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Artwork: The Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicolas Poussin

At last, we have come to the much anticipated Ch. 32, when God sends Moses down the mountain to break up a wild party and, more importantly, stop the chosen people from worshipping idols.  Hot stuff!  And Daniel has provided four and a half pages of midrash to go with it!

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Exodus 32

(Midrash Tanchuma; Rashi ; 32:1-5) The people converged upon Aaron, and said to him: “Arise, make us a god . . .” Aaron saw, and he built an altar before it

What did Aaron see? He saw his nephew Chur slain before him. [As related above in Exodus 24:14, Moses placed Aaron and Chur, the son of Miriam and Caleb, in charge of the camp when he ascended the mountain.] When the people demanded an idol, Chur arose and rebuked them, whereupon they rose against him and killed him. They then came to Aaron, and said to him: “We will do to you what we have done to this man” . . .

Aaron tried to busy them with tasks. He said to them: “Remove the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives”—a most difficult thing, for the women, who saw all the miracles that G‑d performed in Egypt, at the Sea and at Sinai, would surely not participate. . . . When the women did not do as the men demanded, the men removed their own jewelry, as it says, “All the people unloaded the golden earrings which were in their ears.”

They wanted to build the altar together with Aaron, but he would not allow them, saying: “Allow me to build it by myself, for it is not befitting the respect due to the altar that another should build it.” Aaron’s intention in this was to delay matters, saying to himself: “By the time I build it all by myself, Moses will come down.” But when he had built it, Moses had not yet descended.

What did Aaron do? He said: I shall postpone it until tomorrow, as it is written: “[Aaron] proclaimed: Tomorrow is a feast to G‑d!” His intention was for the true G‑d, being certain that by the morrow Moses would come and they will serve G‑d. But they “arose early in the morning . . .”


(Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 1:1 ; 32:3) All the people unloaded the golden earrings which were in their ears .

Said Rabbi Aba bar Acha: There’s no understanding the character of this people! They’re solicited for the Golden Calf, and they give; they’re solicited for the Sanctuary, and they give.


(Talmud, Taanit 26a–b ; 32:6) They rose up early on the following day

Five misfortunes befell our forefathers on the 17th of Tammuz: the tablets were shattered, the daily offering [in the Holy Temple] was discontinued, a breach was made in the city [walls of Jerusalem, allowing the Roman conquest of the city], and Apostomos burned the Torah and placed an idol in the Temple.


(Babylonian Talmud Brachot 32b ; 32:7) And the Lord spoke unto Moses, “Go, get yourself down”

What is meant by Go, get yourself down? R. Eleazar said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: “Moses, descend from your greatness. Have I at all given to you greatness, except for the sake of Israel? And now Israel has sinned; so then why do I still need you?”

Straightway Moses became powerless and he had no strength to speak. When, however, [God] said, “Leave Me alone so that I may destroy them”, Moses said to himself: This depends upon me, and straightway he stood up and prayed vigorously and begged for mercy.

It was like the case of a king who became angry with his son and began beating him severely. His friend was sitting before him but was afraid to say a word until the king said, Were it not for my friend here who is sitting before me I would kill you. He said to himself, “This depends on me,” and immediately he stood up and rescued him.

The Holy One then said, Now therefore leave Me alone so that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them, and I will make of you [Moses] a great nation. R. Abbahu said: Were it not explicitly written, it would be impossible to say such a thing: this teaches that Moses took hold of the Holy One, blessed be God, like a man who seizes his fellow by his garment and said before Him: Sovereign of the Universe, I will not let You go until You forgive and pardon them.


(Midrash Rabbah ; 32:11) )Moses besought the L‑rd his G‑d

There was not a corner of the heavens with which Moses did not grapple to attain G‑d’s forgiveness of Israel.


(Midrash Rabbah ; 32:11) Why, O G‑d, should Your wrath burn against Your people?

When Israel committed that act, Moses arose to appease G‑d and said: “Master of the Universe! They have given You an assistant, and You are annoyed with them? Why, this calf which they have made will be Your assistant: You will cause the sun to rise, while it will cause the moon to rise; You will look after the stars, and it will see to the constellations; You will cause the dew to descend, and it will cause the winds to blow; You will make the rains come down, while it will be responsible for the growth of plants.”

Said G‑d to him: “Moses! You err as they do! For there is nothing real in it.”

Said Moses: “If this is the case, ‘Why should Your wrath burn against Your people?’”


(Midrash Rabbah ; 32:11) Why, O G‑d, should Your wrath burn against Your people, whom You have brought forth out of the land of Egypt?

What was his idea in mentioning here the going out of Egypt? Because it was thus that Moses pleaded: “Master of the Universe, see from which place You have brought them forth—from Egypt, where everyone worships lambs.”

Said Rabbi Huna in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: It can be compared to a wise man who opened a perfumery shop for his son in a street frequented by harlots. The street did its work, the business also did its share, and the son’s youth likewise contributed its part, with the result that the son fell into evil ways. When the father came and caught him among the harlots, he began to shout: “I will kill you!” But his friend was there, and he said: “You were the cause of this youth’s corruption, and you shout at him? You set aside all other professions, and have taught him only to be a perfumer; you skipped over all other districts, and opened a shop for him just in the street where harlots dwell . . .”

This is what Moses said: “Master of the Universe! You passed over the entire world to have Your children to be enslaved only in Egypt, where all worshipped lambs. . . . Bear in mind whence You have brought them forth! . . .”


