Parshat Ki Tisa
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt–we do not know what has happened to him.”
“They have been quick to turn aside from the way I enjoined upon them. They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!””
IMMENSELY POPULAR THROUGHOUT EGYPTIAN HISTORY, THE CULT OF APIS WAS NOT THAT OF ALL BULLS, BUT RATHER OF A SPECIAL, CAREFULLY CHOSEN INDIVIDUAL ANIMAL. APIS (HAPI IN EGYPTIAN) WAS A LIVE BULL KEPT IN THE TEMPLE OF PTAH, IN MEMPHIS. MORE THAN A SACRED ANIMAL, APIS WAS THE TANGIBLE, LIVING, BREATHING EXPRESSION OF A PRIMARY GOD THAT COULD NOT BE DIRECTLY EXPERIENCED IN DAILY LIFE. APIS SERVED AS AN INTERMEDIARY BETWEEN HUMANS AND AN ALL-POWERFUL GOD (ORIGINALLY PTAH, LATER OSIRIS, THEN ATUM). THROUGH APIS, EGYPTIANS COULD TALK TO THE GOD, AND EVEN ASK QUESTIONS. THE MOVEMENTS OF APIS, INTERPRETED AS ORACLES, WERE THOUGHT TO REFLECT THE RESPONSE OF THE GOD. WITHIN A COMPLEX RELIGIOUS SYSTEM THAT MIGHT HAVE FELT FAR TOO ABSTRACT TO THE AVERAGE EGYPTIAN, APIS BROUGHT MUCH COMFORT TO THE PEOPLE AS A GOD THEY COULD SEE AND TOUCH.
THAT MAN THAT BROUGHT US UP OUT OF THE LAND OF EGYPT: and who used to show us the way we had to go; now that he is dead we need gods which shall go before us.
What they needed was a new “man of God.” You can learn from Aaron’s excuse to Moses that it is as I have explained, “They said to me, ‘Make us a god to lead us'” – not a god to worship. He explained to Moshe, “As long as you were gone, they needed a guide. If you should return, they would leave him and follow you, as they had done at first.”
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
In essence, Nachmanides explains that the calf was not meant to replace God, but rather to replace Moses.
On a deeper level, the People of Israel made the calf because they wanted a physical dwelling place for the Divine Presence, some relatable, tangible object on which holiness could rest. … the basic idea of the calf was not without merit; it was simply an inappropriate application of a legitimate desire.
Our need for tangibility is innate, as it is very difficult to focus on God in the abstract.
If God would tell each and every one of us specifically what is expected of him, everything would be simple. But we do not hear this voice … All that we receive is very general instruction; as a result, people are always searching for something to hold on to.
Moses is the channel through which God reveals Himself to us in this world.
[the sin] began with a legitimate desire for tangibility that grew and developed until it finally became idolatry. If that is the case, however, why is the sin of the Golden Calf mentioned so often and considered so serious?
Wherever we employ a means to an end in religious life, we must be extremely cautious, or the means itself may become an object of worship.
This is the essence of idolatry — taking a heavenly form and corrupting it, bringing it down to the physical realm. But idolatry takes this notion one step further. Not only is a divine construct brought low, the converse occurs as well: An earthly entity is elevated to a lofty position. [In the process of idolatry, ultimately the idol is ourselves, and our base drives become permissible.]
This is what often happens when someone attains spiritual exaltation that is not built progressively, stage by stage, and then experiences a sharp descent, where everything suddenly disappears. … High, uplifting points in one’s life can thus be very dangerous times, because they present the latent danger of a serious fall … we always try to attach the beginning of one mitzva to the conclusion of another. By doing this, we allow ourselves to continuously server as instruments for performing mitzvot, thus guarding ourselves against a great fall.
Rabbi Yehudah Leib
According to Rashi, the commandments of the tabernacle [Parshiot Terumah and Tetzaveh] were given only after the sin [of the Golden Calf]. This means that the first tablet were prepared to be right there in Israel’s midst, without any ark or tabernacle. Israel were supposed to exist in a noncorporeal way.
Our sages pointed to this with their parable [of the king’s daughter who married a prince. The king, who could not keep them at home, but who could not live without his daughter, said to them]: “Wherever you go, make a little chamber for me, and I will dwell with you.” This seems to mean that had it not been for the sin, they would not have been separated from the Creator at all. But now there was a bit of distance, so counsel was [to fashion] the tabernacle and its vessels.