there that it was a mixture of many different nations who ‘converted’ and left with the Israelites. We will explain in Parshat Netzavim (on the verse “From your wood choppers to your water drawers”) that they fooled Moshe into thinking that they were sincere in their conversion. However they only converted in outward appearance, but not with their hearts.
They wanted to cause the Israelites to sin with the golden calf, as Rashi explains earlier (verse 7) “your nation has sinned”, that it refers to the Erev Rav. The Zohar also explains on an earlier verse (verse 1) “The people saw that Moshe tarried on the mountain” – who was this people? It was the Erev Rav. Rashi also explains in parshat Beha’alotecha on the verse “The people were complaining” (11; 1) – the word ‘people’ always means wicked people. Similarly in the Midrash Raba (Balak 20): Everywhere that it says ‘the people’ it always speaks derogatorily. We find many references to ‘the people’ when it talks about sin. For example in Isaiah (49; 1) “The people who go in darkness”, or in Yeremiah (8; 5) “Why is this people so wild?”
Once they succeeded in their plan to build an idol and they managed to persuade some of the Israelites to join with them, they weren’t satisfied, and tried to honour the idol in front of the rest of the Israelites. They said to the Israelites “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt”. They used the plural language for ‘gods’ and ‘brought’ as a sign of respect, for in Biblical Hebrew we find that plural language is a honorific way of speaking. For example it says “Let us make man” (Bereishit 1; 26), “Let us descend” (ibid. 11; 7) etc.
The Erev Rav intended to honour the calf and make it great so that the sin and punishment of the Israelites would increase. ‘To push the rock after the fallen’ to quote the Talmud in Erechin (30b).
This explains why Nechemia changed the language. When he repeats all of Jewish history to the people who returned from Bavel he uses the singular “They also made for themselves a graven calf, and they said ‘this is your god who brought you out of the land of Egypt’.” (Nechemiah 9; 18). He changed from the plural to the singular to show that the Erev Rav had intended to give honour to the calf with their usage of the plural, and he did not wish to give it any honour at all.
“Aharon called and said ‘tomorrow is a festival for G-d’” (32; 8)
Rashi tries to figure out what Aharon means by this – which festival is he referring to? It seems to me based on the end of Talmud Ta’anit (30b): There was no happier day for Israel than the day that the tablets were given.
Aharon was certain that the next day Moshe would arrive and bring the tablets, and there would be a festival.
We must also examine how this statement fits with another statement that says: There was no happier day for Israel than Yom Kippur (Ta’anit 26b). They can’t both be the happiest day. Perhaps we can explain that the happiness of Yom Kippur was purely physical. It was the day that the women would go out to the fields and the men would seek a spouse. The day that the tablets were given was purely spiritual. Therefore they could each be the happiest day in their own realm. Alternatively, we could answer based on the Midrash Rabba that it was on Yom Kippur that Moshe descended the mountain for the final time with the second set of tablets. In that case there would be no contradiction between the two sources.
“Let me know Your ways” (33; 13)
The Talmud (Brachot 7a) says that this was Moshe’s request to know the ways of G-d. ‘Why are there righteous who suffer and wicked who prosper?’ The Talmud there gives many different explanations.
I am amazed. It seems that there is a very simple and basic answer to this question. The Talmud in Nida (16b) says that before the creation of a child they announce in Heaven all the aspects of his life. Whether he will be strong or weak, wise or foolish, rich or poor. The only thing that is not decided before birth is whether he will be righteous or wicked, since this depends on a person’s free choice. This is the one area where G-d gives a person free will, to decide how they will relate to Him. ‘Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven’.
It turns out therefore that if a person’s lot is to be poor, and he decides by himself to become righteous, this would be a case of ‘righteous who suffer’. Conversely if it is decreed that a person will be rich, yet they decide to be wicked, we would view this as the ‘wicked who prosper’. This is obvious and simple. Perhaps Moshe was asking a more complicated question (which would explain why the Talmud doesn’t give this answer).