Another interpretation:

This is what Moses said: “Master of the Universe! When I asked You what their merit was that You should redeem them, since they are idolaters, You said: ‘You see them now as only idolaters, but I can foresee them departing from Egypt, and My dividing the Red Sea for them, and bringing them into the wilderness, and giving them the Torah and revealing Myself unto them face to face, and their accepting My kingship—yet denying Me at the end of forty days by making the calf!’ (This is the meaning of what G‑d said to Moses at the burning bush, “I have heard their cries”—I hear already their cries around the calf).

“Since You have told me of their making a golden calf long before You delivered them,” argued Moses, “why do You seek to kill them now that they have made it?” It was for this reason that Moses mentioned the exodus from Egypt in his plea for mercy.


Another interpretation:

It can be compared to a king who had an uncultivated field, and who said to a tenant-laborer: “Go improve it, and convert it into a vineyard.” The laborer went and tended the field and planted it as a vineyard. The vines grew and produced wine, which however became sour. When the king saw that the wine had become sour, he said to the laborer: “Go and cut it all down; what is the use to me of a vineyard that produces vinegar?” But the laborer pleaded: “O my lord and king! Consider what sums you invested before the vineyard was planted, and now You want to cut it all down! Do not give me the reply, ‘But its wine becomes sour,’ for this is due to the newness of the vineyard, and a freshly planted vineyard cannot produce good wine.”

Similarly, when Israel made the Golden Calf, G‑d intended to destroy them, but Moses pleaded: “Master of the Universe! Did You not bring them forth from Egypt, a place of idol-worshippers? They are yet young, as it for it says (Hosea 11:1), ‘When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.’ Be patient with them yet awhile and go with them, and they will yet perform good deeds before You.”


(Midrash Rabbah ; 32:14) G‑d regretted the evil which he thought to do to His people

Moses absolved his Creator of His vow. When Israel made the calf, Moses began to persuade G‑d to forgive them; but G‑d said: “Moses, I have already taken an oath that ‘he that sacrifices unto the gods . . . shall be destroyed’ (Exodus 22:19), and I cannot retract an oath which has proceeded from My mouth.”

Said Moses: “Master of the Universe! Did You not grant me the power of annulment of oaths? (See Numbers 30:3.) If a jurist desires that others should respect his laws, he must be the first to observe them. Since You have commanded me concerning the annulment of vows, it is only right and proper that You should follow this procedure Yourself.”

Whereupon Moses wrapped himself in his tallit and seated himself in the posture of a rabbinical judge, and G‑d stood before him as one asking for the annulment of his vow; for so it says, “Then I sat on the mountain” (Deuteronomy 9:9) . . .

What did Moses say to Him? A most difficult thing. Rabbi Yochanan said: The difficult thing he said was: “Do You now regret Your vow?” G‑d replied: “I regret now the evil which I said I would do unto My people.” When Moses heard this, he proclaimed: “Be it absolved for You, be it absolved for You. There is neither vow nor oath any longer . . .”


(Talmud and Rashi, Eruvin 54a ; 32:16) — Engraved (charut) on the tablets

Had the first tablets not been broken, no nation or people could have subjugated the Jewish people, as it is written, “Charut on the tablets.” Do not read charut(engraved), but cheirut (free); on account of these tablets, Israel would have remained forever free.


(Midrash Rabbah) Rabbi Judah says: [They would have been] free from the pain of exile. Rabbi Nechemiah says: [They would have been] free from the angel of death.


(Avot D’Rabbi Natan, Ch 2 ; 32:19)

This is but one of the things which Moses did of his own accord. He reasoned by inference and his judgment coincided with God’s:…and He broke the tables of the commandments, and his judgment coincided with God’s.


…He broke the tables of the commandments. [Moses] took the tablets of the Commandments and descended, and was exceedingly glad. When he beheld that offense which they committed in the making of the golden calf, he said to himself, “How can I give them the tablets of the Commandments? I shall be obligating them to major commandments and condemning them to death and the hands of Heaven; for thus is it written in the Commandments, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me’” (Exodus 20:3).


He then started back but the seventy Elders saw him and ran after him. He held fast to one end of the tables and they held fast to the other end of the tables; but the strength of Moses prevailed over theirs, as it is said, And in all the mighty hand, and in all the great terror, which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel (Deuteronomy 34:12). He looked at the tables and saw that the writing had disappeared from them. How can I give Israel tables which have naught to them, he thought; better that I take hold and break them. As it is said, And I took hold of the two tables, and cast them out of my two hands, and broke them (Deuteronomy 9:17).


Rabbi Yose the Galilean says: I shall tell thee a parable; to what may this be likened? To a king of flesh and blood who said to his steward, “Go and betroth unto me a beautiful and pious maiden, of seemly conduct.” That steward went and betrothed her. After he had betrothed her, he went and discovered that she played the harlot with another man. Forthwith, of his own accord, he made the following inference; said he, “If I now go ahead and give her the marriage deed, she will be liable to the penalty of death, and thus we shall have separated her from my master forever.”


So too did Moses the righteous make an inference of his own accord. He said: “How shall I give these tables to Israel? I shall be obligating them to major commandments and make them liable to the penalty of death, for thus is it written in the tables, ‘He that sacrificeth unto the gods, save unto the Lord

only, shall be utterly destroyed’ (Exodus 22:19). Rather, I shall take hold of them and break them, and bring Israel back to good conduct.”


(Talmud, Sanhedrin 102a) On the day that I remember, I will remember their sin upon them (32:34)

There is no misfortune that does not have in it something of the sin of the Golden Calf.