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The Episode of the Golden Calf

 

Text of the Book of Exodus, Chapter 31-32

"And He gave to Moses, when He had made an end of speaking to him upon Mount Sinai, two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.

And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this man Moses, who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him. And Aaron said to them, break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them to me. And all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it a molten calf: And they said, These are your Gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the Land of Egypt. And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord. And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to disport themselves.

And the Lord said to Moses, Go, get down, for your people, which you brought up out of the Land of Egypt, have become corrupt... "

The Mixed Multitude

"And the Israelites traveled from Ramses toward Sukkot; approximately 600,000 adult males on foot, besides the children. A mixed multitude also left with them... " (Ex. 12:37 - 38)

A vast number of people participated in the exodus from Egypt. This verse numbers the "adult males" alone as being in the vicinity of 60 myriad. This classification includes all those who were over the age of 20 (there were 80,000 souls under the age of 20), excluding the aged and infirm who cannot travel without assistance. All this was only the tally for the household heads, "besides the children," and the women. Each family numbered at least five souls - in all, rabbinical tradition reckons that some three million people were involved in this great event. Also, this entire figure does not take the tribe of Levi into account. Their numbers were not counted here by Moses since they had been exempted from the servitude by Pharoah when they were in Egypt.

The mixed multitude which this verse mentions was a group which numbered well over a million souls. They originated from among the Egyptians and from the ranks of many other nations as well, hence the term "mixed multitude." When they saw the great glory of Israel revealed, they desired to convert to Judaism and to leave Egypt together with Israel.

God Did Not Approve the Mixed Multitude

The presence of this group among the assembly of Israel proved to be a pitfall for her - then, in the beginning, and throughout history as well. In fact, the Midrash relates that the Holy One Himself did not want to accept the mixed multitude into Israel's ranks. But Moses approved their acceptance, and God acquiesced to him:

The sages explain: what is the meaning of God's words, "... Go, get down, for your people which you brought up out of the land of Egypt have become corrupt... "

"I See What These Will Do In the Future... "

Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Moses: My creations have already caused Me to descend once before to observe the destruction they wrought - as it is written, "And God went down to see the city;" "Let us go down;" "I will go down and see"(Gen. 11;18). Now, Moses, it is your turn to "go down," for it is appropriate behavior for a servant to emulate his master.

When Moses heard this, he was afraid that this meant Israel could no longer obtain forgiveness. But the Holy One was aware of his fears and told him, "Moses, did I not tell you at the bush, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt'? (Ex. 3:7). You are but a human being, and you see with only one vision. But I see with two. I see that in the future, they will come to Sinai and accept my Torah, and I will descend at Sinai with My quadriga (Latin; a chariot drawn by four animals abreast) - and they will "unhitch" one of the four animals of my chariot, thereby angering Me! As Scripture states (Ez. 1:10) "And they four had the face of an ox from the left side." And it is written (Psalms 106:18 - 19), "They made a calf in Horeb, and worshipped a molten image. They exchanged their glory for the likeness of an ox that eats grass!"

But the Holy One explained to Moses: "Go down, for your people have become corrupt." It does not state "the people," but "your people" - for the Holy One said to Moses: "Your people have created the calf! For I told you, "And I will take out My hosts, My people the Children of Israel (Ex. 7)," but you caused all of this - by insisting upon accepting the mixed multitude. They are not My people. My people did not do it - as it is written, "Israel does not know, My people does not consider" (Isaiah 1).

Moses, you pleaded before Me that it is better to accept them! But I foresaw what they would do in the future... and it is they who made the golden calf, for they are idolaters, and they caused My people to sin together with them. They said, "These are your Gods, Israel," and not "our Gods" - for it is they who were responsible.

Who is greater than Moses, chief of all the prophets, who most certainly had only the best of intentions, but inevitably caused these evil ones to become a snare for Israel... and they have continued to cause Israel anguish to this very day. They are the cause for the extension of the exile. It was clear to God that they would cause Israel damage and confuse them, leading them astray from the true service, but He did not want to say this explicitly to Moses. Everyone has free choice, and perhaps even they could repent. But instead, it was they who influenced Israel to sin. If the mixed multitude would not have been clinging to Israel, God would have lead them straight into the Promised Land. They are like an open wound; an evil mixture that always incites and lures Israel from serving God.

The Bible's laws of impurity are very similar to the laws of leprosy, for the state of impurity which renders a person further from God is like a spiritual leprosy... the idolatry which is represented by the golden calf. Just as He commanded that the purification of the leper be accomplished with cedar and hyssop, so too, the impure must be separated, and sprinkled on the third and seventh day. This one is separated because of his contact with death, just as a leper is considered like one dead.

The Golden Calf and the Red Heifer

We have learned that the sages gave a hint for understanding the red heifer: it is related to the sin of the golden calf. "To what can this be likened? To a maid who worked in the palace of the king. One day her child came and soiled the palace with his filth. The king said, ‘let the mother come, and clean her child's filth'." This is the concept of atonement for the golden calf, for the Holy One said, "Let the red heifer come, and atone for the golden calf."

If we examine the concepts of red heifer and the golden calf, we can find many parallels and connections. For example:

Why must the heifer be red? To rectify the infamous idol which shone with a reddish hue... it is an atonement for Israel's "red" sin. And in general, Scripture likens sin to red: "Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be white as wool" (Isaiah 1:18). Says the Holy One: Since Israel's sins are red, let the heifer also be red - and when it is burned, its ashes are white... thus the prophet assures his people in the Creator's name that God promises "they shall whiten as snow."

In order for the heifer to be fit, it must never have carried a yoke. This is an allusion to Israel, who threw off the yoke of Heaven in insubordination when they worshipped the golden calf.

Why must the heifer be given to Eleazar, and assistant, and not to the High Priest himself? Because Aaron oversaw the creation of the golden calf, and therefore it would not seem proper for him to officiate with the heifer. There is a principle, "the same one who was prosecutor, cannot become a defense attorney."

The heifer is burned, an allusion to the calf that was burned: "And he took the calf which they had made, and burned it in the fire... " (Ex. 32:20)

Three species are used: hyssop, cedar, and scarlet wool, which are reminiscent of the 3,000 who fell at the sin of the calf. And why these three? The cedar is the highest, and the hyssop is the lowest... and whoever is haughty (equal to the sin of idolatry) must become like a worm (from which the red dye is obtained) in his own eyes, as King David prayed: "I am a worm and not a man" (Psalms 22:7). If he will lower himself, his sins will be atoned.

Just as the sin of the golden calf exerts its influence forever, as it states "and on the day that I will remember you and I will remember your sin" (Ex. 32:34), so too the Holy One commanded that the ashes of the red heifer be kept as a remembrance for all generations: "and they shall be for the congregation of the Children of Israel for a remembrance."

And just as the golden calf rendered all those who participated in it impure - for idolatry causes impurity, as it is written: "You shall cast it away as a thing impure... " (Isaiah 30:22), so the heifer renders all those who come in contact with it impure.

And: As Israel became pure through the ashes of the golden calf, which Moses burned and ground into a dust - "... and he burned it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it upon the water... " So Israel becomes pure through the ashes of the red heifer.

But why must the heifer be free from all blemish?

... Because at their spiritual source, according to their true exalted nature, Israel is perfect and free from blemish.

All the Heifer's Requirements are a Metaphor to Israel

On still an entirely different level, the entire precept can be seen as an affectionate allegory to Israel herself - the Holy One compares His nation with the secret of that which cleanses her.

How fitting that the heifer which figures so importantly in the process of Israel's purification, must be completely red, perfect and without blemish.

Israel is red, as it is written (Lamentations 4:7) "... they were more ruddy in body than rubies."

Israel is perfect - so the verse states (Song of Songs 5:2) "... open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect... "

Israel has no blemish, as it is written (ibid. 4:7), "You are all fair, my love, there is no blemish in you."

Moses said to Korech, "The red heifer will atone for their gold which is red. As it is perfect and without blemish, let it atone for the nation which is perfect. Israel was perfect but became blemished through this sin; the sprinkling of the ashes will restore their perfection and cleanse them of their blemish. And just as it has had no yoke - let it atone for our insubordination."

Levels of Interpretation       The Original Ashes

 

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